When Moses saw the burning bush, he had three qualities that made him into the leader he was: an allergy to oppression, a willingness to respond, and a radical curiosity.
It was a Shabbat morning text study, at the beginning of the Or Tzedek program this past summer. Over the course of the next week or so, all 11 of us would become increasingly like Moses. Learning about different social issues, we discovered and developed our own allergies to oppression. Seeing inequality in Chicago made us angry. We were angry when we saw countless burning bushes buried deep inside the city. We were mad when we learned about how domestic workers didn’t have many rights that we considered to be fundamental. When we learned about immigration and saw families waiting in line at the deportation center, we cried.
It was a week full of anger, and frustration, but also one filled with action and hope. We turned our thoughts and our frustrations into actions and prayers. We organized our own prayer vigil for a trauma center on the South Side. We wrote a speech about workers rights and talked with the chief of staff of an Illinois state senator. From the JCUA staff, we learned how to organize people into action and how to be allies.
Most of all, we were radically curious. We never stopped asking questions. Why is Chicago so segregated? Why are the most segregated neighborhoods the ones with the most poverty? Why do these neighborhoods have less access to fresh, healthy, food? Why did the most schools close in the neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates? Why are the areas of the city with the most shooting deaths also the areas where there is little or no access to trauma centers? Why, why why? What does Judaism say about this? As Jews, are we obligated to help? If so, what do we do?
Most of these questions have no clear answers, but that doesn’t mean there is no point in asking them. The program ended after ten days, but for me, the time to ask questions has not ended. That time is now and that time will continue. Every day, I see bushes burning around me. For example, why has the United States had more mass shootings this year than days in the calendar? Or Tzedek and the JCUA taught me to become more like Moses, more like a leader for justice. Like Moses, I see burning bushes around me, and I respond to them, first with my curiosity, and then with my actions. Like Moses, I became a leader and an ally, helping to move others from oppression, through long desert journeys, and into a more free and just land.
Hannah Coffey is a junior in high school who did Or Tzedek during the 2013-14 school year and during Summer 2015. She spends most of her time at her synagogue, Beth Emet in Evanston, talking with friends, or at home, watching hockey or embroidering. Her favorite shape is the scalene triangle.