JCUA’s Immigration Justice Workshop at Congregation Etz Chaim

On Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, members of JCUA’s Immigration Justice Action Team and JCUA staff lead an immigration justice workshop for youth and their parents at Congregation Etz Chaim in the Chicago suburb of Lombard. Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein, Development Coordinator at Universidad Popular and JCUA lay leader, writes about her experience planning and leading an interactive, engaging workshop that established the Jewish imperative to take action for immigration justice.

Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein

Youth Explore Intersection of Judaism and Immigration

By Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein
JCUA Volunteer

“Whom did you miss when you came to the United States?” asked a teenage girl to her friends. Approximately 60 teenagers, ages 14-16, and 40 parents from the Etz Chaim Sunday School program sat watching expectantly. “Mi abuelita (my grandmother),” responded one friend. “My best friend,” said another, wistfully.

This was the opening act of our immigration justice workshop for Etz Chaim. The teenagers were performers from Teatro Americano, a Latino youth theater group founded by the non-profit organization Latinos Progresando, based in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago.

The skits and monologues, all based on true stories, addressed a variety of topics related to the immigrant experience today: homesickness, border-crossing, language-learning, discrimination, fear, and many more.

When Etz Chaim, located in Lombard, Ill., first contacted JCUA to do a workshop about immigration and social justice, we (the Immigration Justice Action Team and staff) mulled over the best way to approach the topic. We wanted to convey the Jewish responsibility to advocate for immigrants, given our history and modern experience of immigration to the United States, and the Torah’s command to “welcome the stranger.”

However, we also knew that youth would not be convinced of the urgency of immigration as a social justice issue with fact sheets and text studies alone. We needed to create a personal connection between our audience and the issue.

Teatro Americano’s three youth performers and the Artistic Director, Emmanuel Gutierrez, humanized the “immigration issue” for our youth audience. Moreover, they connected on a peer-to-peer level; in the post-performance question and answer session, they spoke eloquently about their personal experiences as American high school students and as immigrants or children of immigrants. The performers said afterward that they were excited by how receptive and interested in the students were in their performance and their experiences.

After the performance, we led three rotating immigration workshops designed to connect immigration to Judaism and to further dispel myths about immigrants today.

I co-led an Immigration Quiz workshop with another volunteer, Maria Medina. We discussed such myths as “immigrants don’t pay taxes” or “immigrants commit more crimes than citizens.” I was impressed by the participation and engagement of the teens, despite the early hour on a weekend morning. In addition, most of the parents seemed genuinely energized to be learning more about immigration advocacy. I heard similar reactions from volunteers and staff leading the two other workshops, an immigration text study and a discussion on the Jewish history of immigration.

To close the workshop, Sarah Crotty, Or Tzedek Summer ’11 participant and congregation member, spoke about her social justice experience on the program. She highlighted protesting in solidarity with striking workers as one especially meaningful action during Or Tzedek and encouraged the teens present to take the next step in their activism through Or Tzedek.

I left the synagogue that morning feeling exhilarated. Although we only had a few hours, I am confident that we raised consciousness about the importance of immigration advocacy, tolerance and diversity among 100 people at Etz Chaim. I am excited to continue participating in JCUA’s Immigration Justice Action Team and Or Tzedek initiatives. By reaching out to youth and families at other synagogues, we can mobilize a new generation Jews to take responsibility for improving opportunities, rights and quality of life for immigrant families in the Chicago area.

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