Rabbi Ari Hart: Planting the Seeds

February 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.

Rabbi Ari Hart

Rabbi Ari Hart

Q. Tell us about your time at JCUA.

A. I was the Founding Director of Or Tzedek, JCUA’s teen social justice program, in 2006​.

Q. What was special about working here?

A. I loved working at JCUA. JCUA is not afraid to ask the tough questions about what goes on in Chicago, not afraid to take action. It was one of the most meaningful opportunities for me to pursue real social justice work in a Jewish context.

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

A. My work planted the seeds of social justice in teens, exposed them to dimensions of their city that they had never seen before, and connected very diverse groups (teens in Englewood and Highland Park) over justice work. One of the most rewarding things is seeing Or Tzedek participants who were 14, 15 years old now launching careers as justice activists, doing amazing work in the world.​

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

A. My experience at JCUA taught me about the power of deep relationships, long term activism, how to truly stand in solidarity with communities. The concept of interstitiality has always stayed with me. I think about our role as both an oppressed and empowered community all the time, and what that means for today and for our future.


Rabbi Ari Hart is a co-founder of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization dedicated to combating suffering and oppression. Ari currently serves as Associate Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and as Director of Admissions for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Ari learned at Yeshivat HaKotel, Machon Pardes, and graduated from Grinnell College in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition.


JCUA Inducted into the Trauma Center Coalition

January 29, 2015
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Randi Stern – JCUA Member

By Randi Stern

JCUA Member and Guest Blogger

At the end of last year, JCUA members chose to organize around two social justice campaigns. One of the campaigns we chose was organizing for a trauma center at the University of Chicago. Last week, the Trauma Center Coalition reciprocated by formally voting in JCUA as its newest member. It was a moment of pride and excitement for me to be present as community, student and medical organizations invited us to organize with them. The Coalition inducted JCUA because we demonstrated that we can meet their organizing expectations. It’s a major marker in JCUA’s development as a relevant and important player in Chicago’s organizing world.

► Join JCUA members for an Interfaith Vigil for a Trauma Center, Thursday, Feb. 12 from 6:30-7 pm outside the Duchossois Center on the U of C Campus. More info and RSVP.

The goal of the trauma center campaign is to organize for the University of Chicago Medical Center to commit to opening an adult Level I or II trauma center. There is currently a “trauma center desert” on the south side of Chicago. Someone with a gunshot wound or other serious injury on the city’s south side has to travel over five miles to get treatment, greatly diminishing their likelihood of survival. In an area that needs nearby trauma care more than any other part of the city, it is a travesty that none exists.

JCUA Member joined the Trauma Center Coalition in September 2014 to "Sing for a Trauma Center."

JCUA members joined the Trauma Center Coalition in September 2014 to “Sing for a Trauma Center.”

The trauma center campaign reflects JCUA’s mission: to combat social and economic injustice in partnership with Chicago’s diverse communities. The areas affected most by the trauma center desert are predominately working class communities of color. A diverse coalition organized this campaign, and it is led by community groups who have personally felt the effects of living in a trauma center desert.

Read the rest of this entry »


Or Tzedek Alum Rose Johnson Reflects on MLK Day Interfaith Event

January 27, 2015
Rose Johnson talks with other participants at the MLK Interfaith Teen event.

Rose Johnson talks with other participants at the MLK Interfaith Teen event.

In honor of MLK Day, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teens from across Chicago joined together to honor Dr. King’s dream for a better world by discussing interfaith solidarity. The interfaith event was sponsored by JCUA, St. Viator High School, and The Children of Abraham Coalition, and hosted by the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago (CAIR-Chicago).  Below is a reflection from one of the Or Tzedek teens who participated in the event.

Originally I had planned on going to the teen interfaith event on MLK day so I could see my friend who was also going. But what transpired at the event really got me thinking about what it takes to bring peace to the world.

I should say, first of all, that the event was really fun. I got to talk to friends, both old and new, about interesting topics and hand out flyers that helped to spread the message of peace and equality that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought so hard for. In the discussions, both before and after we passed out flyers, I learned a lot about other people, other people’s religions, and what it takes to bring a group of people that have differing opinions to a place of mutual respect and peace.

At the beginning of the event we broke up into small groups. My small group contained an anime enthusiast who went to a Catholic school, the father of a Catholic school student, a Muslim who worked with low income families to make sure they got the resources available to them, and me. It wouldn’t appear at first glance that any of us had much in common other than the fact that we all wanted to be at an interfaith event, but once we got to talking I found reasons to respect each person and each religion represented in my group. Among questions about what our favorite movies were and what our favorite foods are were questions about misconceptions about our religions, questions about who our religious heroes were, and questions about what we’ve learned from our religions. Turns out we all had a lot in common.

It says in the Talmud Yerushalmi: “They sustain the poor Gentiles and the poor of Israel, and visit the Gentile sick and the Israelite sick and bury the Gentile dead and the Israelite dead and comfort the Gentile mourner and the Israelite mourner and wash the clothes of Gentiles and the clothes of Israel due to the ways of peace.” This quote for me is problematic in its wording, yet also really meaningful. While I don’t believe we as Jews should separate ourselves into Jews and Gentiles, I believe that if we dig deeper into the quote it shows the Talmud firmly establishes that, while we are decided along lines of color, age and religion, we must harbor deep respect for and help everyone. The quote even goes so far as to say that we must wash the clothes of the Jew and the Gentile. And all this to build a peace that will last because everyone is contributing to it.

This event showed me that real life empathy building can create respectful environments in which tough conversations can be had and introduced me to relationships with new people, organizations and ideas that I hope to expand upon in the future.

Rose is a 2014 Or Tzedek alum. She currently attends Chicagoland Jewish High School where she is a Junior. Rose is on the board of her synagogue youth group, BESSY. Along with two of her good friends, she also helps run the GSA, which is called Gavah, meaning Pride.


Amanda Klonsky: Tapping into Our Own Stories

January 21, 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.

Asaf Bar-Tura

Amanda Klonsky

Q. When did you work here and what was your position title?

A. I was at JCUA during the early 2000s and was the Coordinator of the Jewish and Muslim Community Building Initiative as the program launched.

Q. What was special about working here?

A. I made several of my closest friends while working at JCUA and entered into a large network of progressive Jewish activists whom I stay in touch with to this day. It was the first time I felt my Jewish identity and my activist identity were in sync and visible in my adult life.

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

A. We began organizing in response to hate crimes and attacks against Muslim community centers and mosques in Chicago. Ultimately, we organized a campaign in response to the PATRIOT Act. We collaborated with CAIR Chicago and several other Arab and Muslim community organizations to pass city council resolutions against the PATRIOT Act. It wasn’t always easy to convince Jewish community leaders that we should organize against the attacks on Arab and Muslim people– but we were able to tap into our own stories and experiences of persecution as immigrants– and built a powerful community across lines of difference.

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

A. I spent the last decade working in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where I co-led Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy Program– which provides arts and literacy education to youth who are detained there. I then went on to work at Chicago Public Schools, leading an effort to support formerly detained and incarcerated youth in returning to school in Chicago.

I am now at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I am earning my doctorate. I am interested in expanding access to education for people in prison. My interest in these issues was catalyzed at least in part by the important work that was happening at JCUA when I was there, in response to the John Burge torture cases. I was introduced to a whole world of activists who were organizing in defense of those people who had been wrongfully convicted as a result of torture at the hands of John Burge. It changed my life to meet those brave people who stood up and challenged power, after having experienced such trauma.


Amanda Klonsky is currently studying for her Doctorate in Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her work is focused on expanding access to education for youth returning from juvenile detention and prison. 


JCUA January 2015 Newsletter

January 14, 2015

In the January 2015 issue of the JCUA newsletter…

  • Join JCUA in 2015 to learn more about our two new organizing campaigns.
  • RSVP for JCUA’s first member meeting of 2015 on Jan. 21.
  • Or Tzedek Summer 2015 registration is open.
  • What are you doing on MLK day weekend?
  • Guest blog post on immigration reform.
  • Save the date for JCUA’s 2015 Passover Seder on March 19.

Read it now


Kalman Resnick: ‘Our Immigration System is Broken, and Everybody Knows It’

January 13, 2015

Kalman Resnick

For 41 years, longtime JCUA Leader and prominent attorney Kalman Resnick has defended the rights of immigrants and their families. JCUA is pleased to share the following Dvar Torah, presented by Kalman at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue on Jan. 9, expressing the urgency of comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S and why you should care.

This week’s Torah portion, Sh’mot, provides a spectacular backdrop for this D’var Torah. In Sh’mot we begin reading the Book of Exodus. At the beginning of Exodus, we are enslaved in Egypt. G-d instructs Moses and his brother Aaron to lead our people to freedom. Moses resists G-d’s instruction, telling G-d that he, Moses, is not up to the task and expressing his doubt that the people will follow his leadership. But G-d insists and Moses and Aaron proceed to execute a plan for our liberation from slavery.

Tonight I will address why this story of our Exodus from Egypt commands that we as American Jews support the enactment of progressive and comprehensive immigration reform and why in the absence of such legislation, we must support our President’s Executive Orders protecting approximately one-half of our nation’s more than 11.5 million undocumented residents from deportation.

At the beginning of his speech on November 20th announcing his latest executive action protecting undocumented immigrants, President Obama declared:

“For more than 200 years, our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations. It’s kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial. It has shaped our character as a people with limitless possibilities – people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose.

But today, our immigration system is broken – and everybody knows it.”

Read the rest of this entry »


Asaf Bar-Tura: ‘We Must Challenge Our Own Community’

January 6, 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.

Asaf Bar-Tura

Asaf Bar-Tura

Q. Tell us about your time at JCUA.

A. I started working at JCUA in the summer of 2007, as the Director of Teen Programs. After a couple of years I transitioned to leading JCUA’s Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative. After two additional years served as Director of Programs and finally Director of Operations. I transitioned out of JCUA after more than six years, in December 2013.

Q. What was special about working here?

A. There are a lot of special aspects to working at JCUA. First, through the work at JCUA, I met incredible people across the City of Chicago; people leading the struggle to bridge the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be – the world we and our children deserve. I loved spending time in Chicago’s neighborhoods, building partnerships and learning from people’s experiences.

It was also a privilege to work with the many smart, talented and passionate colleagues I had at JCUA. I found JCUA to be a space that encouraged creativity, bold thinking and action, collaboration and sincerity.

I always felt at JCUA an authenticity about the organization’s intentions and commitment to social and economic justice. As my mentor Jane Ramsey would always say – “We do what’s right; not what’s easy” – and I found that to be true and inspiring.

I remember one time during my first year at JCUA that Rabbi [Robert J.] Marx [JCUA’s founder] visited the office during our weekly all-staff meeting. One of the staff members asked him a question we often grappled with — how to choose what issues and causes to prioritize?

He sighed and paused for a long minute. Finally, his face rose up again with a smile, and he said he cannot answer that question for us. It is for us to grapple with. The only two pieces of advice he could offer were, first, be sure to be a good listener in the community; and second, ask yourself, where is the pain? Those two pieces of advice continued to echo in my head throughout my time at JCUA and beyond.

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

A. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously wrote:

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This is something I greatly valued partaking in, namely, being part of a Jewish movement that works to strengthen the seams of Chicago’s garment of destiny. Whether through the teen programs, my work with the Muslim community, pastors across the city and countless others — together we worked to make real improvement in people’s lives, based on the recognition that we exist in a network on mutuality.

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

JCUA had a profound impact on how I view the city of Chicago, its priorities and policies. Through the work, the campaigns, the conversations, wins and failures, I learned much about the mechanics of social change. As I pursued both my work at JCUA and my Ph.D. in political theory, I debated which path to ultimately choose. The work at JCUA was an enormous inspiration when choosing to stay in the work directly tied to communities, and not pursue an academic appointment.

Q. Is there anything else would you like to mention?

A. What JCUA stands for:

  • The idea that a just society will come about through sincere partnerships across racial, ethnic, religious and class lines;
  • That Judaism will stand for justice only as long as Jewish people do so; and
  • That we must challenge our own community and must be willing to walk in the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power, however uncomfortable.

These ideas put into action are a beacon of light for the Jewish community. A thriving JCUA is essential to the better world we envision.
And so, for me, JCUA will always be like Hotel California: I can get out, but I can never leave. I cannot imagine living in Chicago any other way.


Asaf Bar-Tura is Chicago Director at The Posse Foundation, where he works to develop young leaders from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. He holds a Ph.D. in political theory from Loyola University Chicago. Asaf’s research focused on digital media and democratic participation. 


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