By Avra Shapiro
On the first Sunday of November, I went to shul. It was not Shabbat, nor was it a holiday, but it was a deeply spiritual day, a day that folded itself beautifully into the rhythm of Jewish life just like any other Jewish celebration. JCUA hosted “L’Chaim! A Community Meeting for Trauma Care”, which brought together over 200 people from Chicago’s Jewish community and beyond at Temple KAM Isaiah Israel in Hyde Park. The event marked a major milestone for the trauma center campaign and a new direction of Jewish responsibility for racial and economic justice.
I first began organizing my senior year of college, and as I got deeper into my work, it became apparent that my heart was pointing me in the direction of doing justice work within the spaces from whence I came- Jewish spaces. As a friend and fellow-organizer put it, “I realized it was time to roll up my sleeves and do the hard work within my own community.” Accordingly, when I came to my first JCUA general meeting and understood the unique and strategic role that the Jewish community could play in the trauma center campaign, I knew it was indeed time to get to work.
For the past year, JCUA has been part of a coalition organizing to expand trauma care on the south side in the midst of a “trauma center desert”. The coalition was started five years ago by FLY (Fearless Leading by the Youth) after 18 year old community activist Damian Turner was shot and had to travel 10 miles to the closest trauma center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Damian died on the way. Appallingly, Damian was shot only three blocks away from the University of Chicago Medical Center, one of the most well resourced hospitals in the nation. This tragedy was the starting point of a campaign to bring comprehensive trauma care to the South Side, and to call upon the University of Chicago to facilitate and sustain a trauma care center.
Recently, there was a major victory in the campaign: In September, the University of Chicago, in partnership with Sinai Health System, declared its commitment to open a Level-I Adult Trauma Center at Holy Cross Hospital. This is an incredible win, accomplished because of dedicated organizers from the Trauma Care Coalition. At the same time, though, the University of Chicago has wavered on their commitment to raise the age for admitting patients at Comer Pediatric Trauma Center to up to 18. L’Chaim served to honor the win, as well as move forward with the work yet to be done.
Wrapped in the sacredness of KAM’s grand prayer space, we heard from leaders of various members of the Trauma Care Coalition. Alex Goldenberg of STOP (Southside Together Organizing for Power) spoke on the necessity of a trauma center on the South Side, Jawanza Malone of KOCO (Kenwood Oakland Community Organization) spoke on the relationship between the South Side and the University of Chicago, and Veronica Morris Moore of FLY (Fearless Leading by the Youth) spoke on the reality of gun violence in Chicago. We also heard from Rabbi Shoshanah Conover on Judaism and social justice, and JCUA member Michal David on the importance of understanding our roles as allies.
Following these evocative words, at Rabbi Capers Funnye’s invitation, fifteen clergy took to the bimah to publicly sign a statement calling on the University of Chicago to follow through on its commitments. These include: opening a Level I Adult Trauma Center at Holy Cross, raising the age for admitting patients at Comer Pediatric Trauma Center, and ensuring transparency and accountability by taking a lead role in organizing regional trauma care with representatives from the Trauma Care Coalition at the table. In addition to the clergy, over 200 members of Chicago’s Jewish community signed the statement.
Seeing fifteen diverse Jewish clergy from across Chicagoland stand together on the bimah, and take action to advance racial and economic justice, felt revolutionary in terms of what it means for building alliances between Jewish groups and other organizations mobilizing to bring about systemic change. Because not only were those just fifteen more signatures, they were fifteen signatures of Jewish leaders who represent entire Jewish congregations, campuses, and schools- in other words, a powerful group. JCUA live-tweeted during the event, and Rabbis from Chicago and even as far as California began adding their names in solidarity, culminating in a total of 27 clergy signatures. Thus, when JCUA members delivered the statement to Dean Polonsky and President Zimmer on the University of Chicago campus (click here to see video footage), it undoubtedly rang loudly in their ears, for it is quite clear that that there is a mighty Jewish presence holding the University of Chicago accountable to carrying out its commitments. The collective power represented on the bimah ultimately demonstrates the kind of large-scale support we as Jews can build to get people and institutions to move.
On a broader scale, JCUA’s work with the Trauma Care Coalition is changing the game for what Tikkun Olam means for the Jewish community. The mainstream practice and discourse of Tikkun Olam in many Jewish settings uses a top-down approach to understanding and dealing with inequality. Well-meaning initiatives such as charity donations and direct service projects can sometimes perpetuate existing oppressive power dynamics. Discussions relating to Tikkun Olam frequently lack a critical consciousness around the structural barriers that seek to keep inequality in place, and the ways in which, many of us white, many of us privileged Jews, may actually be sustaining systemic oppression. The public meeting demonstrates a radical shifting of the norm by putting racial and economic justice at the forefront of the agenda for the Chicago Jewish community. Rabbis are showing up either because they care about this issue or because they feel accountable to their communities who care. They are demonstrating that if you claim to embody the Jewish value of “Honor all life,” then that means living out your truths. L’Chaim was radicalizing because it painted a fresh picture of what Tikkun Olam is and could become.
Tikkun Olam looks like 200 people standing together on a Sunday afternoon because they refuse to be silent in a city that is waging war against communities of color. Tikkun Olam sounds like the slow, sad prayer of El Maleh Rachamim sung in mourning of those who perished from gun violence in Chicago, as well as the joyous recitation of the Shehechiyanu for the remarkable victory the coalition accomplished after five long years of organizing. Tikkun Olam feels like tension and hope and sorrow and love, all coursing through our bodies with a vibrant force that continually moves us to action.