Emily Chaleff: Opening My Eyes

March 3, 2015

On a Just Path Logo

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”. Read the rest of this entry »

The Civil Rights Movement, JCUA and the Light of the Menorah

December 22, 2014

Note: This presentation was made at the JCUA Member Hanukkah party last week.

Stacey Flint and her daughter, Lauren, at the JCUA member Hanukkah party.

Stacey Flint and her daughter, Lauren, at the JCUA member Hanukkah party.

By Stacey Aviva Flint
JCUA Member/Guest Blogger

More than 15 years ago, I was a JCUA staff person. Today, I am member of JCUA. I’d like to share my journey with JCUA and explain why you should join with me as a member of JCUA.

JCUA introduced me to the city of Chicago and helped me to understand justice in America. My knowledge of justice was the Civil Rights movement, and I was as a spectator of a historic past. JCUA opened my understanding of the heart of the movement and allowed me to go from spectator to an actor for change.

Jews and social justice issues are linked most often with the Civil Rights movement in partnership with Black Americans. Injustices in the political and social justice sphere culminated in Jewish and Black collaborations. Both communities were victims of a long history of institutionalized discrimination and social shunning by mostly white, Christian populations.

Jim Crow signage often proclaimed, “No Jews, no Dogs, no Negroes.” At the height of the Civil Rights era, Jews and Blacks marched together in Selma (Dr. King, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rabbi Robert J. Marx), and challenged housing discrimination in Chicago. This past August (2014) marked the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Chaney (African American), Goodman and Schwerner (both Jewish) were lynched for daring to register Black voters in Mississippi in 1964.

JCUA member Tina Escobar kindles the lights of Hanukkah at the JCUA member party.

JCUA member Tina Escobar kindles the lights of Hanukkah at the JCUA member party.

Born from a shared history

It is out of this history JCUA was born. For over 50 years JCUA has partnered with diverse communities to carry out the prophetic vision of tzedek, tzedek, tirdof–Justice, Justice, shall you pursue.

As my first employer after graduate school, JCUA holds a special place in my heart and professional career. I was and still am drawn to JCUA because of its core values–Justice and Tikkun Olam. JCUA recognizes that Jews are neither powerful nor powerless, but they can be bridge builders and relate to both the powerful and the powerless.

Today, as a member of JCUA, I can be my whole, authentic self: A Jew, Black, multicultural, a woman and a citizen concerned for my fellow man, without being asked to choose only one. As a Jew of color, I realize that I have a dual consciousness and I can be a living bridge between my communities as well as many others.

As leaders, we must come together once again and harness the common ground of humanity to shed light on the plagues of darkness that foster racism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of oppression. New prophets may never arise such as Moses, Dr. King, or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, but Judaism calls on us to be prophetic voices, lights among darkness.

Lights in the darkness

Rabbi Schneuer Zalman of Liadi once said, “A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.” The Talmud teaches, “We don’t depend on miracles,” we have the opportunities to be lights in the darkness.

JCUA is a treasure trove in both Chicago and social justice history that is rare to find. Sometimes I know I can feel paralyzed by what I hear on the news. But as a member of JCUA, I have the opportunity to be a part of solutions. JCUA acts as the shamash (servant candle on our Hanukkiah that lights the other candles). As a JCUA member, I get information about issues and how to process them according to Jewish values. And I also get to lend my voice and experiences.

What am I saying? JCUA is looking for a few good members to be lights in this generation. As I look out I see many lights shining tonight. Let’s keep the flames of Justice burning bright long after Hanukkah. Join with me as a member of JCUA; there is room at the table.

Let JCUA keep your flame shining brightly.

I will see you at our next member meeting.

Stacey presented these remarks at the JCUA member Hanukkah party. Our next member meeting is Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, location TBD. 

» Become a member of JCUA — get meeting notifications and action alerts

Last night’s ruling: reflecting on Ferguson and justice

November 25, 2014

By Daniel Kaplan
Community Organizer

Isaiah 58

8. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever goes on it knows no peace.

ח. דֶּרֶךְ שָׁלוֹם לֹא יָדָעוּ וְאֵין מִשְׁפָּט בְּמַעְגְּלֹתָם נְתִיבוֹתֵיהֶם עִקְּשׁוּ לָהֶם כֹּל דֹּרֵךְ בָּהּ לֹא יָדַע שָׁלוֹם:


Photograph by Sarah Jane Rhee. loveandstrugglephotos.com

Last night, the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri chose not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, a black unarmed teenager. As a Jewish organization dedicated to ending systemic racism in Chicago, we believe it’s important for the Jewish community to pause and reflect on how we must respond.

Jewish tradition teaches that  humankind is created in the image of God, B’tselem Elohim. From this we learn, quite simply, that all lives matter. As Jews living in the United States, we have an obligation to not only affirm that all lives matter, but specifically black lives matter. Last night, I joined hundreds of black community members and allies in anticipation of the grand jury decision. Standing outside a  police station on 35th and Michigan, I heard youth activists recall the names of countless black men and women whose lives had been prematurely extinguished.  In addition to Michael Brown we remembered Roshad McIntosh, who was shot by Chicago police in August under similar circumstances. We remembered Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy shot by police in Cleveland last weekend. We remembered Marissa Alexander, a victim of domestic violence who will serve three years in prison and have a lifetime felon status because she fired a warning shot away from her attacker. We remembered Trayvon Martin.  All black, and all killed, incarcerated, or otherwise failed by predominantly white juries and white law enforcement.

While all lives matter, we must specifically uphold black lives because of our society’s systemic devaluation of their worth. Speakers from last night’s demonstration drew connections between last night’s decision to the United States’ history of commodifying black life. From slavery to sharecropping to redlining and exploitative housing contracts to the prison industrial complex, these recent episodes of police brutality fit into a centuries-old legacy.  A group called “We Charge Genocide” recently testified to the United Nations Committee Against Torture about police brutality in Chicago and the United States. Last night’s grand jury decision was not a tragic episode, but rather another product of a deeply ingrained system that exploits and dehumanizes black bodies and minds.

We must always remember that to pursue justice means to shine a light on structural racism and inequality however and whenever we can. When JCUA sang for a trauma center in September, we did so because we understand that systemic racism in Chicago has deprived entire swaths of the city a fundamental medical service. When we support immigrants seeking sanctuary, we do so because we recognize that economic and political forces pressure people to immigrate whether or not our immigration policy allows them to. When we stand with workers seeking redress for wage theft, we do so because we know our economic policies have created staggering wealth inequality and privileged the profits of corporate executives over the rights of the working class. Everything we do at JCUA is connected to a systemic injustice, and without calling out these systems we cannot pursue justice.

Today, let us take a moment to pause from our regular programs and campaigns to reflect on this travesty. As we take a moment to truly feel for Michael Brown, his family, and so many other extinguished black lives, let us recommit to our work with an intention to end to perpetuation of systemic injustices across our city.

46 Years Later: Connecting #mlk’s Last Speech to #abetterillinois

April 4, 2014

46 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In his last years, King focused his work on addressing the intersections between economic inequality, poverty and race. King was in Memphis to support the Memphis Sanitation Strike, a critical first campaign in his larger Poor People’s Campaign.

In his last speech, King said, “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

46 years after Dr. King spoke those words, economic and racial inequality are more strongly connected than ever.  As we see in this article, income inequality is growing in our city. Chicago’s staggering economically polarization is concentrated in communities of color, and nearly entirely in neighborhoods where CPS closed more that fifty Chicago Public Schools last year.

40 Years of Chicago’s Rising Inequality, in One GIF

We cannot stop our work to combat poverty.  JCUA is committed to addressing economic inequality in our city and state.  That is why we are members of the A Better Illinois coalition.  By working with A Better Illinois on changing Illinois’ flat rate income tax system, we are not only advocating for a more fair income tax.  We are also advocating for a solution to Illinois’ massive deficit and the resulting cuts in vital programs and services for the economically marginalized.  Together, we can stop the growing stratification in Chicago and draw a new map with more just colors.

 Want to get more involved with JCUA and A Better Illinois?  Click here.


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