Asaf Bar-Tura: ‘We Must Challenge Our Own Community’

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Editor’s Note: “On a Just Path” is a series of stories about former JCUA employees, where they are now and the impact JCUA had on them. Interviews were conducted and edited by Nathaniel Seeskin, AVODAH Organizing Fellow at JCUA.

Asaf Bar-Tura

Asaf Bar-Tura

Q. Tell us about your time at JCUA.

A. I started working at JCUA in the summer of 2007, as the Director of Teen Programs. After a couple of years I transitioned to leading JCUA’s Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative. After two additional years served as Director of Programs and finally Director of Operations. I transitioned out of JCUA after more than six years, in December 2013.

Q. What was special about working here?

A. There are a lot of special aspects to working at JCUA. First, through the work at JCUA, I met incredible people across the City of Chicago; people leading the struggle to bridge the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be – the world we and our children deserve. I loved spending time in Chicago’s neighborhoods, building partnerships and learning from people’s experiences.

It was also a privilege to work with the many smart, talented and passionate colleagues I had at JCUA. I found JCUA to be a space that encouraged creativity, bold thinking and action, collaboration and sincerity.

I always felt at JCUA an authenticity about the organization’s intentions and commitment to social and economic justice. As my mentor Jane Ramsey would always say – “We do what’s right; not what’s easy” – and I found that to be true and inspiring.

I remember one time during my first year at JCUA that Rabbi [Robert J.] Marx [JCUA’s founder] visited the office during our weekly all-staff meeting. One of the staff members asked him a question we often grappled with — how to choose what issues and causes to prioritize?

He sighed and paused for a long minute. Finally, his face rose up again with a smile, and he said he cannot answer that question for us. It is for us to grapple with. The only two pieces of advice he could offer were, first, be sure to be a good listener in the community; and second, ask yourself, where is the pain? Those two pieces of advice continued to echo in my head throughout my time at JCUA and beyond.

Q. What impact did your work at JCUA have in the community?

A. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously wrote:

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This is something I greatly valued partaking in, namely, being part of a Jewish movement that works to strengthen the seams of Chicago’s garment of destiny. Whether through the teen programs, my work with the Muslim community, pastors across the city and countless others — together we worked to make real improvement in people’s lives, based on the recognition that we exist in a network on mutuality.

Q. How did your experience at JCUA impact what you do now? 

JCUA had a profound impact on how I view the city of Chicago, its priorities and policies. Through the work, the campaigns, the conversations, wins and failures, I learned much about the mechanics of social change. As I pursued both my work at JCUA and my Ph.D. in political theory, I debated which path to ultimately choose. The work at JCUA was an enormous inspiration when choosing to stay in the work directly tied to communities, and not pursue an academic appointment.

Q. Is there anything else would you like to mention?

A. What JCUA stands for:

  • The idea that a just society will come about through sincere partnerships across racial, ethnic, religious and class lines;
  • That Judaism will stand for justice only as long as Jewish people do so; and
  • That we must challenge our own community and must be willing to walk in the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power, however uncomfortable.

These ideas put into action are a beacon of light for the Jewish community. A thriving JCUA is essential to the better world we envision.
And so, for me, JCUA will always be like Hotel California: I can get out, but I can never leave. I cannot imagine living in Chicago any other way.

Asaf Bar-Tura is Chicago Director at The Posse Foundation, where he works to develop young leaders from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. He holds a Ph.D. in political theory from Loyola University Chicago. Asaf’s research focused on digital media and democratic participation. 

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