Traditionally, we are taught that the first commandment in the Torah is procreation: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). However, I think that the first commandment actually comes one verse before: “And God created humanity in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.” (Gen. 1:27). As Sarah Hurwitz writes in her recent book Here All Along, the “belief that every single one of us is created in the image of God [is] the beating heart of the entire Jewish enterprise.” Its implications are simple yet profound: God demands that we defend the divine dignity of every human being.
From the very beginning, God commands us to be allies.
And furthermore, one detail in the text draws our attention to a specific, fundamental form of allyship: “male and female God created them.” Or in contemporary parlance, thou shalt strive to advance the cause of gender safety and equity.
Yet, like so many of the commandments in the Torah, while self-evident in principle, allyship can prove decidedly more difficult in practice. Like many aspiring male allies, I have so often found myself struggling to know what to do and to understand how to break down this generations-long undertaking into actions I can actually take.
This is why I was so grateful for last year’s eJewish Philanthropy article entitled “The Week That All Jewish Women Turned Invisible.” Written by ten extraordinary leaders – Joy Ladin, Shifra Bronznick, Miriam Brosseau, Rachel Gildiner, WHP Alum Ginna Green (East Bay 10), Pilot WFF and WGF Alum Sheila Katz (Class 26), Idit Klein, Esther Kustanowitz, Sara Shapiro-Plevan, and Halie Soifer – this article reminded us just how far the Jewish world remains from true gender safety and equity. The authors had a simple message for male readers: “Ally is a verb.”
We know that ally as a noun is easy, but ally as a verb is hard. Ally as a verb requires action and thankfully the authors of the article listed 13 actions that men can take to turn the label “ally” into a way of life, among them citing women’s voices equally, recommending women as candidates for jobs and board positions, and ensuring a safe and comfortable work environment for all.
Two inspired women, Pilot WFF and WGF Alum Tilly Shames (Class 28) and Haley Schreier, the Executive Director and Director of Engagement at University of Michigan Hillel, respectively, took these 13 actions a step farther and elevated them into a pledge. Together, they co-founded Live The Pledge (see also https://www.facebook.com/livethepledge/), a social media campaign to promote the 13 actions outlined in the article, and to celebrate men who act on them.
The wisdom of the idea behind Live The Pledge reminds me of the lessons embedded in our twice daily liturgical recitation of V’ahavta. In V’ahavta, we read that we should love God with all of our heart, all of our soul and all of our might. In other words, to love God demands our fullest effort. The same is true for ally as a verb. But how do we bring our fullest effort to these commandments?
V’ahavta teaches us the way: “Teach them to your children. Speak of them when you are home and when you go upon your way, when you lie down and when you rise up. Bind them as a sign upon your hand, and let them be a symbol between your eyes. Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” In other words, to bring our fullest effort to loving God, allyship requires us to constantly remind ourselves of what we can do, of what God, in fact, commands us to do. To live the pledge, we must place the pledge front and center in our lives. Put an “ALLY IS A VERB” sticker on your door. Put an “ALLY IS A VERB” coffee mug on your desk. Put a list of the 13 actions in your siddur. And talk about them all the time with your friends, your colleagues, your students and your children.
At the Wexner Summit on Gender in October 2019, Tilly invited me to join her and Haley in their work on Live The Pledge. As a rabbi on the team, I wanted to explore ways we might weave allyship into the rhythms of Jewish life: hence the genesis of our Holiday Campaigns.
The first, for Chanukah, was #Dedic8ted. Credit for the idea goes to WGF Alum Rabbi Steven Philp (Class 28). Riffing off of “dedication” as the meaning of the word chanukah, #Dedic8ted featured videos of eight allies dedicating themselves to a pledge, including Wexner’s own Vice Presidents Or Mars and Jay Moses, WGF Alum Mordy Walfish (Class 22), Tilly and me.
The second, for Pesach, focused on two pledges: bringing more women to the table and citing women’s voices equally by posting texts by women that people could incorporate into their seders.
And the third, for Shavuot, aimed to diversify your media consumption with #diversifyyourTorah, inviting people to share recommendations of books, movies, TV shows, podcasts and other media by female creators. (Keep an eye out for our future campaigns, and please share suggestions!)
With these holiday campaigns, we hope to use the Jewish calendar to constantly cue us to the Torah’s first commandment. We are all created in God’s image, male and female God created us. And we are commanded to love God. So for the love of God, always remember that ally is a verb.
WGF Alum Rabbi Dan Ross (Class 27) is a rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York City. He can be reached here.
 Hurwitz, Sarah. Here All Along (p. 15). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.