Or Tzedek Transforms Teens

Categories: JCUA Campaigns, Or Tzedek / Teen Program

We need to start asking questions about the history we are learning and who is not included. That is how true tikkun olam happens.” ~Rabbi Capers Funnye

These words from our visit to Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken, one of JCUA’s congregational partners, aptly frame this year’s Or Tzedek experience. We asked a lot of questions, and we struggled with how ingrained oppression is in our society. We felt the importance of stepping back and unpacking how our identities impact our movement through the world. We grappled with how our power and experiences fit into a strong movement for social change.

Last week ten teens arrived in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, a bit unsure of what to expect, but excited to make a difference. In just the first few days they have shown strength, vulnerability and compassion, and have felt frustration, confusion and anger about the world around them. Here are some of their reflections.


“On our first full day of the program we went on a scavenger hunt community mapping tour of the Uptown neighborhood with Teresa Neumann and Jon Schmidt from Loyola University.  The tour helped us get an in depth understanding of the neighborhood. We visited a school – McCutcheon Elementary and had the opportunity to speak to the school’s principal. Our conversation really struck me  because for so long the school did not have a gym. The children would have to go to a different facility to access a gym. We learned that the school recently received a large grant to create a gym. This way the students at McCutcheon Elementary could have more time for gym class since it would be accessible in their building. This school was very close to being closed during the period when Mayor Emanuel closed down 50 Chicago Public Schools. It is really powerful that it is still a resource to the community and that we were able to visit during Or Tzedek.  This is just one example of how the scavenger hunt walking tour of Uptown helped us get a much more in depth view of the neighborhood than we typically get to experience.”


“Last Friday we canvassed for the first time. The experience of canvassing was inspiring, to say the least. We had previously learned about affordable housing with ONE Northside and how rent control could help preserve affordable housing. When we canvassed we did more than just learn about the issue and its importance.. You could feel the change you were making in the world. You weren’t just listening to a history lesson on a protest over 50 years ago or just hearing about the tools needed for community organizing. You were actually out there, in the streets, using those tools and helping create change with a clipboard. The satisfaction of seeing all of the signatures we collected, the voters we registered was incredible. All of those plans, those maybe somedays, those when you’re olders, became real. You did something tangible, something that directly contributed to  real systemic change. All of those times that you saw people experiencing homelessness and wished you could do something, all of those times you felt an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, it felt like we were able to make a difference and have an impact on the larger system that leads to the problems we see every day. We were the change we wanted to see in the world.”


“One of my most meaningful experiences so far was when we went to JCUA offices at Sketchpad and met with a member leader of JCUA named Beckee Birger. She taught us about the power of meaningful conversation, specifically 1 on 1 conversations and how you use them for organizing. A 1 on 1 conversation is exactly what it sounds like,  you and another person having a conversation. But, even though that sounds easy, having a structured, meaningful conversation with someone can be hard. Beckee gave us some guidelines to follow if we got stuck. For example, when you start a 1 on 1 conversation you could say “Thank you for coming,” which lets the person know that you care and you aren’t just having a random conversation just to have a conversation. Then, you start off with some broad questions just to ease into the conversation and to get to know the person if you don’t know the person you are talking to very well. Some examples could be “Why did you decide to join JCUA or Or Tzedek?” or “What made you decide to do the work that you do today?” Then you go deeper to get at what stories and experiences the person wants to share that can help you to understand their self-interest in social justice. I personally connect with 1 on 1 conversations in a powerful way because I feel that the act of conversation in order to really build a relationship with someone is such an important skill.”


“It was an early Monday morning and every Or Tzedek teen sat in the makeshift circle of chairs in the social hall of the Chicago south-westside synagogue – Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken. It was a new environment to us all, but certainly a welcoming one. Fitting with the routine of past days, we were gathered there to meet a couple of speakers and be taught about a variety of deeply important social justice topics. We began with an introduction from Mara, one of JCUA’s organizers, who told us a little bit of background information about the disturbing facts of police brutality within Chicago history and the organizing of Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA). From there we continued our learning with Aryeh Bernstein about Jews’ experience with police throughout history. We looked at historical articles in our chavruta (partners) that talked about events like the backlash to the Shirtwaist factory fire and how many Jewish immigrant activists confronted political authority of the time. We then had the privilege to meet with the spiritual leader of the synagogue, Rabbi Capers Funnye. Each coming from our own unique spheres of experience, it was enlightening to be able to hear his perspective on the experience of people of color within the Jewish community. He told us a little bit about what it was like to be of African descent and Jewish in America, ranging from the sad truth that there is sometimes a lack of acknowledgement by other parts of the Jewish community, to the pride in how being African connects the congregation as a whole to the biblical history. We got a chance to hear about a diversity of traditions and stories such as the special appreciation paid to the Elders of the synagogue’s community and the story of the successful first Bat Mitzvah in the congregation, completed by Rabbi Funnye’s own daughter. We all felt truly engaged with the new information, and I know that I certainly left with an overwhelming sense of eagerness to use my newfound knowledge to make actual change in my community. As I am learning more and more, this is a very common side effect of the Or Tzedek experience!”

The past ten days have been transformational for these teens. We have no doubt that they will go on to do meaningful organizing work in the future, agitated and re-energized by the tools and experiences they have found with JCUA and the Or Tzedek program. We can’t wait to see them on our campaigns and as leaders in our larger movement for social change!