Justice Is More Than Sandals

Published: November 1, 2013
Author: Ellyse Borghi
Theme:  Ethical living

About The Author

Ellyse Borghi is a recent Arts/Law graduate with Honours from Monash University with a major in Jewish Civilisation. She volunteered with the Center for Women’s Justice in Jerusalem, using strategic torts litigation to improve the status of women within the Israeli family law system. In Ghana, she helped KNUST University to establish a micro-finance project for young entrepreneurs. She worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York via the Castan Centre’s Global Internship Program on cases relating to the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda and the abuse of Abu Ghraib inmates. Ellyse has interned with the North Australian Aboriginal Family Violence Legal Service providing legal advice and assistance to remote indigenous communities in the Northern Territory and regularly volunteers for Melbourne Community Law Centres. Ellyse is currently living in Hong Kong completing her admission to practice requirements and will return to Australia to work for the federal Attorney General’s department in 2014.

Source: Seanwes

I recently moved to Hong Kong for the semester, so I am frequently introducing myself to people. We go through the standard rounds of introductions:

‘What do you do?’

‘I’m a law graduate.’

‘I see… about to sell your soul to the devil then?’

‘I hope not.’

‘So what area of law are you interested in?’

‘I’m not sure. I’ve been involved in women’s and children’s law and social security rights. I’ve done some constitutional work and spent time at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York doing International Human Rights law. But I’m not really sure where I’m going with all of this.’

‘I see. You’re a social justice lawyer.’

Am I? Is that what I am?

My image of a social justice worker is of a sandal-wearing person who walks with a purposeful gait, a placard, and a voice that is hoarse from yelling at authorities. Their wallet is empty save for a picture of themselves and their host family from that working trip to Namibia.

This all-too-frequent conversation has led to some self-reflection. Is social justice work a niche industry within our economy? Are social justice workers exclusively responsible for trading in equity and fairness? Are their careers ‘in rights’ while everybody else’s are ‘in services, production and finance’?

Justice in Tradition

It seems clear to me, from my Jewish education and identity, that this is not an either/or paradigm. While you must not abdicate from your responsibilities to society, committing to it does not equate to a life of narrow interests and career options. Unlike the obligations of temple ritual, reserved only for the kohanim (priests), the Torah doesn’t designate a small sector of the Jewish people to be responsible for charity and good works. Rather, every Jew is obligated to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, whoever that might symbolise today. Beyond that, Jewish law creates a comprehensive framework for integrating fairness and equity into any career. If you are an agriculturalist, you must leave the edges of your fields and any harvest that falls to the ground, to the poor. If you employ staff, you must pay your workers a fair amount and punctually. In that regard, the Babylonian Talmudists remark: ‘Whoever withholds the wages of a worker, it is as if he took his life.’

And within the Jewish worldview, the requirement to do good is not reserved for a niche sector of the Jewish people. Indeed, the obligation to pursue justice isn’t only circumscribed for Jews. From the Seven Noahide Laws we learn that all of humanity is positively obligated to establish courts and fair systems of justice. All of humanity is required to do justice, as individuals and as societies.


I used to work for the Disability Liaison Unit at Monash University, working with university students with special needs. I was lucky enough to assist a student who was studying first-year philosophy. A significant portion of that course was dedicated to Australian philosopher, Peter Singer. Many consider Singer’s views too radical and morally demanding. However, some of his ideas are both practical and achievable. He advocates for individuals to donate more to charity and for charities to be more transparent and efficient. He argues against the consumption of animal products because of the needless suffering inflicted on sentient beings, and the damage the animal industry wreaks on the planet and human communities.  He insists that you owe a duty to all people, even if we can’t see them; even if we have never met them. A great project that he recommends hinges on the idea that there are 80,000 Hours in a standard career. How can we use those hours we have efficiently and productively for the betterment of society?

No right path

There are of course some people who have this question answered; they are nurses, teachers and social workers whose every working hour contributes to public health, education and social cohesion. Because I’m feeling generous, I might even add politicians. However, it might come as a surprise that the “80,000 Hours” project doesn’t advocate an immediate career-change in order to take up one of the ‘caring professions.’ Surprisingly, a career with the potential for the greatest social impact is that of the merchant banker. Not only can the merchant banker have a significant hand in an efficient, ethical and sustainable economy, but the more you earn, the more you can give away.

A great example of this is Bill Gates. He has successfully earned and given away enough money to win and subsequently lose the title of Forbes wealthiest man. And his fund has saved 6 million people from Malaria and preventable diseases along the way.

Perhaps we should also consider the first contributor to The Well, Mark Leibler AC. Not only is Leibler an exceptional tax lawyer and senior partner at Arnold Bloch Leibler but he, together with the team at ABL, has used his legal acumen to defend and secure the land rights of many Indigenous Australians. Indeed, last year I was an intern engaging in family law work with NAAFVLS in remote communities in the Northern Territory. Whenever I mentioned that I was a Melbournian Jew, I was either asked if I knew Mark Leibler or was showered with thanks and praise for the work of ABL.

An inspiring example of how to make a difference is this year’s winner of the Ron Castan Young Humanitarian award, Jacky Lipson. By day Jacky is a physiotherapist at the Monash Medical Centre healing people and improving their mobility. By night Jacky volunteers at the Dandenong Library, teaching English to refugees through the LINKS program that she established, now offering support to approximately thirty-five regular migrants and refugees each week, with the aid of about eight regular volunteers.

Neither Bill Gates, Mark Leibler nor Jacky Lipson carry placards and wear sandals (at least not exclusively). But they are unquestionably social justice workers. They are also computer geeks, lawyers and physiotherapists. Their paths remain a lesson to us all to give what you have: if you have money, give money; if you have time – give that; if you are creative, compassionate or possess any other skill – use them. Choose your work, do it well, even make a small fortune, but know that you can also be a social justice worker.

I guess, then, I am too?


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5 discussions on “Justice Is More Than Sandals

  1. Sarah Yemini on said:

    I just found your blog and I love the message in this post. Give what you have is such a powerful, needed, resonant message. I’m a writer and a mother and a homemaker and a business owner and I definitely feel in all those areas we’re doing social work too. Articulating original ideas, caretaking of human beings, making homes for human beings and providing value/jobs/a venue/a service/a hobby for human beings – you’re right! In every area of my life I am a social worker, I’d just never thought to frame it that way till you held up the mirror. Thank you!

  2. Bev on said:

    Nice post Ellyse! Best of luck in your pursuit of social justice – or whatever else it is that you may engage in over the coming years.

  3. Lori Chait on said:

    Beautiful sentiments. One of my favourite sayings is “no one made a greatet mistake than he (or she 😉 who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Whatever you have to give to make the world better is needed and wanted

  4. Dafna K on said:

    Ellyse, great article.

    I absolutely agree that we should all contribute as we are able and that social justice is not the domain of only three professions.

    I would also note that merchant bankers have profited exceedingly well from Neo-Liberal Capitalism and, while there are individuals amongst them who use their wealth for good, the system is ‘gamed’ from the start. Those exceptional individuals who practice philanthropy do not justify / soften a system that fundamentally profits from social and systemic inequity.

    With wishes for a future where our contributions to social justice do not depend on our professions or our privilege.

  5. Sandra Gillis on said:

    It’s good to be reminded that everyone has skills that may be used in the promotion of social justice. Another example of this is NCJW’s Caring Mums program, where socially isolated or unsupported new mothers are assisted by other women; they have been trained for the program by a psychologist, but in the first instance simply need to be mothers with a desire to help

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