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'While you guys worry about missiles, we count body bags'

Enough of MLK and Heschel: Israel outreach in Chicago aims to form new narrative

Israeli ambassador visits South Side, where Israel trauma model is used to cope with gun violence thanks to Black-Jewish partnership; notes how alliance can be leveraged by Israel

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan walks with Bright Star Church Pastor Chris Harris outside the Bright Star Community Outreach Center in Chicago on October 13, 2021. (Christian Harris)
Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan walks with Bright Star Church Pastor Chris Harris outside the Bright Star Community Outreach Center in Chicago on October 13, 2021. (Christian Harris)

CHICAGO — The Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago is not exactly where one would expect to see an Israeli ambassador to the United States.

That likely explained the absence of fanfare for Gilad Erdan when he stepped out of a black SUV on a rainy Wednesday afternoon and was ushered into the Bright Star Community Outreach Center.

Less than 24 hours earlier and just two blocks away, a 14-year-old girl and a security guard had been shot by an unknown assailant who opened fire as students were filing out of the Wendell Phillips Academy High School after classes were dismissed.

The predominantly Black neighborhood was still reeling from the latest instance of gun violence, which has taken the lives of roughly 700 Chicagoans this year alone, and those inside the Bright Star Community Center were working around the clock to assist those coping with the trauma.

The staff members were trained by Natal, an Israeli organization that treats victims of terror-related trauma — an improbable connection that brought Erdan all the way to Chicago.

The ambassador toured Bright Star, hearing the impact Israeli expertise was having on a community on the other side of the globe.

(From R-L) Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan, Anshe Emet Synagogue Rabbi Michael Siegel and Bright Star Church Pastor Chris Harris at the Bright Star Community Outreach Center in Chicago on October 13, 2021. (Christian Harris)

Natal’s work in Bronzeville is the result of a relationship between Bright Star CEO Pastor Chris Harris, Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet Synagogue on the north side of Chicago and former AIPAC regional director Brian Abrahams. Siegel and Abrahams convinced Harris to travel to Israel in 2012 where the pastor met with Natal, and the Israeli Consulate in Chicago facilitated the extension of the organization’s work to a city over 6,000 miles away.

Harris and Siegel spoke of a partnership that has produced tangible results and may be the key to writing a new chapter in Black-Jewish relations, which have long leaned on recycled stories from decades ago.

“Don’t show us another picture of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel,” Harris told Erdan during the Bright Star tour, referencing the friendship between civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. and prominent Conservative rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, which is regularly touted by mainstream Jewish organizations seeking to boast their anti-racism bona fides.

“Keep the frame, but let’s use it for a new picture,” the pastor continued. “This place is it.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they begin the march to the state capitol in Montgomery from Selma, Alabama, on March 21, 1965. The demonstrators are marching for voter registration rights for blacks. Accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (fourth from right), are on his left Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. (AP Photo)

While it may not be the reason for the State of Israel’s involvement in the effort, Erdan could not help asking as he toured the community center whether those benefiting from it were aware of the Jewish state’s contribution.

After all, Jerusalem is looking to make inroads with minority communities in the US, which — as Erdan put it, increasingly view Israel as the “white privileged” party of the conflict with the Palestinians.

The pastor assured him that those he works with are aware of Natal and his relationships with the pro-Israel community, but he clarified that the reason for Bright Star‘s success reaching over 45,000 trauma victims in Chicago over the past several years is because it is led from inside.

“We don’t want White people helicoptering in. Black and Brown people need to do the leading. We just need the tools and resources, which is what we’re receiving here,” Harris said. “That’s us putting new pictures in the old frame.”

Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan (right) and Bright Star Church Pastor Chris Harris at the Bright Star Community Outreach Center in Chicago on October 13, 2021. (Christian Harris)

Counting body bags

Harris acknowledged that it took several years for community members to open up to the Natal-trained counselors, given their deeply ingrained hesitancy regarding the concept of mental health counseling.

“Mental health is usually seen as something for White people,” the pastor explained. “People of color don’t talk to people because we’re looked at as crazy.”

But while the stigma might keep Black and Brown people away from traditional counseling, they are more willing to open up to faith leaders, which provided an opening for Bright Star, Harris said.

Five times over the past decade for five weeks at a time, Natal staff from Israel have traveled to Chicago to train dozens of faith leaders and other volunteers to become trauma counselors, thanks to funding from University of Chicago Medicine, Northwestern Medicine and United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.

As a result, Bright Star is able to operate a phone hotline from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday in addition to dispatching ambassadors to serve community members in person.

Still, it’s an uphill battle.

Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan speaks with a social worker at the Bright Star Community Outreach Center in Chicago on October 13, 2021. (Christian Harris)

“While you guys worry about missiles and sirens, we’re counting body bags here every day,” Harris told Erdan during the Bright Star tour. “We don’t have Iron Dome or bomb shelters.”

And even though Bronzeville community members are now opening up to counseling and learning to cope with their trauma, that doesn’t mean gun violence has at all dissipated.

“Counseling does not stop violence. It brings healing where there has been violence and trauma,” Harris said in a subsequent interview with The Times of Israel.

“It also stops the retaliation. Because people who are hurting tend to hurt other people, and if someone doesn’t feel like they got justice from the justice system, which doesn’t catch the murderers in Black communities, they’re more likely to turn around and hurt people,” he explained. “So the counseling we do makes sure that they don’t continue this vicious cycle of trauma.”

“Had this been available when I was in high school, I believe I would still have a lot of my friends who committed suicide or ended up on the streets,” one of the Bright Star counselors told Erdan.

Putting in the work

After touring the community center, Erdan continued to Harris’s church about a mile away, where a new literary center on the top floor was being prepped for its Sunday unveiling. The reading room, packed with hundreds of books, computers and a basketball arcade game, was put together from scratch by Bright Star and Solu, an initiative of Chicago’s Orthodox Jews seeking to build bridges with diverse communities in the city.

The Israeli Consulate in Chicago connected Harris with Solu’s founder, Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue Rabbi Ari Hart.

“The Israeli Consulate has been working with Pastor Harris and the Bright Star community from the beginning, and we will continue to make an impact together because resilience unites Israel and Bronzeville,” Consul General Yinam Cohen said in a statement.

Harris said the pandemic-exacerbated problems his community is facing have presented the opportunity for bridge-building that can be used to combat antisemitism and racism.

“How do you get a brother from the South Side of Chicago to train young people on college campuses to speak out against BDS and build relationships between African Americans and the Jewish community,” Harris posed to Erdan at Bright Star Church. “You’ve got to be prepared to put in the work.”

“There are many other pastors who have seen the work that I’ve done with these folks who are now ready to join,” Harris told the ambassador.

“Because they see… I wish I could say ‘the Jewish community’ that has supported our work. That’s not true — but Jewish individuals who have done so. These pastors see that it’s [real], and they’re saying, ‘we’re in.'”

(From L-R) Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue Rabbi Ari Hart, Anshe Emet Synagogue Rabbi Michael Siegel, Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan, Bright Star Church Pastor Chris Harris and Israeli Consul General to the Midwest Yinam Cohen outside Bright Star Church in Chicago on October 13, 2021. (Christian Harris)

Harris is also seeking to manage partnerships with Jewish and pro-Israel community leaders in Chicago during an era of intersectionality where pro-Palestinian voices are increasingly finding allies among advocates for racial justice.

The pastor pointed to a Black Lives Matter march he organized last summer in Bronzeville that was attended by Jewish and Muslim religious leaders.

“It was because the relationships were already there,” Harris explained.

“Those who came understand that when we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it’s not about an organization. There are a lot of Black people who don’t even know that it is also an organization,” he said, referring to the Movement for Black Lives, a loosely decentralized body that seeks to serve as an umbrella for Black Lives Matter movements across the US. In 2016, it issued a platform endorsing the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, lobbing accusations of genocide and apartheid at the Jewish state.

Harris said he recognized the hesitation from some Jewish groups about joining the Black Lives Matter effort, but insisted that the slogan is a mindset and mentality more than anything else.

Illustrative: A man wearing a kippah holds a sign reading ‘Jews for Black Lives’ at the weekly Black Lives Matter ‘Jackie Lacey Must Go!’ protest in front of the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles, California, September 9, 2020 (VALERIE MACON / AFP)

Leading from behind

But Israel’s ambassador to the US appeared unwilling to make the distinction.

Speaking to The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the event, Erdan said, “Those here for the protests (last year) and saw the strongest political organization of the Black community — Black Lives Matter — officially backing the boycott of Israel, needs to be very worried.”

The envoy clarified that Israel can and must be involved in the movement for racial equality, “not in declarations, but in actions — by expanding the social projects that we do at the grassroots level like this one and by bringing the leaders of the African American community to visit Israel.”

But Jerusalem will likely need to tread carefully with the latter tactic, as Harris suggested during the event that some pro-Israel advocates have expected Black community leaders “to travel all the way to Israel without being willing to step foot in Bronzeville.”

Explaining his decision to make the trip, Erdan said outreach to minority communities such as the one in Chicago is a critical part of his work.

“The role of the Israeli ambassador to the US is not only to focus on relations at the governmental level but also on the people-to-people ties,” he said. “Because what is felt at the top is very connected to what is happening at the lower [grassroots] levels.”

In this file photo taken on June 8, 2020, Palestinians take part in a demonstration against police brutality and in support of US protesters over the death of George Floyd (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

He noted that nearly 40 percent of American society comprises minorities who overwhelmingly vote Democrat.

“The future of our relations at the governmental level will depend on whether the lower level continues to view Israel as ‘white privileged’… as opposed to what we truly are — a diversified country that cares about minorities and human rights,” Erdan argued.

In Israel, though, a similar plague of gun violence has taken the lives of 100 Arab civilians in 2021 alone.

While the numbers are seven times as bad in Chicago, Erdan was less optimistic about whether Israel had anything to offer the Midwest city of from its effort to combat crime in Arab communities.

“Let’s be honest, the problem is that we have not yet succeeded in solving the problem,” he said. “It’s not as if we have some sort of model to show them that is the winning strategy.”

Erdan — who will shortly be ending his stint as ambassador to the US but remain in New York as Israel’s envoy to the UN — said there was still much work for Israeli diplomats to do in places like Chicago.

And even if that work must initially take place behind the scenes, as has been the case with Natal’s efforts, the ambassador maintained that “in the future, the truth will come out.”

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