A Light to the Nations? Historical and Contemporary Cases - Lesson Plan for Adults

This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “We Have Found You Wanting: Labor Activism and Communal Responsibility.” It can be used for a program on the concept of Or LaGoyim (“light to the nations ”) or as a starting point for a new community project.

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1. Rose Schneiderman

Begin by offering some background on Rose Schneiderman provided in the introductory essay for this Go & Learn guide.

2. The Triangle Fire

Discuss the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Though some in your group may be familiar with this event, you should provide background information about the fire, the community in which it happened, and also the fact that it was a Jewish-owned business, employing large numbers of Jewish immigrants. If you want more information than what is included in the introductory essay, visit the Triangle Fire collection at the Kheel Center.

3. Or LaGoyim—A Light to the Nations

Introduce the above term to your participants. If the participants have heard this term before, ask them to clarify how it has been used. If not, use the following information to give them grounding in the concept and how it has been used by the State of Israel and Jews elsewhere.

  • The phrase “Or LaGoyim ” first appears in Isaiah, Chapter 42:6-7.
  • David Ben Gurion took the term “A light to the nations ” from Isaiah and applied it to the State of Israel. His hope was that Israel would be a moral state that would serve as a beacon to all other nations. Given Ben Gurion's use of the phrase, some now interpret “Or LaGoyim ” as referring to Israel, while others see this as a directive intended for the entire Jewish people.

Begin a discussion with your participants on the concept of being a “light to the nations. ” You may use the following questions as a guide:

  • How do you interpret what Isaiah meant by the phrase?
  • What do you think about Ben Gurion's application of the concept to Israel? Is it a worthy goal? A realistic one?
  • Do you have any concerns about the concept of “Or LaGoyim ”? Do you think it implies Jewish moral superiority or merely frames a goal we should strive to achieve?
  • Are other groups also responsible for modeling moral behavior? Or is it a double standard?
  • Do you think “Or LaGoyim ” should be read as a metaphor only, rather than as a practical dictum? If so, as a metaphor for what?
  • How do we respond when Israel/the Jewish people fall short of this ideal?

4. Return to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Following the fire, Schneiderman made a speech at a memorial for the 146 workers who died. Read this speech together.

Consider the following questions:

  • What does Schneiderman mean when she compares working conditions in her time to the Inquisition? What do you think of this comparison? Is it too extreme?
  • Who are the “good people of the public ” to whom Schneiderman addresses her criticism? Is Schneiderman speaking to Jews? To workers? To the middle class? What does she believe is their responsibility? Do you agree?
  • What do you think are the responsibilities of Jewish business people? Should their responsibilities be different than others'? What about the Jewish community in general? Should Jews be held to a different standard by their own people?

5. The Postville, Iowa crisis: When Kosher isn't “Kosher ”

Postville, Iowa, is home to Agriprocessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the U.S. In the spring of 2008, Agriprocessors (and the Rubashkin family that owns it) became the focus of multiple investigations into the hiring and treatment of their employees, including over 9000 child labor violations.

See the following articles for background information:

Events such as this raise questions in the Jewish community about what responsibility the entire community bears for legal and ethical violations within Jewish businesses and institutions. This particular situation is complicated further by the fact that many communities rely on a limited number of kosher meat processors to provide them with what they need to keep kosher.


  • What have you heard about this issue?
  • How do you think the Jewish community should respond?
  • Discuss some of the Jewish responses to this crisis, including the Reform and Conservative Movements' Magen Tzedek commission and measures taken by the Orthodox Union.
  • Do you think these are good responses?
  • What do you think is the best solution?
  • What do you think people should do if Rubashkin's is the only Kosher meat distributor in town? In other words, which do you feel takes priority—observing kashrut or observing laws about the ethical treatment of workers?
  • Do you think it is reasonable to add a level of ethical kashrut to the traditional understanding of kashrut (in which ethics are not a consideration)?
  • Can you think of any other rituals or mitzvot (commandments) where ethics should/could be added?
  • What is our communal responsibility in this situation? What is our individual responsibility?
  • Recall this line from Rose Schneiderman's speech: “We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.” What would Schneiderman require of the Jewish people in today's world?

You may choose to use this program to kick off a drive towards making your institution's activities more ethical. Some examples:

  • Making synagogue/organization's events less wasteful of food and resources (such as paper, plastic, etc).
  • Beginning a drive to recycle at ALL synagogue or organizational events—even in states that do not require this.
  • Making sure that all products sold in and bought by your institution follow the ethical guidelines that your community feels are best representative of them (which entails a previous step of defining these ethical guidelines for the institution).
  • Ensuring that all employees at your organization are being treated properly and perhaps beyond the bare minimum levels required by state and federal guidelines. (See Rabbi Jill Jacobs' teshuvah on the living wage).

If your group is based in a synagogue, this would be a great opportunity to bring in the Rabbi, Cantor, educator, or relevant lay leader to discuss these issues and how they impact your specific community. What should be your community's plan of action here?

Looking for more information on Jews and Labor?

Explore Living the Legacy, JWA's social justice project about the history of Jews in the Civil Rights and Labor Movements, including:

  • Jews and Agricultural Labor, a lesson about the little-known history of American Jewish Farming and the contemporary resurgent Jewish interest in food justice, and
  • The Labor Movement Begins at Home, a lesson about contemporary Jewish labor campaigns on issues such as the living wage and the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "A Light to the Nations? Historical and Contemporary Cases - Lesson Plan for Adults." (Viewed on September 30, 2020) <https://jwa.org/teach/golearn/sep08/adult>.


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