By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
In just 12 days, Abby Tzinberg, 16, grew as a person and an advocate for social justice and social change. Syd Bakal, 18, learned ways to uproot the causes of social injustice.
Abby, a Glenbrook North High School sophomore, and Syd, a Barrington High School senior, attended an award-winning summer program, Or Tzedek (light of justice) Teen Institute for Social Justice. The nearly two week program provides opportunities to build and implement skills in community organizing in greater Chicago.
Enriched by Jewish text, tradition and ritual, participants explore the concepts of privilege, power and oppression and unpack the root causes of injustice.
The manager of the 12-year-old program, Hannah Arwe, 28, recently received the Mintz Family Foundation Award for Creative Jewish Education. The $5,000 award will fund scholarships going toward the $1,600 tuition for the program, which is sponsored by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.
The Jewish voice for social justice in Chicago since 1964, JCUA combats poverty, discrimination, anti-Semitism and bad police practices, working in partnership with diverse communities.
Typically 10 to 15 teens participate in Or Tzedek, this year from July 25-August 5. The students stay at dorms and retreat centers in Chicago. Spots for this summer are still available. The program has reached about 500 teens since its inception.
Arwe said that the “teens from Chicagoland and out of state take action with organizations engaged in social change. The participants address several critical issues such as affordable housing, homelessness, hunger and food justice, immigration reform, education, workers’ rights and gun violence prevention.
“The participants learn to understand social justice and systems of oppression from a root cause perspective,” Arwe said. “They build the skills necessary to be productive allies to diverse communities directly impacted by injustice and strengthen and shape their own Jewish identity.”
Syd was moved to social action by registering voters, hearing from a coalition to end handgun violence and a representative from a theater movement for the oppressed. “Or Tzedek taught me how Judaism is connected to social justice,” she said. “It was my first time ever doing real textual study. We pulled together a lot of sources and looked critically at Jewish texts for the nuances of words in Hebrew and the translations.”
The Mintz Family Foundation bases its international award on proven results. “Or Tzedek has built the skills necessary to promote ongoing work as the teens become adults and it helped strengthen and shape their own Jewish identity,” said Rabbi Yocheved Mintz. “We also felt it was something that was not dependent on one individual person. It could be replicated.”
For follow-up, the students are encouraged to create a plan of action for a particular problem in their own community, Arwe said. They are also encouraged to work with their congregations and stay involved with JCUA.
At her Reform temple, B’nai Joshua Beth Elohim, Abby works as the youth social justice coordinator. The group is working on interracial communication. She was also on the planning committee for a student walk out against gun violence following the Parkland high school shooting.
“We’re building a community of people who are really passionate about issues in the world,” Abby said. “We’re casting a wide net and helping people make connections.”
For more information about Or Tzedek, reach Arwe at email@example.com or visit the website at www.jcua.org/youth-programming/teen-programs/.