Last week, Rabbi Steven and Rabbi Lizzi attended Mayor-Elect Johnson’s Interfaith Breakfast with hundreds of faith leaders from around the City. There was an atmosphere of excitement and optimism as we look forward to working together to lift our neighbors our of poverty and houselessness. At our Friday Night Shabbat service on May 12th, R’Steven reflected on this moment and our city’s future. You can watch this sermon on Mishkan’s YouTube channel right now or listen on Contact Chai podcast.
Shabbat Shalom, everyone.
So yesterday, Rabbi Lizzi and I had the opportunity to attend an interfaith breakfast for mayor elect Brandon Johnson. The company was great, the food was okay. I was mostly just says little sour because the coffee never made it to my table. So as I watched the coffee cart circle the room, wanting to just snag it and wheel it my direction. But I was too tired to really exert my will because, ironically, I had no coffee.
So the event brought together faith leaders from across the city to connect and to celebrate, and to set the stage for collaboration with the new administration and each other. And I was sat between a Lutheran minister on one side and an African Methodist Episcopal radio host on the other. The table had a Presbyterian pastor and a Catholic priest and a Reform rabbi and two church leaders of an Evangelical mission with locations like in various places across the South and West side. And it was a amazing moment of seeing the breadth of faith traditions in Chicago, and also recognizing in that same moment as one of the few white and Jewish and queer people in the room, that the Chicago that we usually see is only a slice of the pie. Or I guess, the deep dish pizza, as it were.
So between prayers offered by different faith leaders for his future success, Johnson outlined his vision for the city, highlighting the potential he saw in Chicago both for the well being of its residents and as a model for creating a more just and more equitable society for all of America. Johnson concluded, and I quote:
“No one should be so poor that they cannot live in one of the richest cities in the richest country in the richest moment in human history.”
This is a statement that both speaks to the American dream and as some of the other speakers that morning noted, is a teaching and a challenge found in every faith tradition.
The Reverend Dr. Marilyn Aegon banks, the leader of San Lucas United Church of Christ in the executive director of adjust harvest probably said it best that morning, the health of a society should always be judged, and how we treat our most vulnerable, our most disadvantaged.
The Torah recognizes that an economic system that allows for the individual accrual of wealth — lacking course correction — has the potential to create both prosperity and poverty. The Torah also says that the tolerance of the ladder the tolerance of poverty is anathema to our tradition, the vision of a just society outlined in our sacred texts demands the eradication of poverty, through the creation of welfare systems designed to equip the poor with sustainable means of improving their lives. This week, we read in the final chapters of the book of Leviticus:
“When you are kin being in dire straits, comes under your largesse, even if one is tempted to consider them a stranger, let them live with you. Let them live with you. Provide them resources with no interest, return property that was taken from them, ensure they are fed and sheltered.”
This welfare system proposed by the Torah over 2,500 years ago is profoundly (and perhaps frustratingly!) self-evident. To ensure that those facing poverty have the ability to meet their basic needs and share in the riches of society is a task that, as Johnson noted in his speech, we have consistently failed to accomplish. In our city alone, over 65,000 people are currently struggling with homelessness. Over one quarter of renters in the city pay over half of their paycheck just to make rent. And on any given winter night, at least 1500 people on average are forced to sleep outside in the cold. Many do not make it.
This is not simply an economic problem — this is a moral crisis. So in this moment, I want to think less about what we are supposed to do and more about whom we’re supposed to do these things for.
The key words in this passage are “kin” and ger — “stranger.” Who do we think of as our kin? And who do we see as a stranger?
Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anche Emmet Synagogue, who represented the Jewish community on stage yesterday, opened his invocation was Psalm 133. He named “Mah Tovu…”, commonly translated as “how good it is for brethren to dwell in unity.” And it was good to be gathered in that space with people from all over the city unified in our hope for and our commitment to a better tomorrow. Rabbi Siegel also challenged us to reflect on that word for “brethren” or kin, that very same word invoked by Leviticus
And so I want to ask each of you — who in this city do we see as our neighbor? And perhaps more importantly, who do we see as a stranger?
Something I really love about Chicago (and I say this as a non-native Chicagoan) is the pride for our distinctive neighborhoods. I’m a resident of Boystown, and I love living in a neighborhood that is just so unapologetically gay.
I mean, we have rainbow street signs. We have rainbow crosswalks, we have rainbow banners everywhere. And I love seeing people I know on the street or at the grocery store at the gym. And I love the safety that community provides to live openly as both a queer person and a Jew.
Yet my story in Chicago actually began on the as a graduate student in Hyde Park — a neighborhood on the South Side which, it’s very important to acknowledge, is whiter and more affluent than its surrounding neighborhoods, the legacy of racially restrictive covenants supported actively by the University of Chicago only about seventy years ago. When I moved up to Lake View, it shocked me to learn that the vast majority of my white neighbors had never ventured south of the South Loop.
Our neighborhoods are distinct. But they are also divided in color, and in language, and distribution of wealth, and access to resources in connection to public transportation. And none of this is by happenstance; our city bears the scars of redlining and racially motivated disinvestment. There are invisible lines that define who we think of as our neighbor, as our kin, and who we consider a stranger.
And this perception has very real consequences. Some of you might remember in 2013 when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that to offset a $1 billion deficit in the city budget, his administration would close public schools that had been determined to be “underperforming and under resourced.”
There was a painful irony in those two words, because, of course, schools that were under resourced were consequently underperforming. Initially, 330 schools were slated to close; eventually, that list was whittled down to 54. And of those 54 schools, 88% of the affected students were Black, and 71% had mostly Black teachers. And while, yes, a small minority of students were able to be relocated to better performing schools, the majority found themselves at institutions that were already fighting to support their current students, as the realities of segregation and inequality in this city, have kept under resourced schools geographically bounded primarily on the West and South sides. And so while the city saved money, our students and teachers continued to struggle.
As someone who lived in the city at the time, I’m going to guess that that if, like me, you lived on the North Side in that moment, then hose changes didn’t feel like much. But for the students and parents and teachers and administrators, their lives and their lifelines had been upended. If that’s you, then I want you to imagine — what would it be like to have that happen in your neighborhood?
I think about Nettelhorst Elementary just around the corner. What that would be like if that was suddenly shuttered? If that community center with its farmers market every Saturday was just gone, we would be indignant! We wouldn’t be able to stop talking about it. I know that I would think of it every single day because that school lies between where I go to the gym, where I go shopping, where I get my coffee, and my home. And I would look up at those darkened windows of was once a bustling center of my community and wonder what happened and why it happened and if it should have happened.
But those very real school closures, as with so many of the economic ills that plague our city, affected people who live across one of the invisible lines that divide our city. And so their pain and their suffering and their anger often don’t feel like our problem.
So here is our challenge —
The Torah gives us a blueprint for creating a just society. Yet justice is expressed through who we think of as our kin. Who do we feel responsible for? Who would we invite into our homes to live with us? Who would we share our resources with but no expectation of recompense? What would it look like to consider all Chicagoans — North and South and West — as our neighbors. Not just a theoretical sense of neighborliness, but in an immediate like, knock-on-your-door-and-aask-for-a-cup-of-sugar sense of neighbor. An “Of course you’re invited to my barbecue tomorrow! Do you mind checking on my cat or my plants while I’m gone?” sense of neighbor.
While the weather might be a bit gloomy outside, I do believe that summer is around the corner. And the summer months give us an opportunity to put this radical reframing into practice, particularly as we flocked to our public parks and beaches, and the lines between our neighborhoods become just a little blurrier and a little more permeable.
But I’m going to challenge all of us to go a bit further to break down those barriers beyond just our normally shared spaces.
Go get dinner or brunch in a neighborhood that you usually don’t visit. Find out where you can shop local or eat local or drink local connect to folks at Mishkan about where they live, about their favorite spots around the city. Share what you find with your friends, share on social media. Talk to the people at the table next to you. Get to know the shopkeeper. Ask how long the bartender or the barista or the waiter has been working there where they grew up, and what they love most about where they live. Don’t be a tourist, be a neighbor.
Choose to see, in the place of a stranger, one of our own. Our fellow Chicagoans are kin.