Valuing the Humanity in Each Person – B’tzelem Elohim

By Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, Executive Director


Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein

This has been a hard week. While I am a New Yorker, I have lived more than four years of my life in the city of Jerusalem. I spent a good amount of time in the 90’s working as a part of the Israeli/Palestinian peace efforts. What is happening in Jerusalem is personal – two of the victims of this round of violence are in my network of friends and family. My family and friends, Jewish and Arab, are frightened and upset. Most are expressing themselves in heartfelt and also nuanced ways. Yet my Facebook feed, sadly, has also been polluted with dehumanizing, vitriolic posts. A really hard week.


But every morning, I walk through the front door of the 14th Street Y, pocket that little screened portal to a churning world, and enter a totally different reality. Damaris, our morning security guard, welcomes a child by name with a smile. A pair of friends in their late 70s walk into the yoga class where they first met, chatting about their shared weekend plans. A mom stops to pull her baby carrier out from her chest to show me the face of her two-week old child, one of our newest members.


This has been a good week, because I get to come to the Y every day. We are a diverse center and community made up of people of every background and experience. And, in the middle of a huge and anonymous city, we have created a warm community predicated on and dedicated to the idea that we value the humanity of every person. 


Valuing the humanity in each person is a core Jewish sensibility.* For those who follow the tradition of reading the Torah every year, we just started it again from the beginning last week. The origin story of the Jewish people teaches that every human being was created in the image of the same Divine being, in Hebrew, “B’tzelem Elohim.” From this story, we derive the sensibility that each person is unique and individual, and yet each of us is coming from and connected to the same source. This tradition holds us responsible for finding the divine spark in every other person. If we see that every person is fully unique, but also inherently exactly like us at their core, what follows is a human responsibility for creating justice and preserving dignity—not only for our individual selves, but for every person.


This is one of the many Jewish sensibilities that sit at the heart of the 14th Street Y. Our community is diverse. Among our many thousands of members, we hold many faiths (or none); we practice many religions (or none); we identify with many different ethnic groups; we speak many languages; every gender and sexual identity is represented amongst our members. Jewish sensibilities like B’tzelem Elohim (“value the humanity in each person”) guide us as individuals, as a community and as a center to reach our highest and deepest aspirations. So this hard week was also a good week – because while I am saddened as dehumanizing words and deeds pollute one part of my world, I am lucky to spend my days in this community, one that encourages us and helps us to value and support and appreciate each other. 


Over the coming weeks, on Fridays, I will be blogging about a different Jewish sensibility, and where and how it touches the Y community. I hope that if you read them, you will respond – either with a comment or by sending me an email at These sensibilities only serve us inasmuch as we grapple with them, respond to them, stretch them, and reshape them so that they best reflect us and our community. So, please, with dignity and respect for the humanity of every other commenter – add a comment to this blog, and add your voice to our community conversation!


Shabbat Shalom.


*The Lippman Kanfer Institute has published a set of Jewish Sensibilities here, based on an earlier article by Dr. Vanessa Ochs. Take a look!

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