The Second Tzedek

September 14, 2016

emma-faceBy Emma Drongowski
JCUA’s AVODAH Organizing Fellow

This past week, we read Parshat Shoftim, from the book of Deuteronomy. This Torah portion outlines a set of guidelines for ethical and moral behaviors- a very common theme in Jewish holy texts. Shoftim identifies the proper methods for appointing judges, procedures for  judicial systems, warnings against worshiping idols, condemnations for cutting down trees, and finally it reads “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof- ”Justice, Justice you shall pursue.” This statement is a direct call for action; a commandment to pursue justice with very little wiggle room for interpretation or negotiation. This parsha is one of the most frequently cited passages from Jewish activists as a prime example of the way that Judaism calls upon us to pursue social justice.

But this phrase (the very phrase that appears on JCUA t-shirts) is not as straightforward as it first appears. Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof- Justice, Justice, you shall pursue. The Torah is a concisely written document, with little that is superfluous. With the understanding that every word holds meaning, what does it mean that tzedek is repeated twice? As one can imagine, there are a few Rabbis who have a thought or two on the topic. The 11th century French rabbi Rashi tells us that this line means you should seek out a good court. The duplication is calling our attention not only to the obligation of the judges to judge wisely, but of the people to seek out good judges and to make sure that the court system is a good one. Another thinker believed that one tzedek is what we bring to those who are hurting and one tzedek is how we motivate those who are complacent to do more to affect change. Another, less sophisticated way to think about it is that justice is simply really, REALLY important, and the Torah is jumping up and down and waving its arms at us to understand how crucial it is for us to pursue justice.

fffffThere is no one correct answer to this Talmudic puzzle. For me, the double usage of “justice” reminds me to be intentional and insistent on incorporating Tzedek into all aspects of my life. As I have grown into adulthood, I have attempted to pursue justice by donating to charity, by volunteering for local campaigns, and by buying ethically sourced food products. Around this time last year, I read Parshat Shoftim as a direct call to me, as a moral imperative to pursue justice in my professional as well as my personal life. I made the decision to join AVODAH, the Jewish Service Corps, and will be working this year at JCUA as the AVODAH Organizing Fellow. For me, Parshat Shoftim instructs me that I cannot opt into tzedek when it is convenient, and that there are no days off from pursuing justice. It calls on me to pursue justice in my work, in my relationships with friends and family, in my interactions with strangers, in the way I spend my money, the movies I watch, the news I consume, and the things that I post on social media.

For me, Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof means to continually explore what it means to pursue justice as both a Jew and as an activist. One tzedek calls me to explore how my Jewish values hold me accountable to pursuing justice, and one tzedek compels me to ensure my Jewish community is doing the same. This year, I am so excited to explore this duality, and engage in conversation on what it means to be both Jewish and an activist, and therefore how to go about being a Jewish activist. Becoming a part of JCUA was simply the first step in my lifelong journey to pursue and maybe one day achieve, justice.

Rabbi Robert Marx, JCUA’s founder, reflects on the second tzedek:


Jewish Journey to Justice

August 12, 2016

By Eliana Chavkin
JCUA Member

“These are the journeys of the children of Israel, who went out from the land of Egypt in troops by the hand of Moses and Aaron…”

Parshat Masei, Numbers 33:1

HeadshotWe read in Parshat Masei the full list of stops the Jewish people made from Egypt to the land of Israel, where they stop at the end of Numbers. They will spend all of Deuteronomy outside the Promised Land, reviewing the steps they have taken to get there and the rules that will govern their lives when they finally enter.

In some ways, this is a different kind of journey than the one Dr. King described after his march in Marquette Park fifty years ago, one which he called “the first step in a journey of a thousand miles.” For the Israelites, their journey—at least, the exodus from Egypt—is over. For those of us who gathered with JCUA last Saturday to retrace Dr. King’s steps, the journey is still just beginning, although we have been in the desert far longer than the Israelites, and although we do not yet know what the end of our journey looks like.

Still, the emphasis Masei makes on looking back on our journeys was one that carried over our entire weekend, in the unveiling of the new MLK memorial in Marquette Park, the march itself, and the speakers who spoke 20160806_100114about the original march fifty years ago. Hearing those veterans of the Civil Rights Movement reminded us both of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

Pashat Masei also establishes the “safe city”: cities where one who has committed murder by accident may flee to escape blood vengeance. The removal of the murderer from a community gives residents a chance to heal, because, as the parsha says, “blood pollutes the ground.” Injustice, in other words, intentional or otherwise, pollutes entire communities, and each community member has a stake in restoring justice wherever possible. It is this mentality, I think, that spurred so many members of the Jewish community to come to the march: the feeling that we all have a part to play in fighting injustice. Certainly it was a key component in my decision to join the march and ultimately to join JCUA.

Looking around at the many races, religions, and communities that I saw both at our Shabbat service Friday night and at the march Saturday morning, however, I was conscious that reviewing our journey is not enough. As wonderful as it was to retrace Dr. King’s steps and to visit a part of Chicago that I rarely see, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a march would have been received in the city’s wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Parshat Masei tells us clearly that reliving and honoring the past is only one aspect of fighting injustice: we also must move forward and try new tactics. I look forward to seeing how JCUA and the Jewish community approaches the next nine hundred and ninety-nine miles in our journey, now that we have honored the first steps.


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 »

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