Or Tzedek’s Winter Leadership Retreat

Last week, 15 amazing high school and college students came together as a community to visit community partner organizations, learn leadership and organizing skills, explore Chicago, and take action. These youth leaders, activists and organizers gathered for the first annual Winter Leadership Retreat, created by Or Tzedek, JCUA’s Jewish teen institute for social justice. 

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Workshops, actions and fun, oh my!

By Rebecca Katz
Winter Leadership Retreat Program Director  

What’s in a mission?

Or Tzedek leadership member Sophie Leff planned our first workshop of the retreat. To get to the bottom of what it means to be a part of JCUA’s Jewish teen institute for social justice, Sophie guided us in the deconstruction of the words that comprise the organization’s name. Using Post-it notes, we wrote our own definitions for “Jewish,” “Council,” “Urban,” and “Affairs.” Through this exercise, we spoke about JCUA’s mission: to combat poverty, racism and anti-Semitism in partnership with Chicago’s diverse communities.

Organizing communities

Miriam, one of our amazing counselors, led a community organizer training session. We began with an organizer exercise, the Melian Dialogue, which illuminated the written and unwritten rules we abide by in society. We learned how to conduct one-on-ones, a critical skill for any organizer. To practice our one-on-one skills, we did speed one-on-ones (“speed dating” style). We had two minutes to engage our partners, discover their passions, and what makes then angry. While asking these questions, we kept in mind how we could organically connect them with a social justice project or goal that we were passionate about. To wrap up the workshop, we discussed the concept of power and created a power map for Or Tzedek.

Or Tzedek on ice

To end our first day, we went ice skating at Daley Bicentennial Plaza. Expert and first time skaters alike took to the ice to show off their most graceful poses. Tottering and gliding, we went round and round the rink with the Chicago skyline as a backdrop.

Connecting with SOUL

Thursday morning, we visited Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, an amazing organization whose mission is “to empower the Southside of Chicago and the South suburbs to fight for social justice and address issues and concerns within the community.” Lev, a SOUL community organizer and Avodah member, spoke about SOUL’s current campaigns (Green Jobs, Transit, Education Reform and Bank Accountability). He also shared his personal journey to become a Jewish community organizer working in the South Side of Chicago, leading into a discussion about the effects of the economic recession on American youth.

For the second half of our visit, we split up into pairs to phone bank for SOUL’s upcoming Martin Luther King Day event. Activists have various reactions to phone banking; it’s, very rewarding for some while frustrating for others, but it remains an effective tool for outreach and an important skill in any organizer’s arsenal!

Or Tzedek on the air

Next, we headed back up to the Loop for an interfaith podcasting workshop on immigration at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. At the ICIRR offices, we met the activists from the Immigration Youth Justice League and the Muslim teens with whom we would be producing the podcast. After a lively icebreaker, IYJL activists told their stories about living undocumented in the United States and their work with IYJL for immigrant rights. Then, we learned the basics of audio recording and discussed podcasting and radio as a medium for activism.

Putting these two components of the workshop together, we broke into groups to explore and record our answers to three big questions:

  • When have you felt like you were a stranger?
  • What is your concept of home?
  • Where do you feel secure?

Standing in solidarity

Before the sun had risen on our last day, we headed south to the federal detention center in suburban Broadview, Ill. for an interfaith vigil for immigration justice.

Every Tuesday and Friday morning at this facility, undocumented immigrants, predominantly young men, are driven directly to O’Hare airport for deportation. For the past five years, Sisters of Mercy Pat and JoAnn have led a vigil on these Friday mornings as the buses leave for the airport, standing in solidarity with the men leaving the only country many can remember calling home.

At the close of the vigil, we read personal prayers and messages that we had prepared the previous day, using text from the Torah about immigration to guide us.

Finding a social justice community in college

For our last workshop, leadership team member Julia Webb facilitated a panel discussion about finding one’s social justice and Jewish communities in college.

Julia, Hanna Erhlich, and Ma’ayan Malter, former Or Tzedek participants, and Rachel Patterson, retreat counselor, shared their personal experiences with Judaism and social justice at their respective colleges, illustrating the diverse ways one can get involved. We were additionally joined by Erin Jones, program director of Arts in the Loop Hillels. She described Hillel as a “radically pluralistic” organization that aims to support students in expressing their Jewish identity and practice. Erin encouraged Or Tzedek to use Hillel as a resource in creating social justice programs from a Jewish perspective at their schools.

Staying involved

To continue exploring social justice from a Jewish perspective, join us this summer for our Adavanced Activism and Activism and Community Organizing programs. Registration for our summer 2012 sessions is open.

Advanced Activism: June 17-24, 2012
Activism and Community Organizing, Session I:  July 15-22, 2012
Activism and Community Organizing, Session II:  Aug. 5-12, 2012


Below are the organizations we visited during the leadership retreat. Check out their websites for current campaigns and upcoming events.

Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL):
We met with Lev Hirschhorn, SOUL community organizer and Avodah member.

Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL):
The interfaith podcasting workshop on immigration was co-lead by Razan Abu-Hashish, IYJL activist and the Council of Islamic Organizations in Greater Chicago (CIOGC) intern.

Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR):
We met at ICIRR for the podcasting workshop. 

Hillels Around Chicago:
Erin Jones, program director of Arts in the Loop Hillels, was on the college transitions panel.

Immigration Justice Vigil:
The vigil, lead by the Sisters of Mercy, is held at the Broadview Detention Center every Friday, 7:15 am.

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