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In Chicago, a Black-led church and a Jewish community are addressing painful history through a Sukkot festival

CHICAGO (JTA) — Earlier this month, 40 people gathered in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood to design a sukkah.

But they hadn’t come together only to build a hut for the upcoming Jewish festival of Sukkot, which begins on Friday evening and revolves around Jews erecting and dwelling in temporary structures for a week.

For this interfaith, intergenerational group, constructing the impermanent space was a step forward in what they hope is an enduring relationship between a Jewish community on Chicago’s North Side and a Black-led church on the West Side.

“Interfaith, interracial, cross-city, cross-neighborhood relationship building does not happen overnight,” said Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann of Mishkan Chicago, the Jewish prayer community partnering on the project. “It’s taken over a year for us to get together three times, four times. This sustained effort of people to continue to build relationships takes a long time.”

The sukkah project is part of the Chicago Sukkah Design Festival, which was launched last year and aims to build connections between the predominantly Black West Side community of Lawndale and the city’s Jewish community, which was once centered in that neighborhood. As part of the festival, which will take place in Lawndale from Oct. 1-15, architects partner with local neighborhood organizations to build the sukkahs, which are repurposed as permanent structures following the festival.

This year, six organizations are building sukkahs, which will later become sites ranging from a pavilion for meditation or a tool library. Mishkan is the only synagogue participating in the festival, and it is building its sukkah in collaboration with the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, a legal services initiative founded by the Lawndale Christian Community Church.

Through building the sukkah, which will later serve as a memorial to 41 victims of gun violence who were part of the legal center, the communities hope to reckon both with present tragedy and historical pain.

The sukkah’s design will address the departure of Jews from Lawndale during the postwar “white flight” era, when white residents left newly integrated urban neighborhoods en masse for the suburbs. Lawndale once had 60 synagogues and 75,000 Jewish residents. By the mid-1950s, only 500 were left.

“It’s a sad, hard, important-to-reckon-with piece of Jewish history in Chicago,” said Heydemann, who delivered a sermon on that topic to the church on a Sunday last year. That Sunday was also Tisha B’Av, the Jewish fast day that commemorates the destruction of the ancient Holy Temples in Jerusalem.

“There are people from the congregation who remember when Jews and Black people both lived in the neighborhood before Jews moved out of the neighborhood, and that was a powerful conversation,” said Diana Collymore, a deacon who has been active in Lawndale Christian Community Church since 2014. “That’s one of the strongest pieces that stayed with people. There were people from Mishkan who remembered what street the grandpa or mom or dad grew up on here.”

The communities are collaborating with two firms: Architecture for Public Benefit and Trent Fredrickson Architecture, whose architects also hope to honor that shared history and create something that is responsive to the community’s needs, backgrounds and experiences.

“One of the community members was talking about this old Jewish restaurant that now doesn’t exist anymore and whenever she would go there she would feel welcome and at home,” said Chana Haouzi, the founder of Architecture for Public Benefit. “We just spoke of feeling invited and like that you could stay as long as you like.”

The relationship between Mishkan and Lawndale Christian began when Heydemann and the church’s lead pastor, Jonathan Brooks, who is also known as Pastah J, participated in a program for early-career clergy at the University of Chicago Divinity School. They have spoken to each other’s congregations and hope for the sukkah-building process to bring their members closer together.

Members are already finding commonalities between the two congregations.

“The Jewish community that came here from Europe, they were driven here from trauma and harm, and the African-American community that came from the South in the Great Migration, they too were fleeing trauma,” Collymore said. “And both have faith and they believe in a God, and their faith brought them and encouraged them and directed them and kept them and settled them in this space.”

One way the communities are connecting and confronting the past is through shared scripture. The group designing the sukkah found meaning in a well-known passage from Ecclesiastes, which is read in synagogue on Sukkot and relates how there is a time and a season for everything under the sun.

The two groups studied the passage, interpreting and analyzing the Hebrew and translated versions. Its text will later be emblazoned on the sukkah’s walls in Hebrew script, transliterated Hebrew and English.

“There’s appreciation around that Ecclesiastes passage,” Collymore said. “Having scripture out of both of our faiths, and especially the kind of passage so appropriate for the way things have changed here, I think this is a catalyst for more deeper conversations.”

The sukkah will have three main walls, which will feature shelves lined with vessels that contain artifacts contributed by the community to share stories and create moments of connection. At one gathering, participants painted and decorated rocks with designs and messages inspired by the passage from Ecclesiastes.

“We’ve documented a lot of the discussion, and I think ultimately it was this idea of understanding how these two communities work together and seeing the points of commonality and the focus on loving and caring for each other and putting people first and also God,” Haouzi said. “It’s really that idea that ends up being manifested in the design itself.”

In addition, Mishkan members have participated in a walking tour of the church’s community spaces and initiatives. In addition to the health center and the legal aid center, the church has a fitness center, a café with a roof deck, an organic farm, a recovery center for men who were recently incarcerated or are in recovery, and other community programs.

“It’s important for predominantly white Jewish people who have been told that they’re not safe in parts of Chicago that don’t look white and Jewish, even if these parts of Chicago used to be their grandparents’ homes, to just come there and see that this neighborhood has incredibly interesting, dynamic people who live here and projects they’re taking on,” Heydemann said. “There’s an incredible amount of [the] neighborhood investing in itself and, beyond the neighborhood, outside people looking and saying, ‘How can we be part of that?’”

When the sukkah design festival opens, the church and Mishkan will host a shared prayer service for the community. They also hope the sukkah provides a space for both shared meals and independent reflection.

“Not only will it be a physical manifestation of this collaboration between both groups but it will also invite other people to join and to host both communities to continue building on their collaboration,” Haouzi said.

Heydemann says her community’s partnership with Lawndale Christian Legal Center has led to members becoming regular monthly donors to the center and reading books that speak to its work. When the sukkah becomes a memorial to victims of gun violence, it will stand in a memorial garden whose design is being led by the legal center.

Heydemann says she hopes that when Jews come to the Sukkah Design Festival, they will feel motivated to do something “to try to reverse the decades of disinvestment.”

“I would hope that Jews across Chicago come to the festival and feel a sense of reawakened connection to this neighborhood, whether or not they have family who ever lived here,” she said. “I would also hope that Jewish people would see the sukkot and understand their own tradition, Judaism, is this beautiful, dynamic, interesting platform for relationship building across traditions.”

The post In Chicago, a Black-led church and a Jewish community are addressing painful history through a Sukkot festival appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Penn president resigns amid criticism of her testimony on campus antisemitism

(JTA) — The president of the University of Pennsylvania announced her resignation on Saturday after facing growing backlash for declining to say outright that calling for the genocide of Jews violated the school’s code of conduct.

“I write to share that President Liz Magill has voluntarily tendered her resignation as President of the University of Pennsylvania,” Scott Bok, the chair of the school’s board of trustees, said in a statement. Bok subsequently said he would also be resigning.

Magill’s resignation is the most significant fallout so far from a congressional hearing on Tuesday in which she and the presidents of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were all asked whether calls for genocide of Jews would constitute harassment or bullying. All three responded that the answer depended on “context.”

Video of the exchange went viral and was highlighted by Jewish and pro-Israel activists as an illustration of how universities have failed to take campus antisemitism seriously in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s ensuing war against the terror group in Gaza.

“I hope this signals a new start for @Penn & a wake-up call for all college presidents,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “Campus administrators must protect their Jewish students with the same passion they bring to protecting all students. They can’t hide behind language coached by their attorneys & look the other way when it comes to antisemitism.”

In the wake of the hearing, Magill in particular faced mounting criticism from Penn’s stakeholders. The board of the school’s Wharton School called for new leadership for the school and a donor threatened to pull a $100 million donation unless Magill stepped down. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who is a non-voting member of the board of the private university, said Magill “failed” to create a safe atmosphere for students and urged the board to review her leadership.

In her own brief statement Saturday, Magill did not mention the reason for her stepping down, and said, “It has been my privilege to serve as President of this remarkable institution.” Bok said in his statement that Magill was “not the slightest bit antisemitic” but had faltered in the hearing because she had given “a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that made for a dreadful 30-second sound bite.”

Both Magill and Harvard President Claudine Gay walked back their comments to Congress in statements the day after the hearing, and Gay issued a subsequent apology in an interview with the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, saying, “When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret.”

MIT’s board, meanwhile, is backing its president, Sally Kornbluth, who is Jewish. “I write now to let you know that I and the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation entirely support President Kornbluth,” MIT Corporation chair Mark Gorenberg wrote in an open letter on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who asked the questions about genocide, celebrated Magill’s resignation and called for Gay and Kornbluth to follow suit.

“One down. Two to go,” Stefanik wrote on X. “This is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most “prestigious” higher education institutions in America.”

At least one other elite university has taken the opportunity to signal that its approach to antisemitism is different. “In the context of the national discourse, Stanford unequivocally condemns calls for the genocide of Jews or other peoples,” Stanford University wrote in a social media post on Friday. “That statement would clearly violate Stanford’s Fundamental Standard, the code of conduct for all students at the university.”

The post Penn president resigns amid criticism of her testimony on campus antisemitism appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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University of Pennsylvania President Resigns Amid Massive Backlash Over Tepid Response to Campus Antisemitism

University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill testifies during a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on holding campus leaders accountable and confronting antisemitism, at the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, on Dec. 5, 2023. Photo: Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill resigned from her position on Saturday, ending a 17-month tenure marked by controversy over what critics described as an insufficient response to surging antisemitism on campus.

“It has been my privilege to serve as president of this remarkable institution,” Magill said in a statement. “It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members to advance Penn’s vital missions.”

Magill’s resignation followed growing calls from university leaders, donors, and students, as well as US lawmakers, for her to step down after refusing to say during a congressional hearing held on Tuesday that calling for the genocide of Jews would not constitute a violation of school rules.

“It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman,” Magill said, responding to US Rep. Elise Stefanik (D-NY), who posed the question. “If the speech becomes conduct, it can be harassment, yes.”

“Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide?” Stefanik asked, visibly disturbed by Magill’s answer. “The speech is not harassment? This is unacceptable Ms. Magill.”

The following day, Magill apologized.

“In that moment, I was focused on our university’s longstanding policies aligned with the US Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” she said in a video posted on X/Twitter. “I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.”

Appointed in July 2022, Magill, an alumnus of Yale University and the University of Virginia Law School, began her position at the school vowing to “shape Penn’s next great chapter.” By the time of Saturday’s announcement, however, two Jewish students had sued the school, alleging that it violated their civil rights by “selectively” enforcing rules that would punish those who harass and intimidate Jewish students, hiring radical anti-Zionist professors, and fostering a hostile learning environment.

Meanwhile, the US government began investigating accusations of antisemitism at the university, and a major donor threatened to rescind a $100 million gift if she remained in place.

Jewish students have said that antisemitism at Penn is an “institutional problem” that has been worsening for many years.

The problem became acute and first noticed by much of the public in September, when the school hosted an anti-Zionist festival that featured several speakers who called for violence against Israel and were accused of promoting antisemitic conspiracies. For weeks, the school would not condemn the event, and Magill recently apologized for not doing so — after it took place.

After Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7, anti-Zionist protests at the university at times descended into demagoguery and intimidation of Jewish students, as speakers berated pro-Israel counter-protesters.

For roughly seven hours on Oct. 17, the protesters walked back and forth across Penn’s grounds chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — a slogan widely interpreted as a call for the destruction of Israel, which is located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The demonstrators also chanted “Israel, Israel, you can’t hide, we caught you in genocide.”

However, according to court documents viewed by The Algemeiner concerning the recent lawsuit by two Jewish students, such incidents were hardly new.

In March, for example, the anti-Zionist group Penn Against the Occupation (POA) hosted Mohammed El-Kurd during its “Israeli Apartheid Week.” Currently a columnist for the left-wing magazine The Nation, the 25-year-old el-Kurd has trafficked in antisemitic tropes, demonized Zionism, and falsely accused Israelis of eating the organs of Palestinians. Over the past two years he has widely toured across American university campuses, heightening concerns about rising antisemitism and harassment against pro-Israel students.

On Oct. 7, as scenes of Hamas terrorists abducting children and desecrating dead bodies in Israel circulated worldwide, POA members held an “Emergency Solidarity Rally” where one of its members congratulated Hamas on a “job well done.” According to the complaint, the student said, “When they woke up in the morning, and they found the field hands in the house, with a knife, ready to cut their f—king throats. I was late to the news but when I heard it, I smiled. I don’t want to hear that bulls—t, 250, 250, innocent Israelis are dead. F—k ’em. Again, I swear, I salute Hamas.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Yemen’s Houthis Warn They Will Target All Ships Headed to Israel

FILE PHOTO: Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. Photo: Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Yemen’s Houthi movement said on Saturday they would target all ships heading to Israel, regardless of their nationality, and warned all international shipping companies against dealing with Israeli ports.

The Iran-aligned group is escalating the risks of a regional conflict amid a brutal war between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist Hamas.

The Houthis have attacked and seized several Israeli-linked ships in the Red Sea and its Bab al-Mandab strait, a sea lane through which much of the world’s oil is shipped, and fired ballistic missiles and armed drones at Israel.

Houthi officials say their actions are a show of support for the Palestinians.

Israel said attacks on ships was an “Iranian act of terrorism” with consequences for international maritime security.

A Houthi military spokesperson said all ships sailing to Israeli ports are banned from the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.

“If Gaza does not receive the food and medicine it needs, all ships in the Red Sea bound for Israeli ports, regardless of their nationality, will become a target for our armed forces,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The threat has an immediate effect, the statement added.

The Houthis are one of several groups in the Iran-aligned “Axis of Resistance” which have been hitting Israeli and U.S. targets since Oct. 7 when Hamas militants attacked Israel.

In one of the latest incidents, three commercial vessels came under attack in international waters last week, prompting a U.S. Navy destroyer to intervene.

The Houthis, which rule much of Yemen and its Red Sea coast, also seized last month a British-owned cargo ship that had links with an Israeli company.

The United States and Britain have condemned the attacks on shipping, blaming Iran for its role in supporting the Houthis. Tehran says its allies make their decisions independently.

Saudi Arabia has asked the United States to show restraint in responding to the attacks.

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