Sarah Mulhern Sarah Mulhern Program Associate for the Educational Resources Unit of the Department of Education and Community Engagement

Sarah joined AJWS in September of 2010, where she contributes to the creation of educational resources and manages On1Foot.org, the online portal for Jewish texts and social justice. Prior to joining AJWS, Sarah taught at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and in the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies’ Social Justice Track. She studied at the Pardes Institute from 2008-2010 and at Yeshivat Hadar in the summer of 2008. Sarah holds a BA from Brandeis University in History and Political Science. Outside of work, Sarah enjoys cooking elaborate meals, studying Jewish text, hanging out with her fiancé and friends, and reading almost anything she can get her hands on.

Posts by Sarah:

Dvar Tzedek: Parashat Lech Lecha 5773

One of the things I find most inspiring about studying Torah is that the biblical characters are human. They may be our valorized, mythical ancestors, but they also consistently make mistakes, leaving a record of paradigmatic human foibles from which we can learn. There is one biblical failure, however, that I have always struggled to understand as a useful example. It occurs for the first time in this week’s parashah, as Avram goes to Egypt to avoid the famine in Canaan:

As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” Read More »

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Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Balak 5772

“God has told you, human, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. Then will your name achieve wisdom.”

These beautiful and tantalizing words from the prophet Michah close the haftarah portion that accompanies this week’s parashaBalak. Beautiful, because they lay out a powerful vision of an ideal Jewish life that will please God and bring us wisdom—a life of doing justice, loving goodness and walking modestly with God. Tantalizing, because it’s not at all clear what particular behaviors, attitudes or beliefs are being mandated. Read More »

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Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Emor 5772

Parshat Emor closes with one of the most famous and controversial pronouncements in the Torah:

If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him; fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him.

On the surface, the idea of punishing assault by physically harming the perpetrator makes a certain kind of sense. The threat of physical punishment would have likely been an effective deterrent for many potential assailants and it fulfills an instinctual desire for fairness and revenge, as the perpetrator must experience exactly the same pain and physical limitation he inflicted. Yet for most people, this law is deeply disturbing. Many of us reject its suggestion of violence as an ethical tool for meting out justice. It also strikes me as risky: punishing violence with violence could create situations ripe for reprisal and could set off spiraling violent feuds. Read More »

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Can We Give More Than 10%?

The American Jewish community has been lauded in many circles for its generosity. Jews gave 12% of all charitable gifts over $1 million in America in 2001-2003, despite making up less than 2% of the population. And it’s not just the wealthy among us. Although there has not been a great deal of comprehensive research, it seems that American Jews generally give away around 1-2% of their incomes, putting our community squarely in line with, or slightly above, the national average. We have much to be proud of.

But how are we measuring up to the expectations and moral imperatives of our tradition?

Read More »

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Text with Texture: Generosity with Power

Text with Texture is a weekly blog series (featured on Tuesdays) that explores the rich and textured material found in On1Foot in connection with what’s happening in our world today.

Working at a non-profit, I think a lot about generosity—with money and with time. Here at AJWS, we depend on our supporters to give us some of their hard earned income so that we can use it to support human rights activists in the developing world. We also depend on staff and volunteers for their time. But I recently came across a medieval text that challenges the notion that money and time are the defining structures through which generosity is expressed.

Rav Avraham tells us that it’s not enough to be generous with our money. We must also be generous with our power. We must use our influence; call in our favors for the weak and the needy. We must throw our social weight on the side of the downtrodden.

I wonder: What would it look like to truly stare down the amount of power that I have as an American, a voter, a Jew, a teacher, and commit to being generous with that agency? How could I throw that power into advocacy work or community organizing to help those in need? And what would the world look like if we all began to think of our power as something we were obligated to give of generously?

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Reflections on Purim, Women and Power

This weekend marks the Jewish holiday of Purim. Purim is generally thought to be a relatively light-hearted holiday, celebrated with feasting, drinking, costumes, giving gifts to friends, and general silliness. But this year as I did a pre-reading of Megilat Esther, the biblical book which describes the events we commemorate on this holiday, I couldn’t help but notice challenging gender dynamics that weave through the entire story.

The tale begins when the king demands that his queen come and “display her beauty” in front of himself and his guests at a large party. She refuses – he has her exiled (some commentaries say beheaded). However we understand this episode (What was she asked to do, exactly? Why did she object?) both the power inequality and the strength of her choice are painfully evident.

Next, the king orders “all the beautiful young virgins to be presented to him” so he can choose a replacement queen, and eventually chooses Esther, a young Jewish woman. I wonder – were these women given a choice about participating in this royal beauty contest? Does Esther want to marry the king? And what kind of marriage is this when, as we learn later on in the story, Esther is too fearful to tell the king she is Jewish, or go to speak to him when she is not called for?

In the end Esther, at great risk to herself, saves the Jewish people from the evil prime minister who wishes to have them exterminated and is all around the heroine of the holiday. She does so, at the urging of her uncle, by hosting a party for the King and begging him to save her people. The evil prime minister is eventually defeated not because his plan to destroy thousands of people is exposed as evil, or even as just a bad idea, but because the king is accidentally and incorrectly convinced that he is making sexual advances against Esther. Esther saves the people and the day through powerful and effective action, but I’m torn by the question of how empowered she was through the process.

As I read the Book of Esther this year and struggle with these tensions, I will be thinking of all the many women across the globe who are marginalized because of their gender. Women who are afraid of the power of the men in their lives; women who do not have control over their own bodies; women and girls who are forced into marriages they do not want.  I will recommit myself to standing in solidarity with them and working to help them fight for their human rights.

But I will also strive to hold the possibility that I am misunderstanding Esther. After all, she stands up for herself and her people, and she saves thousands of lives. Maybe she was making a strong, empowered choice to use her sexuality to gain position and power. Maybe women (and men) all over the world can legitimately follow her lead.

AJWS explored some of these tensions in a text study bringing together texts about Esther and texts from the complicated. Take a look and chag sameach!

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