By Deborah Goldberg
Coordinator of Teen Programs
Two weeks ago, JCUA partnered with Chicagoland Jewish High School on a three day advocacy and social justice retreat for members of their junior class. By the end of the time we spent together, we’d met with Jewish clergy throughout Chicago, learned about gun violence in the city, heard from young activists fighting for a Level 1 Adult Trauma Center at the University of Chicago, learned basic community organizing skills, examined systems of oppression, practiced our advocacy skills, prepared presentations on gun violence prevention legislation, advocated for that legislation in 5 state legislators’ in-district offices and in meetings with both Senator Kirk’s and Senator Durbin’s Chicago staffers, and reflected on the Jewish imperative to build a just world. It was an empowering (and exhausting!) three days.
“My legislator asked me questions about my views as if I were an adult!”
One of the many reasons I love JCUA is because we are constantly looking for ways to empower teens to be advocates and activists for positive social change. We know that teens’ voices and power are an important part of building a more just Chicago. For me, one of the highlights of the three days we spent together was hearing teens after they’d met with their elected official. Before our meetings, teens said things like, “Does it really make a difference when we meet with state legislators?” and “They won’t listen to me, I’m just 16.” After our meetings, teens said things like, “The person I met with took notes on what I was saying because he wanted to repeat it to his boss!” and “My legislator asked me questions about my views as if I were an adult!”
Advocating for just policies and legislation to state and federal legislators is one small part of social justice work. This retreat gave students a chance to practice the skill of advocacy, as well delve deeper into understanding social justice issues. Many of the students mentioned that the retreat made them think differently about how they ‘do’ Jewish social justice, and gave them new found advocacy skills, lessons that will hopefully be used again soon.
The Torah lays out all the mitzvot (commandments) we should follow to build a holy community. The prophets demand that we “defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the orphan; plead the case of the widow” and disparage us when we don’t (Isaiah 1:17). The rabbis of the Talmud discussed and debated religious law to better understand how to craft just cities and create a just world. I don’t think any of our ancient predecessors could have imagined a group of 40 energetic, passionate young people advocating for gun violence prevention policies as a part of their understanding of Jewish social justice, but I think they’d be proud. Here at JCUA, I know we definitely are.