Category Archives: Economic Justice

Chicago Students Organize to Save Their Schools

If you want to see an inspiring example of young people speaking truth to power, take a look at the clip above. At a recent meeting of the Chicago School Board a group of students publicly demanded to know, one after the other, why the board was closing down fifty public schools in predominantly black and brown Chicago neighborhoods – and publicly asked why the students themselves had no voice in decisions that directly affect them and their communities.

The video begins with a single student speaking at the podium. At about the 2:00 mark individual students begin standing up and speaking out from the audience as security guards rush in and escort them from the room. Finally a hand is placed over the video taker’s camera and he is pushed out – you can hear his voice telling the guard, “I’m just here for students.”

The students’ action is all the more dramatic when you consider that the Chicago School Board is an unelected body that is appointed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – meaning they are utterly unaccountable to the community.  Underscoring the depths of this fraudulent “public body”, Emanuel recently announced that he was appointing millionaire venture capitalist Deborah Quazzo to replace outgoing board member, billionaire Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker (recently nominated by President Obama to be US Commerce Secretary).

What makes Quazzo qualified to make decisions that will impact the 400,000 students that attend Chicago Public Schools? According to reports, Quazzo is the daughter of a corporate CEO/bank chairman from Jacksonville who moved to Chicago after marrying Stephen Quazzo, Co-Founder and CEO of Pearlmark Real Estate Partners. She successfully climbed the ranks of investment banking and venture capital at J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch. In 2001, she co-founded ThinkEquity Partners – an “investment firm boutique” that a few years later ran into serious financial problems and eventually had to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.

Quazzo is just the latest example of the kind of people who the mayor has personally chosen to serve on the Chicago School Board (which is headed up by President David Vitale, Chairman of Urban Partnership Bank and former President and Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Board of Trade.)

This, in a nutshell, is why these courageous young students spoke their truth to a body that so patently answers to wealthy corporate interests rather than the communities of Chicago. 

For my part, I’ll second the words of the invisible cameraman: “I’m here for the students.” Please watch this clip and share this widely.

For Shavuot: Solidarity With Women Workers at Hyatt

carlos-hyattJust in time for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, I strongly commend to you “Poverty, Chesed and Justice,” a text study just released by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights together with Justice at Hyatt.

It is customary to engage in a late night study session on the eve of Shavuot – and since the story of Ruth is traditionally read on this festival, a study that focuses on the struggle of women workers at Hyatt feels profoundly appropriate.

As the introduction notes:

In the Book of Ruth, Ruth’s actions are lauded as acts of chesed, kindness. Ruth’s kindness is embodied through action: not just following her bereft mother-in-law Naomi back to the land of Israel, but taking on grueling work in the fields in order to keep them from falling into abject poverty. It is this determination and chesed that causes Boaz to notice Ruth and to perform his own acts of chesed in return. We hope that this Shavuot, the Hyatt Hotel Chain will display similar chesed toward the women who toil every day to change linens, scrub bathroom floors, and carry heavy bedding, all in the hopes of providing a better future for their children.

Right on. The story of Ruth is a story of solidarity, compassion and redemption. Here’s hoping the workers of Hyatt – and all workers everywhere – find an ample measure of each this Shavuot

Chicago Teachers Union Prez Karen Lewis Teaches Torah in Evanston

karenlewisjrc

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

Chicago Clergy to Dick Durbin: Don’t Deal Away Our Most Vulnerable!

Had the honor this morning to participate in an interfaith ceremony at Chicago’s Daley Plaza that called on Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to resist devastating cuts to Federal programs in the upcoming “fiscal cliff” budget talks.  It was quite a dramatic and inspiring gathering, organized by IIRON, Make Wall Street Street Pay – Illinois and other local organizing initiatives. Over 40 members of the Chicago clergy community marched to Daley Plaza, where we encountered two Golden Calves symbolizing the idolatrous motivations behind Wall St. greed and wealth disparity. After hearing from several speakers, one of the calves (a piñata, as it turned out) was smashed open, gold coins scattering in every direction.

We didn’t focus on Dick Durbin simply because he happens to our senator.  As the Majority Whip for the Democratic Party, Durbin is one of the most important players in Washington, officially charged with leading the Democrats who control the Senate. And thus far, there is ample reason for concern that his leadership bodes ill for the more vulnerable members of our society.

Since Congress has kicked the budgetary can down the road, critical social programs in this country stand to lose $600 billion dollars on January 1 unless they choose to act. Durbin has already indicated that he favors a “grand bargain” with Republicans that may entail cuts to Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid. Just as ominously, Durbin has still not signed an open letter written by Congressmen Harry Reid and Bernie Sanders (and signed by 29 senators) calling on the members of Congress not to cut Social Security.

For our part, the interfaith community of Chicago has written a letter – to Senator Durbin:

Dear Senator Durbin:

Our message to you comes from Deuteronomy 30:15-19 & Joshua 24:15 as we ask you “to choose this day whom you will serve…!” We urge you to choose life and to reject “Simpson-Bowles” or any other “grand bargain” that cuts vital services to vulnerable Americans. We urge you to make absolutely to make absolutely no cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

Working Americans did not create this economic crisis or this false and manufactured “fiscal crisis”. Wall Street’s speculative bubble, made possible by Congressional deregulation crashed the global economy. As a result, the American people have suffered unemployment, underemployment, foreclosure, homelessness, and have lost their savings, retirements and wealth. Congress used working people’s taxes to bail out Wall Street banks instead of assisting underwater homeowners, creating jobs or rescuing state and local governments. The people have suffered enough. Doing further harm to working people is morally unconscionable.

It is immoral to make any further cuts to vital federal programs and services when wealthy individuals and big corporations are not paying their fair share to care for the broader community of whom they are part and on whom they rely. In this time of unparalleled income inequality and concentrated wealth, we will not accept any solution to the federal budget deficit other than raising revenue from those who have not done their share and can easily afford to do much more.

The kinds of cuts being discussed under Simpson-Bowles and other “deals” will literally result in sickness and death for many and will fall upon the poor and vulnerable in order to provide for the excess for the wealthy.  Senator Durbin, you now face a choice between serving the false gods of greed and excessive wealth or implementing policies that promote life and shared prosperity. It is important that as a key leader in the Senate you stand firmly on the side of those who stand to lose so much.  Therefore we bring to you four demands:

– Block any reductions in benefits for Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid

– Block any extension of the Bush Tax Cuts for people with taxable income above $250,000 per year

– Block the “sequestration” cuts to domestic programs set to occur in January 2013

– Support progressive sources of taxes including a robust estate tax, taxing capital gains at a rate equal or higher to wages and pass a strong Financial Transaction Tax (aka the Robin Hood Tax)


To Chicago residents: A myriad of local organizing initiatives is holding a rally on Friday, November 9 in Pritzker Park (State and Van Buren) at 3:00 pm. Together we will tell our elected officials: “We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis!” and demand that the wealthy and big corporations must “Pay Their Fair Share”.

Rwandan Cultural Preservation (aka Joyful Abandon in Volcanoes National Park)

On Sunday, we headed northwest, winding our way through a long, gorgeous mountain pass, to Volcanoes National Park, where we spent an incredible afternoon at the Iby’Iwacu Cultural VillageIby’Iwacu was founded by Rwanda Eco-Tours, the visionary tour agency that has shepherded us along our trip (as well as our last one in 2008).  During the course of our tour, we’ve been so appreciative of RET’s skillful readiness to help us organize such a complex and unorthodox tour of Rwanda’s NGO world. The real bread and butter of their organization, however, is their eco-tourism mission.

From their website:

Rwanda Eco-Tours was founded and is run by native Rwandans who are passionate about their country, their people, their natural resources and providing you with the highest quality yet educational tourism experience that responsibly contribute to the conservation of Rwanda’s beautiful natural resources – her parks, lands and indigenous animals, most notably the endangered mountain gorillas – as well as the development and socio-economic well being of local people.

The Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, one of RET’s signature projects, was founded to allow ex-poachers the opportunity to embrace conservation and cultural preservation, while still being able to make a living and strengthen the economic sustainability of their local community. It is quite remarkable to consider that this effort has allowed these local Rwandans, whose existence previously depended upon poaching and bush meat, to become transformed into environmental and cultural conservationists.

Immediately upon exiting the bus at the village, we were greeted by a wave of local children selling original crayon-drawn pictures of gorillas, elephants and other local species (above).  The compound itself was built to resemble a traditional Rwandan native village. We then met our guide, John, who started our tour in front of the King’s hut.  In a semi-solemn ceremony, Rich was elected king, I was made King’s Advisor, and Katia Waxman, Queen. After the three of us were dressed in Rwandan royal finery, were were all walked through an interactive simulation of Rwandan social/political/cultural protocol.

When we emerged from the royal hut, we were joyfully greeted by singing, drumming, dancing Rwandan “tribesmen.” After joining in the celebration (above), we were treated to a demonstration in a medicine man’s clinic and honed our native archery skills (below).

Then the real celebration began. (See bottom pic and the fabulous clip up top).

For anyone contemplating a trip to Rwanda, I can’t say enough about Rwanda Eco-Tours – an important agency that truly embodies the best of the eco-tour movement. And I highly, highly recommend a stop at Iby’Iwacu Village, a place that definitely hits the sweet spot between local community development, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and joyful abandon.

Coaxing Dignity Out of Despair

On Thursday we shifted our volunteer efforts to CHABHA (“Children Affected by HIV/AIDS), an international NGO that supports grassroots projects in Rwanda and Burundi that care for orphans and other children affected by HIV/AIDS. In Rwanda, CHABHA works with three neighborhood organizations: AMOHORO, which is located in in Kucyiru, Kigali, AGAPE, in Kicukiro, Kigali, and AJESOV in Nyamata (about an hour south of Kigali).

On Thursday morning we first met with the remarkable CHABHA staff: Executive Director David Loewenguth (above right), Coordinator of Associations Micheleine Umulisa (above left), and Patrick Nimubona, who coordinates the Bright Future Program for CHABHA. Bright Future International is an independent NGO that serves underprivileged children around the world. BFI partners with CHABHA, who provides the children for their programs in Rwanda. (Untangling the enormously complicated international NGO/local organization partnerships has been a popular subject of conversation on our bus rides…)

One of CHABHA’s most important functions is to accompany association workers on their regular home visits to the families they support. These visits help CHABHA and local association staff to track the status, needs and conditions of these households – on a deeper level, they clearly enable workers to establish deep and lasting relationships with those they are serving. In some ways it seemed to me that these regular connections provided nothing short of a spiritual life line to these families.

For our first series of home visits, we traveled to the AGAPE association in the Kicukiro district of Kigali and and accompanied CHABHA staff person Micheleine (above left), AGAPE administrative assistant Anna-Marie (middle) and AGAPE worker Grace (right). It’s hard to describe the emotional impact these home visits had upon us – and we’re still having a hard time sorting through the intensity of visiting these families, home after home.

On our first stop, we visited a single mother of four. Her home, like almost all the homes we visited, was made of mud brick. She welcomed us graciously and our group crowded in her small, very dark living area. Her home only had one other room – a smaller bedroom area separated from us by a curtain. Anna-Marie spoke with her and Micheleine interpreted for us.

The mother and her children were all HIV positive. For her regular job, she washed clothes for her neighbors, but at the moment she was too ill to work and as a result, she has no food to feed her children. (Malnutrition is a huge problem for individual with HIV/AIDS because the ARV medications do not work if they are not taken with food.) She also told us that she used to have some rabbits (that CHABHA supplies to be raised, bred and sold for food) but they were recently stolen.

We were overwhelmed with the enormity this mother’s despair. At the same time I couldn’t help but be struck by her innate sense of dignity. Though she was clearly feeling unwell, she was deeply gracious to us and obviously wanted us feel welcome in her home. At the end of our meeting, Anna-Marie said a prayer for her and her family in Kinyarwanda. I asked if I could say a short prayer for her in Hebrew; Anna-Marie said of course. After I concluded a Mishabeirach (Jewish prayer for healing), the mother then offered a prayer for us.

We five more homes before we finished. By the end, we were overcome by familial circumstances more dire than any of us could ever comprehend. While it sometimes felt as if the support offered was but a drop in the bucket of in terms of their sheer need, by the end we came to realize that NGOs such as CHABHA and local neighborhood associations such as AGAPE are the real front line heroes in addressing the scourge of extreme poverty. Anne-Marie, for instance, is far more than a neighborhood association worker – she is clearly is a spiritual matriarchal figure for the families of AGAPE.

There are many more similarly powerful stories I could tell about out myriad of CHABHA home visits that we made between Thursday and Saturday and I hope perhaps I’ll try to add one or two more before I’m through blogging our trip. (One postscript about our first visit: at the end of the day, we returned to the CHABHA office. When we told David about the mother’s situation. He said that in extreme cases like this – i.e., in which families were unable to feed themselves – CHABHA workers revisited immediately with emergency food provisions).

After lunch one of our groups visited an organic learning farm and agronomy class run by CHABHA in partnership with (yes, yet another international NGO), Gardens for Health. The garden and class were located at a school on the edge of Kigali. Getting to the site was an adventure in itself, bouncing up and down in a truck up and down a winding rutted road until we reached the school in the Bumbogo district.

We met with Samuel, the agronomy teacher, who showed us their learning garden (above), which was lined with rows of beets, cabbage and carrots. The ground was dry and rocky, but the crops appeared quite lush. Samuel (back row, middle) said that as part of their organic farming curriculum they raise local livestock and use the manure for composting. Though few of these children have much land to speak of at their homes, the intention is for them to take this knowledge and cultivate kitchen gardens for food and income generation in their communities.

We then went into the school yard with Samuel to sit in on the class. (It took some time getting there as school was just letting out and we were immediately engulfed by excited young students. By the time we got to the class, Samuel had just started the lesson, the subject of which was eggplant. (One student explained to us that there are two kinds of eggplant – and that in Rwanda they grow the smaller kind for local consumption and the larger purple kind for export.)

Samuel shared their very extensive agronomy curriculum with us, after which the students introduced themselves to us one by one. More than a few explained that they were taking this class to help their communities with their new-found skills. We were then asked to introduce ourselves to the class – and asked to mention our favorite vegetable. (Elaine: swiss chard, Rich: cabbage, Me: tomatoes).

During Q &A, Rich Katz, ever the passionate Middle School teacher, asked the students too divide up into four groups and decide among themselves what they thought were the most effective methods for retaining moisture in earth after watering. (One boy looked at me, smiled, and said “No problem!”) They came up with a variety of spot on answer: spreading leaves next to the crops, using plastic, using drip irrigation, etc. By far our favorite Q &A moment occurred when they were asking us questions. One boy, maybe thirteen or fourteen asked Liora if she was single. As you might expect, hilarity immediately ensued.

While we were in Mubogo, the other half of our group stayed at the CHABHA office, where they sat in on classes with Project Independence, CHABHA’s after school vocational training program. Another smaller group went back to Nyaconga, to put the finishing touches on the WE-ACTx jewelry coop space. There was, needless to say, much to share around the dinner table on Thursday night.

Friday morning, we’re visiting AJESOV, another CHABHA-supported association located in Nyamata. On the way we will be visiting two well-known genocide sites that are now maintained as memorials. More on this in my next post.

Our Final Day with WE-ACTx


On Wednesday we were back at the WE-ACTx office to finish assembling the new children’s library. The library itself was originally the brainchild of JRC member Katia Waxman, who created the idea for her Bat Mitzvah social action project last year.  Through her efforts, 450 books were donated, which she and her mother (trip coordinator Elaine Waxman) brought over from Chicago. (That’s Katia above, second from right, Sara Fox, far left, Brenda Feis, third from left, Seth Fox and Rachel Pinkelman).

When we arrived at the office Wednesday morning, we discovered that William had finished the mural (below) and the wall shelves had been finished and installed. We spent the morning sorting through the books and arranging them. When we finished, Katia’s project was finally complete – a wonderful legacy to leave to the children of WE-ACTx.

After lunch, we traveled to the WE-ACTx house for a very cool Rwandan dance lesson (Full disclosure, I sat this one  out and merely watched, sensing my moves wouldn’t have been a very pretty sight…)

Afterward, we split up into groups and visited the homes of three different Peer Parents, giving us the very special opportunity to get to know them and their families in a more personal setting. These visits completed our last full day with WE-ACTx, although five of our group will go back tomorrow to the jewelry cooperative to complete the work in their showroom.

A few words on this particular project: it began when a group of women met through a “Preventing Mother to Child Transmission Program” at WE-ACTx’s Nyacyonga clinic. The women (with us, below) decided to form a craft collective to generate income to buy baby formula as an alternative to breastfeeding in an effort to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their babies.  They initially produced woven plastic shopping bags, but eventually settled on craft jewelry – they are now a fully licensed cooperative that they named, “Ejo Hazaza” (“Tomorrow”).

Speaking of tomorrow – our volunteer efforts will focus on the work of CHABHA – another inspiring Rwandan NGO.