Jewish Values Stand With The Workers of Golan’s Moving and Storage

August 22, 2014

Rabbi Ben Greenberg

For almost a month the workers of Skokie, Ill. based Golan’s Moving and Storage have been on strike. The nearly 80 employees of the locally owned moving company voted to form a union at the end of 2013 in response to numerous unfair labor practices and outright reports of illegal activities. For example, there are currently 10 complaints of wage theft against the company under active investigation at the Department of Labor. Workers would be told to work a 14 hour day but only get paid for 8 of those hours. Since organizing as a union the employees have been unsuccessful in multiple attempts to negotiate a contract with the owners. The owners have cancelled negotiation dates nearly 6 times. All of this behavior is clearly in violation of not only ethics but of Jewish law and Jewish values.

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Bring Immigration Justice Into Shavuot #Torah Study

May 7, 2014

Forty nine days after the holiday of Passover comes the holiday of Shavuot. If on Passover we are meant to recall and relive the experience of redemption from oppression, servitude and injustice then on Shavuot we are meant to recall how we catalyze that experience for real change and good. Passover is the life-altering moment and Shavuot is the day after. For centuries Jewish communities have utilized Shavuot as an opportunity for all night study and reflection. This tradition still continues and people all over the Chicagoland area will be participating in either formal programs or informal learning on the night of the holiday.

text study image

Download The Text Study

JCUA has prepared a unique text study guide that you can use to enhance your Shavuot learning and to bring the topic of immigration justice alive through the Jewish tradition.

Since 2008 more than two million individuals have been deported from the country. These people are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and loved ones. Families have been torn apart and people are crying out in pain and despair. This is an issue that directly impacts our city as families throughout Chicago have experienced the terror of detention and deportation.

We hope that this text study guide will be an educational resource to share broadly on how this issue is a deeply Jewish issue, rooted in the very foundational texts of the Jewish faith.

Please let us know how you used this study guide, we would love to hear your feedback!

After The Funeral: From Jacob to Mandela

December 11, 2013

A Note on the Weekly Torah Portion

Asaf Bar-Turaby Asaf Bar-Tura
Director of Operations, JCUA


Imagine the funeral procession: The leaders of the most powerful nation on earth paid their respects. Thousands of people traveled thousands of miles to attend. The departed was the great patriarch, who was nothing less than the father of a new nation.

This is how Jacob’s funeral is described in this week’s Torah portion – Parashat “Vayechi.” As we all watch the events mourning Nelson Mandela this week, we can turn to “Vayechi” to understand what matters about this momentous event.

Now what? What happens “after the funeral”?

In the wake of Jacob’s death, his sons are anxious. Will their brother Joseph – now in a powerful position of leadership – take the opportunity to avenge the way they had treated him. Remember, they sold Joseph to slavery and caused his imprisonment. And so they pleaded:

“Please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you. Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father” (Genesis, 50: 17).

As it turns out, Joseph leads the family in a process of reconciliation. Though he endured slavery, imprisonment and maltreatment, he forgives.

We could end our reading here, but we would be missing something crucial about forgiveness – Joseph’s and Mandela’s.

Dr. Tariq Ramadan commented on Mandela’s legacy, that “the courage to forgive comes after the courage to resist.” Forgiveness and reconciliation come here at the end of the process. For Joseph and for Mandela, forgiveness does not mean reconciling yourself to being oppressed by others. Forgiveness comes from a position of power. It is the virtue and wisdom of the victor.

Aristotle argued that the key to a virtuous life is practical wisdom (“phronesis”). This is the wisdom to understand what the situation calls for. A time to forgive and a time to resist. A leader knows the difference.

Yes, the wisdom to forgive is crucial for any community charting its way “after the funeral.” But to reach this point, we must first have the courage to overcome oppression and to challenge social injustice.

Mandela Courage

The Paths to Transformation (Torah Commentary)

December 4, 2013

What does it take to grow as a person or institution? What kind of transformation is necessary? In what ways must we leave our comfort zones in order to thrive? This week’s Torah portion – Parashat Vayigash – gives us a few clues to these questions.

Asaf Bar-Turaby Asaf Bar-Tura
Director of Operations, JCUA

This week we find Jacob’s family facing a famine, and pleading for help from Pharos’s deputy in Egypt (whom they don’t realize is actually their brother Joseph). At first Joseph tells them that in return for help, he demands to keep their brother Benjamin as a slave. He then agrees to help them, and reveals his identity (I’ll get back to that in a moment).

The brothers go to back to their father, Jacob (who is still in Cna’an, today’s Israel/Palestine), and he moves his whole family to Egypt, escaping the famine. This is where I’d like to start.

On the way to Egypt, as Jacob is leaving his home, G-d says to him: “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation” (Genesis, 46:3). So our first question is, Why does G-d promise to make Jacob into a great nation in Egypt, of all places? For me, the first lesson here is that growth and transformation mostly comes about when you are outside your comfort zone. When you pursue what is yet unknown. And it’s ok to be anxious. But no need to be afraid.

But how was this made possible in the first place? How was Joseph persuaded to reveal his identity to his brothers? This brings us back to the name of this Torah portion – “Vayigash.” The Hebrew meaning of this word is, “to come close,” or “to approach.” As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs points out, it was when Joseph’s brother – Judah – approached him up close, that Joseph finally broke into tears and revealed himself.

Remember, Judah was not aware that he was talking to his brother. As he was pleading on behalf of his family, he was talking to one of the most powerful people in the land. And yet, to accomplish his goal, Judah realized he needs to get closer, to approach. We can touch others powerfully when we overcome barriers and fear, and get close to one another.

To recap, so far we learn that transformation and change happen when you leave your comfort zone, and also when you get up close to others, approaching them on their terms.

But we would miss the drama of the Torah portion if we did not pay more attention to Judah, the brother who plead for Benjamin before Joseph. Rabbi Sachs reminds us that a few chapters before this one, Judah was the brother who proposed selling Joseph off to slavery. In light of this past behavior, it is all the more dramatic that Judah is the one to propose that he (Judah) stay as a slave in Benjamin’s stead (Genesis, 44: 33). The man who sold his brother to slavery, is now willing to go into slavery to save his brother.

It is Judah – the one after whom Judaism is named – who undergoes a dramatic transformation.

Takeaways from “Vayigash”? Perhaps that inspirational, transformative processes happen when we are bold enough to step out, and step closer. When we are willing to accept that things can be better than they are, in us, and in our circles.

Embracing Diverse Leadership: A Note On Parashat “Mikketz”

November 27, 2013

by Asaf Bar-Tura
Director of Operations, JCUA

Asaf Bar-TuraIn this week’s Torah portion (Parashat “Mikketz”) we read of the birth of Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh. These are the two sons of which Jacob, their grandfather, said, “With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh’” (Genesis, 48:20).

To this day, Jacob’s blessing is still said in Jewish households around the world. We bless our children that they grow to embody the values of these sons. This begs the question, what is so special about these two sons? What are we trying to emulate?

Here’s one take on this question: Ephraim and Menasseh were born in Egypt, in a foreign land, in a culture with values not based in their tradition. It was not clear that they would live up to Jacob’s hopes of being leaders in their community.

But in fact, they did become leaders, and their tribes became part and parcel of the people of Israel, on par with Jacob’s own sons. For us, Ephraim and Menasseh can emulate the ideal of young people becoming leaders in our diverse Jewish community even though (and maybe BECAUSE) they did not grow up in a traditional Jewish environment. These sons made a non-trivial commitment to their community. They found their own path to a meaningful communal engagement.

And it was Jacob’s wisdom not to shun them due to their birthplace and background, but rather to embrace them all the more. There are no Ephraims and Menassehs without Jacobs, and there is no thriving community without embracing the diverse places from which our leadership may emerge.

On Torah and Privilege: Parahsat Vayishlach

November 14, 2013
Asaf Bar-Tura

Asaf Bar-Tura

by Asaf Bar-Tura
Director of Operations, JCUA

This week’s Torah portion is parashat “Vayishlach.” In this portion Jacob’s daughter – Dinah – is raped by the son of a king (Shechem).

Two of Jacob’s sons – Shimon and Levi – avenge this horrific act by killing ALL the male residents of the city. Jacob is furious at his sons for what they did, and even says on his death bed (in a later parasha): “Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel.”

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, this raises the question of collective responsibility. Should all the people of the town be held responsible for the deed of the prince? Maimonides and Nachmanides disagree on this point (the former sides with the sons and the latter with Jacob).

privilegeMy take: It is important to distinguish between guilt and responsibility. A great example is white (and male) privilege. I am not guilty of having white male privilege. But the fact that I have this privilege places a responsibility on me to take an active role in pursuit of social justice and equity. If by having this privilege I am in an advantageous social position, I must use this unfair social advantage to combat oppression and collaborate with those who are oppressed.

So, Shimon and Levi had the right instinct that the citizens of the town are not uninvolved. They bear responsibility for what happens in their midst, especially to those who are socially vulnerable. But Jacob was also right that responsibility should not be confused with guilt.

When not evident, responsibility must be explained. It is often a hard topic. Rather than killing the town’s people, Shimon and Levi would have done better had they opened a space of dialogue, and then perhaps made room for advocacy and organizing to hold the town’s leadership accountable.

We Sure Gave it to Them! – Rabbinic Commentary on Justice

August 14, 2013

Commentary on Parashat Shoftim

Editor’s note: This past Shabbat, the new rabbi at my congregation, Rabbi Annie Tucker, spoke about “Shoftim,” the Torah portion that contains the strong call to action on which much of JCUA’s work is based. Read on for an inspiring look at the decapitated calf, and other Torah lessons.

– Judy Levey, JCUA Executive Director

By Rabbi Annie Tucker
Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah
Wilmette, Ill.

Rabbi Annie Tucker, Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah

Rabbi Tucker

Rabbi Joshua Gutoff tells the story of his own rabbi, Arnold Wolf, of blessed memory, who as a young preacher in an urban synagogue had a congregant who was a notorious slumlord.

One Shabbat, Rabbi Wolf decided that he had no choice but to finally address the issue and delivered a powerful sermon denouncing economic injustice and the cruelty of allowing other human beings to live in substandard conditions, doing everything short of actually naming the man out loud. When services concluded, Rabbi Wolf was a bit anxious as he saw his congregant coming to approach him at the kiddush table (where a light meal was being served). “Boy, Rabbi,” he said with a smile. “We sure gave it to them this morning!”

If we are being honest, we can perhaps see a bit of ourselves in the character of the clueless congregant. It is difficult, indeed, to recognize and acknowledge our personal shortcomings and areas of responsibility in this world. As much as we may wish for our spiritual or political leaders to be voices of conscience, we may also feel uncomfortable or threatened when we see that they are talking to us rather than chastising them. Rabbi Gutoff writes, “Call attention to slavery in North Africa, to child labor in China, to anti-Semitism in the Former Soviet Union…and you will be congratulated. But present people with a problem in their own camp, and that’s a different story.” We may feel more defensive about injustices that play out closer to home because we understand that we have more of an obligation to make them right. We also, of course, have far greater opportunity to do so.

Justice, justice shall you pursue

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – we read in the Torah portion called Parashat Shoftim (Deut. 16:18 – 21:9), “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” So important is Judaism’s commitment to right living that our Bible, normally laconic and sparing of words, repeats itself twice, sparking commentators to imagine that each instance of the word “tzedek” must have independent meaning.

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Our Jewish Response to Chicago’s Soaring Foreclosure Crisis

October 26, 2012

Judy Levey

by Judy Levey
Executive Director, JCUA

An article this week in the Washington Post called attention to the economic suffering of many communities four years after the housing bust. Near the top of the list for the most suffering is our own Cook County. The article states:

The list of worse-off communities includes places such as Cook County in Illinois, where home prices have fallen nearly 20 percent, unemployment has risen and the inventory of foreclosures has soared.

Responsive to poverty and community needs, JCUA’s work addresses this devastation through our housing advocacy work and our Community Ventures Program. Community Ventures provides zero-interest loans for the redevelopment and preservation of affordable housing. The program currently funds the rehabilitation of foreclosed homes in North Lawndale and neighboring communities through a loan to Breaking Ground, Inc., in addition to predevelopment costs associated with the rehabilitation of the Rosenwald Building to create more than 230 affordable units in Bronzeville (see more Community Ventures projects here).

My rabbi, Rabbi Kensky of Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah, spoke about the need for a Jewish voice in working to combat injustice in his Dvar Torah last Shabbat on the story of Noah. He generously shared his Dvar Torah with me and gave me permission to share it here. In it, Rabbi Kensky explained:

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49 Years Later, Does America Still Have a Dream? A Look to the Midrash

August 28, 2012

by Asaf Bar-Tura, Director of Programs
Jewish Council on Urban Affairs

49 years ago – August 28, 1963 – 250,000 people participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. It was here that Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The March on Washington DC in 1963

The midrash says that a person may walk through 49 gates of impurity, but once one crosses the 50th, one cannot be redeemed. It is said that while in slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were in such dire straits, that they had crossed “49 gates of impurity.” Hence, the midrash teaches, we count 49 days from Passover to Shavuot, when the Torah was given. These 49 days redeem us back from slavery to liberation – passing through 49 gates of sanctification.

It has been 49 years since the march and the speech. Let us not cross into a 50th year of rampant poverty, racial inquality, and economic injustice… Let us make our way back through the gates, toward a truly moral society. Join JCUA in doing what’s right, not what’s easy, as we pursue justice in partnership with Chicago’s diverse communities.

The journey is long. But we shall overcome.


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