Nachshon Symbolizes JCUA’s Courage and Leadership

Irene Lehrer Sandalow

Irene Lehrer Sandalow, director of special initiatives at JCUA, recently accepted a new position as Program Manager of the Jewish Education Project. Among Irene’s many contributions to JCUA have been her d’var Torah presentations (words of Torah) at our staff meetings.

For Irene, this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, summarizes not only JCUA’s approach to social justice, but also Irene’s very personal experiences as one of our key staffers over the past several years.

Irene talks about sees a parallel between the Jewish character Nachshon and JCUA. Nachshon’s risk-taking behavior began “a journey of liberation.” Just like JCUA’s historical work.

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By Irene Lehrer Sandalow
Director of Special Initiatives for JCUA 

According to the midrash, Nachshon had the courage to walk into the sea before anyone else.

There is a well known Midrash (a form of rabbinic literature that provides commentary/stories to the Torah reading) about Nachshon Ben Aminadav (Sotah 37a; NumbersRabbah xiii. 7.) In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Beshalach, the Israelites become trapped between the Sea of Reeds and a fast approaching Egyptian Army. In the face of Pharoh’s rage and remorse at their freedom, the Israelites wailed with despair at the banks of the sea.

However, the Midrash describes how one Israelite, Nachshon ben Aminadav, trusted God and God’s decision to take the Israelites out of Egypt. Acting on his belief, Nachshon jumped into the waters. Because of Nachshon’s literal leap of faith, God parts the Sea of Reeds and saves the Israelites from Pharaoh’s attack

For me, JCUA is one of the “Nachshons” of the 20th and 21th century. Yes, there is a common acceptance in the Jewish community that we should care about the needy among us.  But JCUA takes Nachshon’s leap and takes tremendous risks. We have sometimes lost money, or supporters, because we were doing what is right, not what is easy or popular.

JCUA takes actions that most are too scared to take

That’s the neshama, soul, of JCUA.  We take the actions that most are too scared to take.

Nachshon’s deeds contrast sharply with the recurrent messages of doubt expressed by the Israelites. He might have struggled with doubts, but he trusts God. Nachshon completely commits to the Jewish people’s journey of liberation.

We often experience feelings of doubt when we work for social justice. We experience fatigue from the daily struggle. The goals sometimes seem unattainable.

I have had times when I asked myself, can we really win this fight for immigration reform? There are too many people against it, the climate is wrong, people are not ready, etc.

But then DREAMers, like the Immigrant Youth Justice League’s activists, take the stage. Young, undocumented immigrants who come out and are unafraid. And then the discourse shifts again with hope. They lead the way for all of us to continue the fight.

They have the Nachshon Instinct. They take Nachshon’s leap.

“I offer a resolution…”

Social justice accomplishments were achieved by the “Nachshons” of every generation. When I think of people who have the Nachshon instinct, I think of Clara Lehmlich. Clara, a young immigrant woman who in 1909 catalyzed “Uprising of the 20,000,” a massive strike by women workers in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Clara attended a union meeting to discuss the untenable working conditions. After hours of debate with the mostly-male union leadership, Clara took the stage and said: “I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared–now!”

The response of the crowd was tremendous and Lemlich’s resolution was quickly seconded. 20,000 workers, or more, left their shops and joined the pickets.

In this case, all these workers knew that something had to be done about these terrible labor conditions. But it took the courage of a select few to transform their thoughts into action.

Leading the way

During the civil rights movement, many Jews, especially in the Northeast, knew that segregation was wrong. But it took the courage and the risk of civil rights activists to make a real ripple in the movement.

The DREAMers, Clara, civil rights activists are Nachshon-like characters who were prepared to jump into the sea, take enormous risks. They were responsible for daring political decisions challenging people in power.

Very often, they are considered to be too radical, naive, and unrealistic. Where would we be now without them?

They have the Nachshon Instinct. They take Nachshon’s leap.

And then the discourse shifts again with hope. They lead the way for all of us to continue the fight.

JCUA: Unafraid and unapologetic

Marching in Postville a year after the raid: Rabbi Morris Allen (left); Jane Ramsey (center); Rabbi Darryl Crystal (right)

I had the privilege of being part of the founding of Or Tzedek, JCUA’s teen social justice program. Or Tzedek had chutzpah to say that teens, yes teens, can take action for social change beyond volunteering at soup kitchens or painting murals. We trust our teens to engage in intelligent and honest discussions about systemic issues, such as racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

With great pride, I participated in breaking down barriers between the Jewish and Muslim communities in Chicago through JCUA’s Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative.

JCUA remains unafraid and unapologetic about how we partner with Muslim organizations for social change. We did not keep cover when we received external pressure or during the war in Gaza when tensions were high. We pushed, and will continue to push, through during the most challenging of times.

We spoke up against human rights abuses in Chicago hotels and meatpacking factories in Postville, Ia.. The Jewish voice for justice was loud and clear. We were inspired by the prophetic voice of Rabbi Robert J. Marx

I am beyond grateful that I have had the opportunity to participate in Nachshon-like campaigns. Rabbi Marx, Jane Ramsey, JCUA, and its leadership have given me the “Nachshon bug ” that I will always have with me.

Besides moving to New York from Belgium at the age of 16 and having my two boys, nothing in my life has had more of an impact on me than JCUA. Better than any college or graduate degree.

JCUA taught me about justice, values and being on the right side of the street. I am a better person because of what I learned at JCUA and that is the best gift than anybody can receive.

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