Always the Stranger

April 27, 2016

On  April 11, Northwestern Hillel’s Executive Director and JCUA Member Michael Simon spoke at JCUA’s 2016 Freedom and Justice Seder: The 11th Plague – Standing Against Islamophobia. In celebration of Passover this week, we are honored to share his inspiring presentation in full.

Michael SimonBy Michael Simon

I am the Executive Director of Northwestern Hillel, the center and catalyst for Jewish life at Northwestern.  We work to enrich the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.  But beyond those lofty goals, we work in the day-to-day, here-and-now of campus.  The rhetoric related to issues of diversity and inclusion, of Israel and Palestine, of intersectionality and marginalization, of power and privilege – all have become more intense and more strident in the past couple of years. What drives me in my work, in general and also, particularly, in working with Sister Tahera on Muslim-Jewish and other interfaith and intercultural initiatives, is to fully bring myself and ourselves to conversations that put the particularism of Jewish identity into tension with the universalism of being human.  How do I bring my full self, flaws and inconsistencies and all, to this or any table?

In a moment, we’ll drink the 2nd cup of wine.  Traditionally, this comes at the end of the maggid section, in which we ask the four questions and tell the story of the Exodus.  In this section we also talk of four children:  one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know how to ask a question.  When I was younger, I wanted to be the wise child.  I saw myself as the good one, the one who always tried to do the right thing.  But I’ve found myself drawn more and more over the years to an idea expressed by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the 19th century, that “We each have all the four children within us.”  We have a desire to fight bigotry and a streak of bigotry.  A desire to stand up against injustice and a desire to just stay quiet and hope no one will notice.  A need to scream at authority and a lack of knowing even where to begin.

Michael-and-TaheraA couple of weeks ago, a member of the Chicago Jewish community who happens to be a Northwestern alum wrote to challenge the very premise of this event.  He asked, “Are you perhaps also ‘standing’ against radical Islamic violence directed at Christians and Jews?”  I responded that I do, indeed, stand against such violence – terrorism – done by Muslims against not only Christians and Jews but also other Muslims and many others, done by Muslim extremists who justify their actions through a twisted and hateful reading of their religious precepts.

I reminded this person that I have my own experience with terrorism – my intended fiancée was murdered by the Hamas terrorist bombing at Hebrew University in 2002.  I understand – viscerally – the need to stand against terrorists and those who honor and support them.  Read the rest of this entry »

See Something, Say Something

January 8, 2016

Lisa-for-blogIllinois State Budget Crisis Continues
Join JCUA in Springfield on January 27!

By Lisa Bendoff
JCUA Member

I’m writing this post as Illinois slogs into its sixth month without a budget. Governor Rauner, aided by a divided legislature, seems to be showing a tremendous indifference towards the citizens of his state. Illinois’ residents are being pushed into more and more vulnerable positions, as Gov. Rauner continues to prioritize reforms that will benefit his friends and business supporters rather than his suffering citizens.

When I look at Illinois right now, I see pain. But I also see hope.

This past year, I had the opportunity to participate in several Moral Monday actions with JCUA and its coalition partners.  Every Moral Monday had a theme or focus. For example, Jane Addams Senior Caucus led a Moral Monday around senior care funding and independent living assistance, and the final Moral Monday of the year in November focused on promoting the proposed LaSalle Street Tax. Though each Moral Monday was “sponsored” by different organizations, at each event there were members of other groups marching in solidarity with their fellow frustrated citizens, helping to bring a louder voice to their cries for justice. Chicago’s Moral Mondays became larger and larger, more and more inclusive, and, consequently, more empowering for the movement as a whole. Although frustration and anger were increasing at each action, each action made me more hopeful about Illinois’ future.

Governor Rauner is trying to use the budget hold-up and his non-budgetary concerns as divisive devices. But when I was at these Moral Mondays, I saw mutual respect. Groups of people coming together, supporting one another – that is where the respect is. When the governor and the government can’t respect us, when the government is, in fact, the cause of the citizen’s fear, it is empowering to remember that we can all respect one another, and continue moving forward together.

We have momentum, and I am excited to see that momentum continuing into 2016. JCUA is part of the Responsible Budget Coalition (RBC), which is planning a trip to Springfield on January 27th. We, along with other RBC member organizations, will be going down to Springfield to respond to Gov. Rauner’s State of the State address, and speak with Illinois legislators about the State of OUR State. I look forward to standing with hundreds of RBC members as we come together and inject reality into Gov. Rauner’s annual State of the Fairy Tale.

Sometimes there really is a difference between right and wrong; sometimes it is just not that complicated. The government is always telling us, if you “see something, say something.”  The government is playing political games with people’s lives and well being. We see it. We need to say something.

As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue. We as Jews need to call for justice, as Jews we need to ensure justice for all. Join us on January 27th, and call for justice in Illinois.

For more information on how you can be a part of this important action, please contact Marla Bramble or Anna Rubin.

Members Make A Difference

December 30, 2015

By Randi Stern
JCUA Member

The day after Randi presented this reflection, the University of Chicago announced they would open a Level I Adult Trauma Center on their campus. You can read the coalition’s statement about the announcement here.

Randi and Stacy 2It has been quite an inspiring and educational year for me to be a member of JCUA and to have had such an active role in the success of the Trauma Center Coalition campaign. Before becoming a member of JCUA I had never worked for a social justice organization or thought a lot about the many social and economic injustices happening in the Chicago land area. Before joining the campaign I didn’t realize that there was even a trauma center desert on the south side of the city and that I was working in this desert as a long time employee of the University of Chicago.

There are a couple key moments that stand out this past year for me.  This past summer I was proud to march with my daughter Stacy, an Or Tzedek alum, as we joined with the coalition to walk from Washington Park to President Zimmer’s house to publicize the trauma center desert during the public meetings for the Obama Library.  It was so meaningful to have the support Randi and Stacyof my family and I feel fortunate that Stacy and I share this special bond and passion for JCUA.

I was also proud to march with the Jewish community and especially with those whose lives are most dramatically impacted by the lack of health care on the south side of Chicago.  It felt good to live out the values of Judaism–Tikkun Olam–to do good in the world and to help move the campaign forward.   In Judaism, Pikuach Nefesh teaches us that one must do whatever possible even to save one life.  This is what this campaign is about.

I was also proud to participate in the disruption at Rockefeller chapel during Alumni weekend. I almost didn’t go because I felt uncomfortable creating a disruption inside an alumni event, but am glad I did because it was important to be there to support JCUA and the Trauma Care Coalition. The actions during this weekend proved to be pivotal in pushing the U of C to join with Sinai Health Care for the new Level I Trauma center.

Read the rest of this entry »

Or Tzedek–At It Again!

August 17, 2015

By Deborah Goldberg
JCUA’s Coordinator of Teen Programs

It seems like yesterday that the second session of our summer Or Tzedek program came to a close. In just 10 days, we were able to build an incredible community, engage with Jewish texts and traditions, explore social justice issues and campaigns happening in Chicago today, and take action to make Chicago a more just city.

The 11 teens who participated in this session were curious, energetic, excited, inclusive, and eager to put our Jewish values into action.  We started Or Tzedek as individuals and left, 10 days later, as a community.  Every step of the way–from deeply engaging in workshops on identity, privilege, and systemic causes of injustice to celebrating two Shabbatot as a community, from advocating to Illinois State Senator Julie Morrison’s Chief of Staff on the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights to leading a prayer vigil in support of the Trauma center Campaign—the teens’ commitment to Jewish social justice work was inspiring.

It’s impossible to capture everything we did in 10 days in one paragraph.  The photo essay below shares some of the highlights of our 10 days together: (Click on any photo below to see a slideshow with comments!)

I tell people all the time—I have the best job in the whole world and that I get to work with young people from around the country who all have the power to create positive, systemic change.  On our final morning together, I shared with the teens that I hope Or Tzedek and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs are always places they will feel at home (I shared the same hope with our first session participants).  It was sad to depart on that Sunday morning because the teens had truly built a Jewish social justice home in 10 short days together.  At the same time, I am so excited to continue working with all our teens throughout this coming year and beyond as they continue to work to make the world a more just place!

Reflecting on 10 Days of Change: Or Tzedek 2015 Summer Session 1

July 2, 2015

By Deborah Goldberg
JCUA’s Coordinator of Teen Programs

It’s hard to believe that at this time two weeks ago, our first summer 2015 session was just getting under way!  It was an incredible 10 days of activism, advocacy, organizing, and having fun together.  If I could sum up 10 days in 10 numbers, here’s what I would say:

10 amazing teens

9 workshops on social justice concepts and campaigns

8 partner organizations visited

7 hours of prep for two prayer vigils and an advocacy visit with the President of the Illinois Senate

6 amazing staff members

5 states represented

4 jumbo bags of M&Ms consumed

3 views of Chicago (by boat, by car, and from the 37th floor of a downtown office!)

2 Shabbatot

1 incredible Or Tzedek session

There’s no possible way to capture the enthusiasm and passion of our first session teens in words and numbers alone.  From participating in meaningful workshops to advocating to the president of the Illinois State Senate on the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights, from leading a prayer vigil in support of the Trauma Center Campaign to celebrating two Shabbatot together, the teens’ energy, curiosity, and willingness to give 100% of themselves in every workshop and meeting was inspiring.

Check out the photo essay below for more information on our experiences! (Click on any photo below to see a slideshow with comments!)

As our first summer session came to a close on Sunday morning, I shared with the teens that I hope Or Tzedek and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs are always places where they feel at home.  In just 10 short days, we were able to build a community, take action on several campaigns, celebrate Shabbat, and help prepare our teens to take their new skills and passion for social justice home.  We can’t wait to see these teens again at future Or Tzedek and JCUA programs!


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