Chicago Teachers Union Prez Karen Lewis Teaches Torah in Evanston


Last night, I had the very good pleasure and honor to welcome Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis to my congregation. In recent years, Karen’s leadership has put her at the center of one of the most important labor struggles in the country – this past September the CTU teachers’ strike was a national news story, due in no small way to Lewis’ visionary and stalwart leadership. Now she’s leading the charge to resist plans by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public School board to close 54 Chicago schools – a decision which would affect 30,000 children, mostly in low-income, African-American neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides.

When Karen first accepted our invitation to present at JRC, she told us she was particularly interested in talking about the Chicago schools crisis from a religious values point of view.  Many aren’t aware that Karen converted to Judaism twenty years ago – at a time in which she was on a personal spiritual search and was drawn to the Jewish tradition of questioning and debate.  As it turns out, she will be celebrating her Bat Mitzvah in June – so I encouraged her to use JRC appearance as a laboratory to explore some of the themes in her Torah portion.

Her portion, Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) relates, among other things, the story of the twelve scouts send by by Moses to report on the Promised Land. Ten of them return with words of discouragement, reporting that they saw giants in the land. “We felt like grasshoppers to ourselves,” they said, “and so we must have looked to them!”

In her presentation, she pointed out that forces of domination in society can often have this effect on us.  In the case of Chicago schools, it is easy to feel cowed by the powerful political-corporate interests that are decimating public education in our city – and in fact, in cities around the nation. The key, Lewis said, is not to be daunted or to give in to a slave mentality that “idealizes Egypt.” The answer, as ever, is to organize and fight back.

Among the many important points Karen made in her presentation was her insight into the deeper issues around the school closings. While she did not disagree that there are problems in Chicago Public Schools (she likened it to a “mildly dysfunctional family”) she vociferously denied Mayor Emanuel’s claim that the system is “broken.” What’s truly broken, Lewis rightly pointed out, is our commitment to the most vulnerable communities in our city.

This was, for me, her most important point of the evening. “Rahm Emanuel says that closing these schools was ‘a difficult decision'” she said. “Make no mistake: closing schools in black and brown communities on the South Side is not a difficult decision. That was an easy decision. You know what a difficult decision would be? If Rahm Emanuel went to his good friends at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and told them to pay their fair share. That would be a difficult decision!”

Amen. In a recent Chicago Sun-Times article, Chicago community organizer Amisha Patel pointed out, in fact, that claims by City Hall and CPS that schools must be closed to save money are simply not true. In fact, they are choosing to close schools while sending millions of dollars to Wall Street:

Every year, CPS pays approximately $36 million in toxically high interest rates, linked to so-called swap contracts, to banks like Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. These arrangements, in which CPS pays a fixed interest rate to the banks — typically between 3.5 and 5.25 percent — to protect itself against fluctuating interest rates in the bond market, were supposed to save CPS money.

But the arrangements backfired — and became morally reprehensible — when the banks crashed the economy and the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to bail them out. Now the banks are profiting greatly from the federal bailout, but Chicago’s schools get nothing — no such relief for them from crippling high interest rates — even as the banks continue to extract millions of dollars from CPS.

Big banks were saved by public money, but many Chicago communities are besieged by record high unemployment and foreclosure rates. After jeopardizing our jobs and our homes, now these banks are coming for our children’s schools. We need a mayor who will stand up to Wall Street and fight for our communities.

But rather than demanding that these banks renegotiate the swap deals, as other cities successfully have done, Emanuel is choosing to close 54 schools. CPS claims the closures will save an average of $60 million a year for 10 years — numbers that many studies have shown are based on unrealistic assumptions, such as the district being able to sell 50 percent of shuttered schools. At the same time, CPS fails to account for the cost to the children who must cross new gang lines to get to school, the disruption of their stability and the creation of even more vacant buildings.

Renegotiating these swaps could save CPS tens of millions of dollars every year — money that could keep schools open. But that would mean putting the interests of poor, black children ahead of the banks, a difficult move for a mayor whose top campaign contributors come from the financial services industry.

Karen Lewis taught powerful Torah last night – and I’m happy to say that there is a Jewish organizing initiative growing in our city that is heeding her call to fight back against the corporate decimation of our public school system. Jewish Solidarity and Action for Schools (JSAS) has drafted a letter to Mayor Emanuel that states “these discriminatory school closings fly in the face of our Jewish and human values.” The letter will be delivered to the Mayor’s office by JSAS activists today.

Here’s Karen with the leadership of JSAS after her talk:

Karen Lewis with JSAS organizers at JRC, 4/17/13

Karen Lewis with JSAS organizers at JRC, 4/17/13

11 thoughts on “Chicago Teachers Union Prez Karen Lewis Teaches Torah in Evanston

    1. eleanor Rosenthal

      to karen lewis; I am very proud of you. I would like to see you chalenge Rahm Emanuel regarding Peoples gas overcharging the people of chicago by 75%. This means that seniors and children will be cold this coming winter because of the greed of this untility. The ICC told me that Peoples gas charges twice the rate of NICOR rates of suburban people. How can the children of chicago come to school if they were cold and possibly hungry because their parents cannot afford these massive heating bills. May I take this opportunity to wish you a Happy healthy New Year. I cannot go door to door,, but wuold be proud to work for you in your election office if that is to be. Happy Rosh Hashanna.

  1. Pingback: Karen Lewis Teaches Torah in Evanston | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. Concerned Parent

    Only Karen Lewis could equate population changes in Chicago with the salaries of traders and call them related. Why not stop at the salaries of traders? How about attorneys? Or neuro surgeons. Or Kings? Her case is weak and she riles up racial tension on purpose by lying about the reason for the school closings. She is not a good example of the Torah at all, unfortunately. She is a bully.

  3. Pingback: Remainders: Chicago union chief refines her bat mitzvah speech | GothamSchools

  4. i_like_ike52

    Interesting that her weekly Torah portion is “Shlach” which is about how the Benei Israel are commanded to go and militarily conquer Canaan from the Canaanites. Considering how you wrote a piece recently sympathizing with the Canaanites, I wonder how you all relate to this After all, a simple “pshat” reading of the portion emphasizes this message about the conquest imperative, whereas it is quite a stretch to claim that is is about “progressive” social justice.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

      That is very true, Ike. The literal meaning here is about a preparation for conquest and ethnic cleansing and we should be clear about the troubling nature of this “pshat.” It does indeed take a midrashic stretch (a time-honored Jewish hermeneutic) to relate it to “progressive” social justice – or anything else, for that matter.

  5. MFC

    I also read the recent post about the genocidal instructions in several biblical passages. I believe that both posts citing Torah bear commenting.

    In the post about taking the Canaanites’ perspective, even Lynn Gottlieb prompted you that rabbinic tradition talks of internalizing the instructions for warfare against the peoples of biblical Canaan in service of a spiritual goal. I would add that higher biblical criticism (scholarly secular research into the bible text, or the documentary hypothesis if you will), which I believe is helpful to Torah study even if Orthodox authorities don’t, almost unanimously views the passages you cited as retrojections into the text from a later time. Notably the instructions to wipe out existing populations compete with other retrojections to, for example, avoid intermarrying. I mean, it’s almost comically contradictory to order people to both commit genocide against an enemy and not marry them, either. Each retrojection appears to be a separate device to find a way to warn people against the PRACTICES to be found among those people – those practices ironically being largely the subject of this past shabbat’s Torah portion as I’m sure you realize.

    In the case of this post about the Chicago schools, when I got to the part where Karen Lewis cited scripture, I wondered what the incident of the spies in the Book of Numbers could have to do with the dispute over school finances. Well, the idea that the grasshopper sensation provides a lesson about the powerful vs. the powerless is something you could analogize to anything, particularly when you self-define your own side as the powerless. To that point, I’m not in Chicago so I can’t claim deep knowledge of the schools matter, but I do pick up a red flag in the phrase “when the banks crashed the economy.” Many bankers acted atrociously in the run-up to the financial crisis of 2008, but this is the typical left-wing way of waving away a complete view into the cause of that crisis, and is no more accurate than an incomplete right-wing view of the crisis as resulting from extremely faulty U.S. housing policy and corrupt activity at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. From there, defining your side as the victim flows both easily and superficially. I have to say I wasn’t aware that teachers unions were that powerless.

    Mind you, I don’t mind if any individual reads the Bible however they want. But there are numerous rabbi blogs on the Internet, and what almost all of them do is cite rabbinic sources or any of the other collected works of tradition in a sincere effort to grapple with the actual text. That’s not the same thing as taking a pre-existing political preference and reverse-engineering it into Judaism. There’s been a fair amount of this going on and it was dealt with in a very informative article by Hillel Hankin in the July-August 2008 issue of Commentary magazine called “How Not to Repair the World.” (Because Commentary has been the source of some Jewish neoconservative writing, I fear my citation won’t be taken seriously in this forum. Where it was published is not the point beyond simply telling you where to find it. Halkin is a consistently fine writer.) Particularly in fiscal matters – and one thing I do know is that the state of Illinois and city of Chicago have tremendous fiscal stress, and I’m sorry but that very stress ITSELF is inherently a threat to people of limited means – it’s quite a stretch to arrogate to oneself a religious teaching as supporting your side in a specific temporal issue that involves difficult trade-offs. Indeed I would say that labeling this as “teaching Torah” is bordering on the presumptuous.


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