Or Tzedek and Beth Emet Youth Build Power and Community

As a part of Or Tzedek and Beth Emet’s joint Jewish organizing program, thirty-six teens came together over the weekend to learn about JCUA’s two social justice campaigns about gun violence and economic justice.  At this overnight retreat, the participants’ passion for creating change in their city and thoughtful approach to choosing a campaign demonstrated their power as a community of powerful Jewish youth. 

1604381_475068609264027_336993884_nWe hear stories of gun violence and poverty in the media and see food deserts and homelessness on the streets of our city. Over the course of Or Tzedek’s summer sessions, many of us have built relationships and acted in solidarity with Chicago’s directly impacted communities. Organizers, teens and religious leaders from different neighborhoods organizations, like Growing Home, Imagine Englewood If.., Fierce Women of Faith, Immigrant Youth Justice League, took the time to meet with us and teach us about their social justice work.

1555476_478157592288462_58978486_nLearning about systemic oppression and institutionalized racism during Or Tzedek, many of us can often feel powerless in the face of these entrenched systems of inequality. But this year long program is opportunity for us to act, as Jews, as Chicagoans, and as young people, for justice in our city. Choosing and working on one of JCUA’s critical campaigns over the next five months is the opportunity to make a real difference as joint, powerful community.

On Friday, after long weeks at work and school, we started the retreat by talking about the role of Shabbat in our lives at Jewish activists. For six days out of the week, we operate in the world as it is- a world where one in three Illinois residents live in or near poverty, a world where hundreds of Chicagoans, predominantly from low income communities of color, are killed by guns. On Shabbat, we have the chance to see the world as it should be- a world where both directly impacted and not directly impacted communities from around Chicago, including Beth Emet and Or Tzedek youth, are organizing to address root causes of gun violence and poverty.

After Kabbalat Shabbat (the prayers over the wine and bread and dinner), we learned about relational meetings (or one-on-one’s), an intentional conversation to learn what “makes someone tick.” Relational meetings are first step in every community organizing campaign to establish the self interest on community members. Therefore, as we embarked on the process of creating our action plan to move forward the goals of a larger campaign, we had one-on-one’s with each other to strengthen the ties of our community and clarify individual and collective goals.

The following day, Rabbi Ali Abrams led a training on strategy and tactics for effective community organizing. Once we had established our organizing framework, Hannah Lloyd, field director of “A Better Illinois”, and Mark Walsh, director of the campaign to ban guns in houses of worship, presented on their strategies for addressing the issues. We ended the day with havdalah (the ritual for ending the Sabbath and transforming back into a regular day) and a night of relaxation.

The last morning of our retreat we reviewed both campaigns, discussing the role we, as a community of Jewish teens, could play and goals we could accomplish. After a lively and serious discussion about each campaign, we worked to build an 80% consensus for one campaign. However, even after two rounds of voting, reassessing, and questions, our community was divided almost evenly in half between the two campaigns.  Given that the group has not yet reached consensus on which campaign to focus on, we will be dedicating this Sunday’s session to choosing a campaign and building an action plan for the spring.

Contact Rebecca Katz, Director of Teen Programs to learn more about Or Tzedek: Year of Action at 312-663-0960, ext. 124 or rebecca@jcua.org.

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