I Never Really Left Or Tzedek

November 2, 2016

By Sydney Bakal
2016 Or Tzedek Summer Participant

Sign up before Jan. 15, 2017 to receive the Early Bird Discount.
Let Sydney, one of last year’s teens, tell you why you should.

This summer I participated in JCUA’s Or Tzedek summer institute, a program for teenagers in high school who want to explore Chicago and social justice work through a Jewish lens. In 12 days, Or Tzedek taught me so much, and encouraged me to keep learning and questioning. I want to paint a picture of just one of our evenings together this session, because it really reflects the intentional community Or Tzedek seeks to build…

One evening sitting down at the dinner table with our homemade stir-fry, we began discussing theatre. I’m not exactly sure how we ended up on the topic, but I shared that my school had done a production of The Wiz, and none of the lead characters were people of color. I was uncomfortable because the show is a re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz, reclaiming the American dream for people of color. Others shared that they too were uncomfortable; however, one individual said it would only be inappropriate if people of color were turned down for roles because the show was intended to create more lead characters who were people of color. Another individual said it would be a waste for such an amazing show to not be put on more often and that the music is for everyone. We debated and threw out many arguments, even talking about Fiddler on the Roof and The Diary of Anne Frank performed by non-Jews. We discussed the nuances, complexities, similarities, and differences. Even after dinner, our conversations followed us to the car and to bed.

Experiences like this one were so interesting because we got to speak our minds and hear others’ opinions judgement-free. I now have more tools and a better understanding of issues that I had never really gotten to talk about in the past.

I loved all of the different workshops we did throughout program. We expanded our understandings of privilege, oppression, police accountability, restorative justice, gun-violence prevention, community organizing and more. Most of all, I learned how to listen and how to have conversations about complex issues. Coming home I wanted to continue these conversations. I am currently planning a legislative activism program for my youth group, events to explore and learn about Englewood, and a workshop using theatre games to teach about power and community.

I feel that difficult issues are often put on the back-burner to maintain the comfort of the privileged. However, those who are oppressed must live the difficulties every day. We can only break down systems of oppression if we recognize that they exist. I never really left Or Tzedek; I try to question normative values and existing systems. I’m still having awkward and disquieting conversations, and I hope I can improve the systems of which I’m a part.

Shout Loudly and Don’t Hold Back

October 26, 2016

By Ben Halbig
JCUA Board Member

JCUA Board Member Ben Halbig gave this drash at Mishkan’s Yom Kippur morning services for the Isaiah Haftarah . As we move into this new year, Ben asks how can we do more? How can we make this year reflect “the fast God really wants?”

halbig_benjamin_color“Good morning. I’m Ben. I grew up on the East Coast, but Chicago has been my adopted home for the better part of the past decade – first as an undergrad in Hyde Park, and now as a practicing lawyer living in the Gold Coast. Mishkan has been my spiritual home in Chicago since I moved back after law school. As a Chicagoan and a Mishkanite, I am honored to be sharing a few thoughts on what we are about to read together.

This has been a rough year for Chicago.

Almost a year ago – just before Thanksgiving– a judge ordered the city to release a video showing a CPD officer emptying his 9 millimeter semi-automatic rifle into an unarmed high school student. The video of Laquan McDonald’s murder tore at the heart of the city.

I remember live-streaming the protests on Black Friday 2015 in my parents’ house in Maryland. You know what has stuck with me all these months? Not the thousands of young activists pleading for justice on Michigan Avenue but Channel 5’s interviews with angry shoppers whose plans for holiday bargains had been ruined by the march. “Why today?” “Why here?” “Why can’t they just protest in their own neighborhood?”

I wish I could stand here and tell you how I am not them, how I would have been with the protesters. But the truth is – I know in my heart of hearts, I am a shopper. I am an employed white man living on the North Side of Chicago. When I think and talk about violence in in our city, it’s something that happens to other people. I don’t know anyone who has been shot this year. I don’t fear for my life when stopped by police.

Isaiah’s words in the passage we read today can be disheartening in the middle of the day on Yom Kippur. He’s essentially telling us that, after about 18 hours of fasting, praying, and asking to be inscribed in the Book of Life, we are doing it wrong. This is not the fast God wants.

You’d think after all these years of reading Isaiah’s words, we might get it right. But his message seems to be really hard for us to hear. What makes it so hard to hear? Read the rest of this entry »

The Second Tzedek

September 14, 2016

emma-faceBy Emma Drongowski
JCUA’s AVODAH Organizing Fellow

This past week, we read Parshat Shoftim, from the book of Deuteronomy. This Torah portion outlines a set of guidelines for ethical and moral behaviors- a very common theme in Jewish holy texts. Shoftim identifies the proper methods for appointing judges, procedures for  judicial systems, warnings against worshiping idols, condemnations for cutting down trees, and finally it reads “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof- ”Justice, Justice you shall pursue.” This statement is a direct call for action; a commandment to pursue justice with very little wiggle room for interpretation or negotiation. This parsha is one of the most frequently cited passages from Jewish activists as a prime example of the way that Judaism calls upon us to pursue social justice.

But this phrase (the very phrase that appears on JCUA t-shirts) is not as straightforward as it first appears. Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof- Justice, Justice, you shall pursue. The Torah is a concisely written document, with little that is superfluous. With the understanding that every word holds meaning, what does it mean that tzedek is repeated twice? As one can imagine, there are a few Rabbis who have a thought or two on the topic. The 11th century French rabbi Rashi tells us that this line means you should seek out a good court. The duplication is calling our attention not only to the obligation of the judges to judge wisely, but of the people to seek out good judges and to make sure that the court system is a good one. Another thinker believed that one tzedek is what we bring to those who are hurting and one tzedek is how we motivate those who are complacent to do more to affect change. Another, less sophisticated way to think about it is that justice is simply really, REALLY important, and the Torah is jumping up and down and waving its arms at us to understand how crucial it is for us to pursue justice.

fffffThere is no one correct answer to this Talmudic puzzle. For me, the double usage of “justice” reminds me to be intentional and insistent on incorporating Tzedek into all aspects of my life. As I have grown into adulthood, I have attempted to pursue justice by donating to charity, by volunteering for local campaigns, and by buying ethically sourced food products. Around this time last year, I read Parshat Shoftim as a direct call to me, as a moral imperative to pursue justice in my professional as well as my personal life. I made the decision to join AVODAH, the Jewish Service Corps, and will be working this year at JCUA as the AVODAH Organizing Fellow. For me, Parshat Shoftim instructs me that I cannot opt into tzedek when it is convenient, and that there are no days off from pursuing justice. It calls on me to pursue justice in my work, in my relationships with friends and family, in my interactions with strangers, in the way I spend my money, the movies I watch, the news I consume, and the things that I post on social media.

For me, Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof means to continually explore what it means to pursue justice as both a Jew and as an activist. One tzedek calls me to explore how my Jewish values hold me accountable to pursuing justice, and one tzedek compels me to ensure my Jewish community is doing the same. This year, I am so excited to explore this duality, and engage in conversation on what it means to be both Jewish and an activist, and therefore how to go about being a Jewish activist. Becoming a part of JCUA was simply the first step in my lifelong journey to pursue and maybe one day achieve, justice.

Rabbi Robert Marx, JCUA’s founder, reflects on the second tzedek:

Jewish Journey to Justice

August 12, 2016

By Eliana Chavkin
JCUA Member

“These are the journeys of the children of Israel, who went out from the land of Egypt in troops by the hand of Moses and Aaron…”

Parshat Masei, Numbers 33:1

HeadshotWe read in Parshat Masei the full list of stops the Jewish people made from Egypt to the land of Israel, where they stop at the end of Numbers. They will spend all of Deuteronomy outside the Promised Land, reviewing the steps they have taken to get there and the rules that will govern their lives when they finally enter.

In some ways, this is a different kind of journey than the one Dr. King described after his march in Marquette Park fifty years ago, one which he called “the first step in a journey of a thousand miles.” For the Israelites, their journey—at least, the exodus from Egypt—is over. For those of us who gathered with JCUA last Saturday to retrace Dr. King’s steps, the journey is still just beginning, although we have been in the desert far longer than the Israelites, and although we do not yet know what the end of our journey looks like.

Still, the emphasis Masei makes on looking back on our journeys was one that carried over our entire weekend, in the unveiling of the new MLK memorial in Marquette Park, the march itself, and the speakers who spoke 20160806_100114about the original march fifty years ago. Hearing those veterans of the Civil Rights Movement reminded us both of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

Pashat Masei also establishes the “safe city”: cities where one who has committed murder by accident may flee to escape blood vengeance. The removal of the murderer from a community gives residents a chance to heal, because, as the parsha says, “blood pollutes the ground.” Injustice, in other words, intentional or otherwise, pollutes entire communities, and each community member has a stake in restoring justice wherever possible. It is this mentality, I think, that spurred so many members of the Jewish community to come to the march: the feeling that we all have a part to play in fighting injustice. Certainly it was a key component in my decision to join the march and ultimately to join JCUA.

Looking around at the many races, religions, and communities that I saw both at our Shabbat service Friday night and at the march Saturday morning, however, I was conscious that reviewing our journey is not enough. As wonderful as it was to retrace Dr. King’s steps and to visit a part of Chicago that I rarely see, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a march would have been received in the city’s wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Parshat Masei tells us clearly that reliving and honoring the past is only one aspect of fighting injustice: we also must move forward and try new tactics. I look forward to seeing how JCUA and the Jewish community approaches the next nine hundred and ninety-nine miles in our journey, now that we have honored the first steps.


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