Hope Werstler on learning community organizing through a Jewish lens

Categories: Educational Programs, Or Tzedek / Teen Program, Organizing Fellowship, Other, Youth Programs

Hope Werstler is participating in the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs’ Or Tzedek organizing internship for teens in Chicagoland. The program aims to empower young Jewish leaders with the skills, knowledge and inspiration needed to pursue social change through a Jewish lens. The internship, which meets twice a month from September to May, offers participants the opportunity to: strengthen their understanding of social justice and systems of oppression from a root cause perspective; build skills to organize for social change in coalition with communities across Chicago; cultivate teens’ Jewish identity and values by connecting Judaism and social justice.

Applications are now open for 2021–2022! Learn more and apply.

How have you grown or changed as a person through participating in JCUA’s Or Tzedek program?

I think every time you join a new community, you are introduced to new opinions and you get to look at a lot of new things. Especially with Or Tzedek, having the commonality of everyone being a Jewish teenager in Chicago, it allows you to express your opinion a little more freely since everyone is starting from a similar place. For example, we were talking about Thanksgiving plans, and one Or Tzedek participant had a really passionate stance on why she wasn’t celebrating this year, and it was so interesting to hear her reasons and think about it from a historical perspective. But then also having the discussion of whether it’s worth sacrificing family time since Thanksgiving has become a holiday to represent giving thanks and all that sort of thing.

Also, we’ve learned how to community organize. Community organizing isn’t a skill that you can learn in school or outside of a program like Or Tzedek. It’s really useful to learn, especially since I’m a senior this year and I’m going to college next year. I think knowing how to organize your community and get involved is a really important skill to have.

What is one thing you’ve learned through Or Tzedek that you want to take with you going forward?

I have always been very interested in politics and law, but I never really knew about the policies that were actually being imposed upon me. I recently went to a town hall meeting about rent control, which was something that I didn’t even know was a thing in the city of Chicago, let alone other places. It will be really interesting, especially since I plan on moving away for college, to see how Chicago’s policies and legislative actions are different from other cities and how people run a city in different ways.

I have also learned that you can find connections to Judaism everywhere. Even if they’re not strong, being able to find that connection is a really nice because it allows you to be more comfortable in any place.

Which JCUA campaign has resonated with you most and why?

The JCUA campaign that I have been most involved with would be all things related to the Welcoming City Ordinance and how it relates to the Chicago Gang Database. We’ve talked about it in Or Tzedek as a cohort. Knowing that Illinois and Chicago specifically is technically the safest state for immigrants, and yet there are still so many loopholes that allow the police to have contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ICE being able to do these raids — and also going to a large public high school where I know a lot of people who are undocumented or aren’t permanent citizens here — it was very eye opening to realize that if we’re the safest, what is the case for everyone else? Why isn’t more being done? There is just such a large population of people at risk. Getting added to the Gang Database can affect your employment, and ICE can get your information, and then they have the okay to detain you. That is just morally so unjust to me and learning about it was shocking.

What is something that you would like to change about Chicago?

So many things! I think my area of expertise going into the program is that I’m really into climate justice and climate reform. I think Chicago as a large metropolitan city doesn’t necessarily do enough to cut down on carbon emissions and design the city in a way that helps people save energy.

In terms of social justice and the program, I think the Fair Tax initiative that JCUA is working on with a bunch of other organizations is something that needs to happen. I would like to see that happen in Chicago, because I think it will ultimately benefit a lot of people and keep people from leaving the city.

Have you thought about climate justice as an issue you’d want to organize around, since the impacts will be greater on more vulnerable communities?

Definitely! My plans for college are to go into environmental policy, so I will be able to continue my interest in and knowledge of climate justice and the issues that that broad umbrella term covers. I would say that in Chicago specifically, you’re right. A lot of times families don’t necessarily have air conditioning or shelter, or homeless people, in the summers when it is 100 degrees one day and 80 degrees the next day, that can be really hard for people. Or when it snows in April! That can really put people in a place where they have nowhere to go, or no way to be comfortable or escape the elements. I think that is one way that climate justice and social justice are intertwined.

If you were telling friends or colleagues about this program, how would you say students like you might benefit from Or Tzedek?

The most valuable thing about starting a new program like Or Tzedek or a new activity or sport is the people. Beyond that, you’re able to take something that you’re passionate about and learn the skills on how to fix it and then actually do something to fix it.

I don’t think I would ever have taken a community organizing class. I don’t think I would have known about the Gang Database or about rent control, and I don’t think I would have been involved in the Welcoming City Ordinance or the Fair Tax initiative. I wouldn’t have known any of these things that not only do I now have knowledge about, but I am doing something about and care about other than just saying, “Oh that kind of sucks.” I think that was the big seller for me, and it’s what I’ve been telling a lot of the kids in my youth group, like “You want an internship! They’ll write you a rec letter! You get a stipend! It looks great for college! BUT you also get to learn all of these really helpful life skills, get involved in a bunch of really big problems, and you ultimately meet a really great group of people!”

Do you feel like you can now be a leader for your group of friends to get them involved with politics and organizing?

Definitely! I would say that a majority of my friends are politically active, as it stands, just because that’s the group I gravitate towards. But I would say that with skills and knowledge to go to town hall meetings, to know where and when they are, definitely gives me the skills to be a leader in my smaller community.

What is something you’re looking forward to in the next year?

I’m excited to vote for the first time! I just turned 18 so I get to vote in March, and I’m very excited about that. My mom writes union contracts, so she’s always emphasized the importance of voting and getting your opinion out there because ultimately it helps the whole, so I’m very very excited to be able to vote, and tell people that I voted! I’m excited to go to college and explore, whether that is in environmental science or just in general. I’m in student government in my high school, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to plan. For example, I recently got to be a part of a “Culture of Climate” discussion for our school, and I get to plan prom and a bunch of other stuff, so I’m excited to keep being involved with student government. In addition to that, since my major is environmental policy, I get to take a lot of intro to policy, intro to law classes next year, which I’m really excited about, since I have what I think is a pretty solid base, but I’m going to get into those classes and realize that I know nothing. So I want to learn more things!

Learn more about Or Tzedek and JCUA’s youth engagement programs here. If you have questions, contact JCUA Manager of Youth Engagement Mara Wolkoff: mara@jcua.org