Why Did the Jew Cross the Road?

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November 4, 2010

The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA) was founded in 1964 by Rabbi Robert J. Marx to create prophetic community with the oppressed. Through almost 50 years of community organizing, JCUA has learned how difficult it can be to sustain passion and interest within the Jewish community regarding issues that address systemic injustice. It takes time and effort to engage members of the Jewish community in the issues that affect their neighbors, and even more time and effort to develop this engagement into the kind of leadership and advocacy that leads to real change.

The first step towards justice work often begins by offering individuals direct contact with the communities and people most affected by an issue, and then adding layers of education and advocacy to the work. JCUA has used this approach with teens in our Or Tzedek Teen program, which educates teens about challenges facing Chicago’s diverse communities and gives them tools to take action to combat these challenges.

Recently, the Or Tzedek teens joined with youth from the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) to volunteer in their community garden by weeding, raking, and planting seeds for the upcoming harvest. As part of this service experience, the Jewish teens learned about the detrimental impacts of environmental racism, lack of safe space, and lack of public transportation in this community, while also learning how LVEJO is organizing the community to raise awareness and take action to combat health and safety concerns. The teens learned about environmental issues on a local, community-based level, and were given the opportunity to have a real impact on the issue through community organizing. The service component enhanced their experience by physically and emotionally connecting them to the issue.

The Or Tzedek program could have limited the work with LVEJO with a service project in their garden. However, by exposing the participant to the underlying environmental factors needed for a healthy community, including fresh air and safe water to drink, the participants were compelled to turn this one time service project to a long term commitment for environmental justice. The teens continue to partner with the youth of Little Village, and are forming a committee to educate and mobilize others to advocate for systemic changes.

Classroom education can also be a pathway toward activism if linked to opportunities to partner with grassroots community groups. For almost 30 years, for example, JCUA has offered a Judaism and Urban Poverty Program for 7th and 8th graders in Chicago-area Hebrew schools. The seven sessions cover such topics as resources and political power, advocacy, organizing, participating in hands-on activities, along with explorations of Jewish responses to poverty. A few years ago, the Judaism and Urban Poverty Program led to a powerful partnership between the Jewish students and the youth of Imagine Englewood…If!, an organization located on the South Side of Chicago that aims to dispel the common view of their neighborhood as depressed and violent. Helped by JCUA organizers, youth from both programs came together to build relationships and break down stereotypes about each others’ communities. Through this process of relationship building, the students from the Hebrew school learned about the lack of classroom resources including computer equipment in the Englewood schools. Moved by what they learned in the classroom program and seeing the disparity in community resources available for the Englewood students, the students were motivated to act. Both groups of students joined together to testify at the Board of Education and won a grant for computers for the Englewood schools.

These kinds of education and service projects can provide individuals with a powerful opportunity to address injustice. However, without further opportunities for engagement, we risk losing the participant after the project ends, underscoring the critical need for social justice organizations to provide leadership training as well as education and service projects.

The intersection of education, advocacy, and direct service that Or Tzedek embodies deeply impacted Leah Shefsky and inspired her to dig deeper. As an Or Tzedek participant, Leah met with undocumented young people living in Chicago who shared how their immigration statuses have impacted their everyday lives. The undocumented youth discussed how their legal status prevents them from obtaining drivers’ licenses and financial aid for college while living with constant fear of being separated from their families. In addition to recounting their everyday struggles for equality, the undocumented youth told Or Tzedek participants how they are responding to this challenge—through community organizing and advocacy on a neighborhood, city, and national level.

This powerful experience illuminated the struggles that undocumented youth face in obtaining the conveniences and privileges of life that Leah often took for granted, while underscoring the power of organizing for political change. Meeting with undocumented teens and hearing their stories of suffering proved life-changing for Leah, as she told us later:

I started caring a lot about all the issues we discussed. Immigration is so central in the history of Jews, and we started to learn about immigration reform. We went to an interfaith vigil that’s held weekly at a detention center. It is where people are bused before being deported. Standing next to family members crying was so powerful. No matter where you stand on immigration issues, it’s impossible not to feel something. It’s much more real when you’re there and seeing the faces.

Or Tzedek participants remain engaged in social justice issues through year-round programming reflective of their interests and passions. Leah was one of many participants who were deeply affected by hearing stories from undocumented youth and learning about the Jewish perspective on immigration. At the request of participants like Leah, Or Tzedek teens have participated in the interfaith vigil for three years to date, joined actions in solidarity with undocumented youth, and organized collaborative educational events with immigrant communities that examine issues such as deportation, policy, and immigration reform.

Through her relationship building experience and advocacy work with the Or Tzedek program, Leah became deeply involved and continues her social justice work at her college where she works to break down barriers between the college students and the surrounding community. She is a member of the Peace and Justice Club and volunteers at a low-income community-based organization.

Immigration reform was also the issue that mobilized Peggy Slater. Peggy’s activism began with one event, a march on July 17, 2007 in Postville, IA. JCUA, along with Jewish Community Action and St. Bridget Church, had organized a rally there in support of the factory workers and their families affected both by the immigration raid and worker abuses at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant. After the rally, Peggy came back energized. When JCUA formed an action team for individuals committed to organizing and advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, Peggy signed up. As part of that team, she has learned organizing and advocacy tactics, becoming a firestorm shaking up her synagogue and district to embrace values of “protecting the stranger.” Recently, Peggy helped lead a JCUA contingent at the March 27, 2010 march in Washington DC for immigration reform. She told us:

The speeches were inspiring, but most amazing was the crowd. […] I was carrying a sign for a woman who has been looking down and lying low for 20 years. She is not illegal; she has Temporary Protective Status, known in the community as “permission,” a status in which she has no confidence at all. She has raised three children while remaining invisible to schools, hospitals and on college applications. She works hard, night and day, cleaning houses and offices and pays her taxes. The sign I carried bore a quote from her eleven year old son “Citizenship is what I want for my mother.”

As part of the We Were Strangers Too: the National Jewish Campaign for Immigration Reform Peggy participated in legislative visits bringing thousands of postcards from Chicago urging Congress to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform. She has made the transition from participant to leader, organizer and activist.

The transition from program participant to activist is not always straightforward; it takes an understanding of the individual, guidance, and perseverance in order for an organization to grow activists’ leadership skills. It also requires an openness to change within the organization, so that it can adapt to the new leaders it creates. The challenge and opportunity is that we help our members appreciate that the solutions to the problems facing a community must be generated from within the community.

Our role – our members role – is to develop an understanding regarding what the community wants for themselves and provide the support necessary and possible to accomplish these goals. The members must be able to put their egos, degrees, financial resources aside - and to listen. It is not about our need to do service, but it is about standing in solidarity with communities to create the required social change. Humility is not easily taught, but through regular encounters and educational programming leaders arise who sensitively and effectively take on systemic issues not because they are easy or familiar, but because it is the just thing to do.

Real change often comes slowly. We at JCUA often turn to guidance from a letter written in 1966 by our founder, Rabbi Robert J. Marx, who was then also the Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations ( now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.) In this letter, Marx explains his move from observer to activist, his decision to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I was on the wrong side of the street. I should have been with the marchers. […] This afternoon I will join Dr. King and others who will be going back into Gage Park Area. This time I will be on the right side of the street. I know that there are many of you who will disagree wholeheartedly with this action, undertaken by the Director of a not insignificant organization [Reform Movement]. […] You may think that I am insensitive to the criticism that I know has been voiced on many occasions of my involvement in civil rights causes: Why don’t I spend more time on Judaism? Why do I dissipate so much of my energy on a cause that is not ours? I am aware of these criticisms, and I am pained by them: for you see, I feel that freedom is Judaism, that Passover is not 3,000 years old–that it is today, and that we are part of it.

At JCUA, we appreciate the courage it takes for program participants to address often unpopular societal issues, their willingness to address judgment from family and friends, and in some cases, to continue to work for change even when the calls for justice are at times counter to the perceived narrow self interest of members of our own community. We know it takes patience to grow a community of prophets. We know how much work it is to follow in Rabbi Marx’s steps, to be on the right side of the street.

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