Emily Chaleff: Opening My Eyes

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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.

Emily Chaleff

 

Q. Tell us about your time at JCUA.

A. I worked at JCUA from 1998-2000 and I was the Director of the Associate Division.

Q. What was special about working here?

A. There was so much that was so special – working at JCUA confirmed my commitment to working in the Jewish community, and it opened my eyes to the effects and complexities of poverty, bigotry and racism in Chicago and elsewhere.  I have so many memories – There are two that stand out the most:

I was planning a program with the leadership council at Cabrini-Green, I believe it was a financial education course.  We planned the course for a Sunday afternoon. I took a taxi from my apartment in Lakeview and the taxi driver didn’t want to take me to Cabrini.  He told me it wasn’t safe for me, and once I did convince him to drive me there, he wouldn’t leave until I found the individuals I was working with.  It raised so many questions for me – this was the home to so many Chicagoans, and yet the cab driver, however well-intentioned, did not believe it was okay for me to go there in the middle of the day on a Sunday – why is it okay for some people to live in certain conditions, and not others?  I learned so much about the meaning of community from the people we worked with and for in public housing.  Up until then, the buildings around Chicago were these foreboding, almost mythological edifices, but when you actually knew residents, worked with them, one quickly realized that the depths of the community bonds were intense, and that when those buildings came down, important communities were separated from each other.  It was so apparent, and heartbreaking, to learn in real time how some communities “matter”, and others are taken for granted, or not valued at all.  I was proud that a Jewish organization was working and advocating with this community to say “it matters”.

Another memory was when I had the incredible privilege to represent the JCUA on a 10-day trip commemorating the 35th anniversary of the deaths of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman.  The trip was organized by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, and the Earl Chaney Foundation (Earl was James Chaney’s brother).  The trip was for African-Americans and Jews to come together and commemorate the deaths of the activists, and to explore the current status of civil rights, as well as Black/Jewish relationships today.  It was an incredibly intense experience.  I could write a feature-length article about it but here are some of my quick memories of the trip:

  • We were in Jackson, MS and three young black men from our group were randomly stopped and searched by police at 8:00 PM – they were just getting a candy bar at the gas station across the street from our hotel.
  • We went to the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, which is just across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church that was bombed, and is also now a museum.  I walked about three blocks off the central square of Birmingham and it was like stepping back in time, the city was so segregated.
  • In Mississippi, we drove through the backwoods of Meridian, where the boys were murdered, and it was mind-boggling.  With large black families still living in ramshackle homes, it was clear very little had changed  because there was so much poverty and segregation.  Even at James Chaney’s grave, there is STILL vandalism today.  It was hard to see.
  • Going to Selma and walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge – knowing that Rabbi Marx and other Jews from Chicago had marched in Selma, it was inspiring and heartbreaking.

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

A. I think the programs we did brought members of the Jewish community, just like me, into areas we had never been – Englewood, Cabrini, Robert Taylor (public housing was a huge part of the work at that time) – we met people and were able to put names and faces with statistics. It makes a big difference on informing a perception of what we saw on the news.

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

A. It impacted me tremendously. I have worked in the Jewish community ever since my time at JCUA. JCUA emboldened my commitment to social justice, and open my eyes to the Jewish community’s responsibility to be a voice and advocate for justice. I was the first site director for AVODAH: the Jewish Service Corps in Chicago and my experience at the JCUA prepared me for that position, and helped me to find my own voice. I met amazing people – too many to mention, but they all are inspiring leaders – Jane Ramsey, Lew Kreinberg, Rabbi Robert Marx, Rabbi Bruce Elder, Rabbi Herman Schaalman…the Board presidents at the time – Bud Lifton, Nikki Stein, Steve Keen – the Board members were not afraid to be an unpopular voice in the Jewish community and that has always stuck with me. The Board members were deeply connected to Jewish life, and to being a Jewish voice for justice. They became mentors to me, and while living out of state does not allow me to connect with people on a regular basis, the lay leaders and professionals I worked with at JCUA continue to inspire me today.


Emily (Rosenberg) Chaleff has worked in the Jewish community for almost 20 years – first at JCUA, then Nextbook, and AVODAH: the Jewish Service Corps. Most recently she completed a 7-year tenure as executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine – the regional office of JCC/Federation/Jewish Family Services. She lives in Portland, ME with her husband Stanley, her two sons Gideon (3 yrs old) and Asher (11 months), and her loyal dog Phoebe (8 yrs old).

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