Talmud, Politics and Social Justice

A student’s journey to meaning and meaningful work through the Raymer College Scholarship

Since I didn’t grow up in a religious household, the banner “Jewish” was more of a formality than something meaningful to me when I was a kid. It actually wasn’t even my intention to go to a Jewish high school, but I ended up at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay because it had a good theater program and small classes. For the first couple of years, I struggled with the Jewish nature of the school. I thought people might judge me for being less religious, for having less knowledge about basic Jewish texts and traditions. I didn’t like Hebrew.

However, during my sophomore year I took my first Talmud class. I struggled with Talmud at first, until we studied Ketubot 67 A and B – a discussion about giving charity. Ketubot 67 talks about how to provide for orphans, the poor, and how to give loans while maintaining the dignity of those who are receiving funds. The language wasn’t that poetic, but the philosophy behind it, that of the responsibility due to self and other, was very powerful.

After that moment, I excelled in Talmud and became very interested in learning more about the ethics of the Jewish tradition. These passages appealed to me in particular because of my passion for politics and social justice. During this time, I had also applied for a position on the San Francisco Youth Commission, a body of 17 young people who advise the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors on issues affecting youth in the city. I was appointed by the Mayor in September 2013 and began a journey into the inner workings of city politics. I worked with community organizations and political leaders to draft and advocate for different issues. Specifically, I worked with youth affected by the justice system.

Sophie, fourth from the right in the first row, with fellow members of the
2014-15 San Francisco Youth Commission


What motivated me to do all this work was something I found expressed in the Talmud. The Talmud is a document that seeks justice and social order, and it respects human dignity and honors the act of healthy debate in the creation of laws. Although the language in the Talmud can be dry, it is a beautiful expression of the values of a culture, a society, and a people. It was this that made me want to commit to making beautiful law myself.

The world of politics and the world of religion were two spheres which I found constantly continued to build off each other in my life. That’s why, when I applied to college, I wanted to continue in these spheres. I applied to a double degree program at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Barnard College. It was a place where I could continue to learn Jewishly and be involved in the political communities at both Barnard and Columbia. I’ve continued to explore my other interests, getting involved with the film society and radio station on campus. In all these activities, my Jewish learning has grounded me and enhanced my understanding of the things I learn and the way I live.

Now that I am the recipient of a scholarship award from the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, I can look back on my initial inspirational reading in the Talmud and see how far it has taken me; and I can also understand very personally the real world application of the practice of generosity. I am a grateful recipient of the Raymer College Scholarship, a one-time award of $10,000, which is helping my family afford to send me to Barnard. I want to thank Robert and Shirley Raymer for making this amazing educational opportunity possible! It is heartening to know that the community supports my work, and it is inspiring to see the values of the Talmud come to life before my own eyes.

Sophie Edelhart is a freshman at Barnard College and a recipient of the Shirley and Robert Raymer College Scholarship, a fund held at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.

Apply for the Shirley and Robert Raymer College Scholarship, or learn about the other college scholarships offered by the Federation. For more information, contact Galya Segal or call 415.512.6242.

Categories: Community, Young Adults


March 03, 2016


Sophie Edelhart