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Same Goals, Same God, Different Ways of Getting There

August 17, 2022 Mishkan Chicago
Contact Chai
Same Goals, Same God, Different Ways of Getting There
Show Notes Transcript

On Sunday, August 7th, Rabbi Lizzi led an interfaith Tisha B’Av service with Pastor Jonathan Brooks of Lawndale Community Christian Church. Pastor Jonathan, or Pastah J as he is affectionately known, is a renowned artist and community activist. In recognition of this somber holiday commemorating the many exiles and tragedies of the Jewish people, Rabbi Lizzi and Pastah J spoke passionately on the Jewish history and Black present of North Lawndale.

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Produced by Mishkan Chicago. Music composed, produced, and performed by Kalman Strauss.


Good morning and what a blessing to be here to worship with you this morning. Y’all know how to pray! 

My name is Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, I’m here with our Jewish spiritual community Mishkan Chicago– tho I now live on the northside, I grew up down on the southside in Hyde Park and I am so happy to be here alongside your co-Pastor Jonathan Brooks. Your pastor is a person of incredible vision and talent and integrity, as I’m sure you know, and I’m honored to be his colleague. I truly hope that this will be the beginning of a beautiful relationship between our communities in ways that help us learn and grow through knowing one another. 

I know many of you are eager for us to talk about and explore together the history of this neighborhood. And we will. But first I want to talk about the particular holiday that brings us here today.

Today is a Jewish holiday you’ve probably never heard of (but it’s a big one!) called Tisha B’Av, which translates to the Ninth day of the month of Av (which is a month on the Hebrew calendar that’s today’s date on the Jewish calendar– oh by the way, we Jews have a Hebrew calendar, in which the year is 5782 and today is the 9th of Av). Whereas most every Jewish holiday on the calendar is joyful– it’s a very joyful tradition and I’d love to come back and preach about THAT next time, to talk about Hanukkah, or Purim, or Rosh HaShannah or Shabbat or any of our other joyful holidays– this holiday is the opposite, of joyful. It’s really deeply mournful. On most holidays we feast. Today, many people fast. 

On this holiday we look backward toward  to ancient times, and mourn the expulsions, displacements, exiles, genocides, we’ve gone through, starting with the destruction of the center of Jewish life, not once but twice, in Jerusalem, with the destruction of two different holy Temples that were central to Jewish life. Jerusalem was the vital center, the heartbeat, of the Jewish story. As you all well know! The favorite Jew of many of you here today, Jesus, walked the street of Jerusalem, taught in Jerusalem. It’s where the action was. The Temple was an indispensable part of the Jewish religion at the time and with the destruction of that Temple their whole center crumbled, thousands upon thousands of people died, and many more were forced out of their homes in a mass exile.

And so began the Jewish diaspora–Jews spread out to Europe, to Asia, to Africa, South America, certainly all over the Middle East, and Jewish people built communities and lives in all those places. And everywhere we went we took on the customs, music, food and often language of the place, not to mention married and raised children with people in all of those places. There are therefore Jewish people of every race and ethnicity (including black and Asian and Arab and Latinx ethnicities, many European ethnicities of course), because Jews spread out all over the world and made home there.

And wherever there have been Jews, there’s been anti-Semitism– anti-Jewish feelings, scapegoating, conspiracy theories, stereotyping, harassment, discrimination, violence and murder. For no reason other than that our people were Jews. Tisha B’Av– this day, recognizes that fact, too, and gives space for mourning not just our ancient tragedies but more recent ones too: the Crusades in Europe, the expulsion of Jews from England, Spain, France, Germany, the violent riots against Jews called pogroms in counties across Europe for centuries, right up into the 20th century, and of course the mass murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust not 100 years ago. Tisha B’Av commemorates these and many other communal tragedies. 

Now it would be very easy to tell the Jewish story through the lens that I just described of eternal displacement and persecution and tragedy.

But that’s not what we do, and that’s definitely not why we’re here. 

Spiritually we are called to responsibility.

Repeat after me everybody: Spiritually we are called to responsibility.

My teacher Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, writes, “When things go bad there is an enormous temptation to blame it on externals, on the evil of others, or on an unlucky turn of events. Spiritually however, we are called to resist this temptation no matter how strong it may be and no matter how strongly rooted in fact or reason it may seem. 

Spiritually we are called to responsibility.”

Why was Jerusalem destroyed, our sages ask in our holy books? And here’s the answer they give us: Jerusalem was destroyed not because of the Romans or the Babylonians, but our sins, our shortcomings. Our failure to take seriously God’s mandate to care for the widow and the orphan and the stranger and the poor and vulnerable person. The answer the sages give for why Jerusalem was destroyed is: hatred. Baseless, wanton, rampant hatred. As a people, we let fear, and ideological differences separate us from one another, allowing us to dehumanize each other such that when an external force came, we didn’t have a fight left in us. That’s what our sages take away from our history– not that we were helpless victims but that we were culpable and complicit in our own fate because we let fear and hatred get the best of us– and the consequences were devastating. And so on this day, we don’t really look at history, we look at ourselves. We look at ourselves in history, against the backdrop of history, like photoshopping ourselves into it– and we ask, How can I avoid repeating their mistakes of my people in that history that resulted in so much pain, and how can I avoid inflicting their pain, God forbid, it on some one else?

And so here we are today.  

Because while 2,000 years we lost our vital Jewish center in Jerusalem by force, in 1960, only 60 years ago– we lost our vital Jewish center in Chicago by choice. For a lot of complicated reasons that are hard to talk about. But that’s our job today, and every day, but especially today– to look back at the past and even tho we may not have been there (tho I know some of you were), we have to see ourselves in it. We claim responsibility for it because we’re connected to this story, and recognize our role in healing, today in this moment, choices that people before us made. Specifically, choices the Jewish community made, which was 90% of the population of North Lawndale at one time. Now talk about this neighborhood.

For 50 years North Lawndale was by the most concentrated Jewish community Chicago ever had. Between about 1910 and 1960 some 40% of the Jewish population of Chicago, or about 110,000 Jews, lived here. For reference, that's about as many Jews as live in the entire city of Chicago today (not suburbs, just city). 110,000 Jews. About half of them came from the poor shtetls (small towns) of Eastern Europe, looking for safety from anti-Jewish violence and economic opportunity. 

Now I know there are folks in the house this morning who remember this and so if I say anything you remember differently I trust you more than I trust the books I read, bc I certainly wasn’t here for this. You stay with us for a discussion after services today and you tell us about it. (Arthur ;)

Yiddish (a combination of German, Hebrew and Aramaic, spoken by Ashkenazi Jews all over Europe) was on street signs all over the place and spoken in dozens of dialects the streets and in the theaters and stores of North Lawndale. This area was home to 70 synagogues. SEVENTY. For reference, in the city of Chicago now, including in the most religious areas in Rogers Park, there are only 40 synagogues. In this neighborhood, on all the major Jewish holidays– the streets were filled with Jews strolling from synagogue to synagogue visiting parents, grandparents and friends. This hood was home to mom and pop groceries and delis, Jewish labor unions, social and athletic clubs, political groups, affinity groups for people from different parts of the old country, yiddish newspapers, kosher butchers, fishmongers, bakeries, fruit stores, many theaters, department stores, a big popular shoe store, book stores, banquet halls, movie theaters, Jewish book stores, convenience stories (called dime stores back in the day). There were multiple Jewish old age homes and homes for orphans, and of course Mount Sinai Hospital opened here in 1912 to be a kosher hospital serving the Eastern European Jewish patients who weren’t comfortable at the other, secular, German Jewish hospital, Michael Reese on the South Side (where I was born). (anyone else?). 

The 24th Ward was the most reliably progressive democratic ward not just in the city, but in the country!

People took care of each other here. During the Great Depression in the 1930s poor Jews in this neighborhood got aided by local charities, and their synagogues functioned as health, loan, welfare, and funeral centers, too. And poverty was real for many of those Jews by the way– they got evicted from their homes for not being able to make their mortgage payments, and they got put on the sidewalk with their belongings like people all over the city and country during those years. 

People knew each others’ stories, successes and struggles. In the evening, people sat on their front porches and chatted with neighbors. Before air conditioning, on hot nights people took their pillows and would sleep in Douglas Park or Garfield Park, or along Independence or Douglas Boulevard. People trusted one another and felt safe here. 

During the Great Depression a two year junior college opened up in the neighborhood– Theodore Hertzl Junior College, named for the Zionist leader trying to reestablish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which was a very popular cause here back in those days as memories of the anti-Semitism and violence in Europe was still really fresh and ongoing for people here, and their relatives. (Sidebar, in 1969 Theodor Hertzl Junior College was renamed, anybody know? Malcolm X College).

So then why did they leave? This was such a rich, bustling, culture-filled place– what could possibly have drawn people’s hearts away from this center of Jewish life?

A few things: 

1. The American Dream. When Jewish soldiers returned home from WW2 in the 40’s they discovered that some of the opportunities that had not been available to them in the earlier part of the century, because they were poor, uneducated, and oftentimes because they were Jewish– were now opening up for them. They had access to funds from GI Bill, and so were able to go to college, buy single-family homes with yards and a driveway, and move out of the city. 

Remember– for hundreds, thousands of years even, Jews had been criss crossing the world, trying to find a place to be safe, to plunk down, make home, fit in– and in America in the 1950s doors were suddenly opened for them that hadn’t been before, not all the doors– there was still plenty of anti-Semitism in America– but they wanted to walk through the doors they could walk through. And let me just say: it is profoundly unfair and wrong that black World War 2 veterans did not get that same access to GI Bill money, for college and home ownership. That’s a shameful part of American history. Nonetheless, it partially explains why Jews left. 

2. Government Urban Planning. There were government policies at work, now illegal, helping make this population transfer happen in shameful and coercive and racist ways. In the 30’s something called Home Owners Loan Corporation, HOLC, was created– a government body that was tasked with urban planning for cities across America. And with their green pen they drew lines around neighborhoods that would be “desirable” that received more investment and where they directed white people. And with their red pen they drew lines around “hazardous” neighborhoods, and that spurred loan officers, appraisers and real estate professionals to divest and divert capital from those neighborhoods– that divestment remains til this day and that has had devastating implications for wealth-building opportunities for black Americans who were encouraged to move into these redlined neighborhoods. That was our government.

3. Banks. Banks employed ugly tricks of fear mongering and applying pressure to these Jewish residents to leave this neighborhood so they could then turn around and offer bad contract mortgages to unsuspecting African American new home owners, who they pressured into these predatory contracts that left many of them with no home and money. You can read a lot more about this in Ta Nehisi Coate’s piece The Case for Reparations. The combination of government redlining and bank policy drove a lot of Jewish people out of here who quite liked the neighborhood and would not have left were it not for that financial fear mongering and social pressure to quickly sell their house in North Lawndale and buy a house with more property value further north or south like their friends and neighbors were doing. 

4. Finally– some people left because of fear. And that fear was because of stereotypes, rumors about black people that, like all stereotypes are not real–, and Jews given our history should know better than anyone else. But Jews in America are just as guilty of racism as any other group, and it wouldn’t be honest to place blame only on the government policies and banks, tho those were both at play in the stoking of racist fears. Fear of the other, led Jews to depoplate themselves from this once-vibrant Jewish center of culture. 

By 1960 there were only about 11,000 Jewish people left here with the African American population growing. For a short time, as African Americans were arriving and Jews were leaving, there was a small window in time, a few years, where there were roughly equal numbers of Jews and blacks living side by side here, attending the same schools, eating in the same delis, going to the same movies, even falling in love. It didn’t last long. 

By the 60s the Jews had moved away. And so did their businesses, their stores, their synagogues, their afterschool programs, their kosher butchers and restaurants. I’m sure you’re familiar with some of the buildings that they left, that took on a second or third life– many of those synagogues became churches or community centers. Some of them still have the same stained glass windows from way back or the Stars of David etched into the wood in the pews. But most of the big beautiful theaters and gathering spaces were torn down after years of neglect. This Jewish vital center, was gone. But that’s not actually the saddest and most disappointing part.

Raise your hand if you had an ancestor: a parent, grandparent, great grandparent who made their way to Chicago in search of a better life, for themselves and for their children?

That was the hope of black Americans who moved to this neighborhood– they wanted a better life for themselves and their children. And that’s what the Jews wanted too– a better life for themselves and their children. But my people didn’t stick around to be your neighbors, to welcome your grandparents as they moved in next door and stay to build friendships and relationships. Pastah J’s could have baby sat for my kids. Our kids could have gone to school together, we could be shopping in the same grocery stores, gone to the same movies, eaten in the same restaurants, voted in the same voting booths, lived in the same 3-story walk ups, had porches that face one another so we could swap stories about your parents or grandparents or great grandparents coming up from Alabama or Mississippi or Tennessee or Georgia looking for a better life here in Chicago, and you getting to hear my family’s stories our journeys through Germany and Poland (and Detroit and Long Beach California) looking for a better life. And we could have created that better life here together. Our synagogue and your church could have been neighbors.    

Most of those Jews who left didn’t know or even have language to understand that something was happening to them that had never really happened before had anywhere: they were becoming white, and beginning to benefit from the privileges of that new reality.

Knowing what they’d and their parents and grandparents been through to get here– I understand why they walked through that door, and I can’t blame them. 

But now, today, spiritually we are called to responsibility. We have an opportunity to heal, to make tikkun, for the choices that generations before us made. In becoming friendly with your pastor, I hoped that a moment like this might arrive, when we could talk about what that healing would look like. But I have been cautious about presuming that I have any idea how to go about this. This is your neighborhood now. And you are doing great things here. But I do feel a responsibility to repair the breaches of the past. There are folks here with us today involved in many projects with this goal in mind– we’ll hear some of them during the discussion after. 

[[There are places where that sense of responsibility is actually present, where the Jewish community never really left and continues to invest in this place. Mt Sinai Hospital for example, was built 110 years ago to serve Eastern European Kosher Keeping Jews, but now serves the 150,000 mostly black and brown residents of the West and South Side. Unlike Michael Reese hospital, it wasn’t knocked down to the ground when the original population it was designed to serve left the neighborhood. On the contrary, Mount Sinai’s biggest donors supporting the ongoing functioning of this hospital are Jewish philanthropies– the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, the Crown Family, and the Pearlman family, and most of the donors continuing to support this hospital are Jews. Jews who feel called, responsible for being the good neighbors our grandparents could have been. And even if they’re not close enough to use the services of the hospital themselves to be nonetheless part of its success, and part of the health of this community. 

I did a little poking around, asking, what’s the word on Mt Sinai– do people who use the hospital know that once upon a time it was a Jewish hospital, and that it continues to be funded by Jews who want to contribute to the health of the neighborhood? Do y’all even like that hospital? Answer I heard: MIXED, mixed reviews. Some not great. Some okay. I can tell you the Jewish community takes great pride in continuing to fund projects in this neighborhood– and we want them to work, and to work for you. So we need to be in conversation.]]

I cannot wait to hear the vision that you have for this neighborhood, Pastah J, and all of you. And I cannot wait to be part of helping create it. Not for you, rather, not for you alone– but for all of us,to help and heal one another,  to learn from one another, to share with one another, and heal our history. Let this be a beginning.

Thank you.