Jewish Daily Forward: A Chicago Orthodox rabbi reaches out to his Rohingya and Black neighbors

June 17, 2021

By Joshua Flanders

Read the original story in the Jewish Daily Forward here.

In Chicago’s large Orthodox Jewish community, Rabbi Ari Hart stands out.

As a leader at Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue in Skokie, Illinois, Hart focuses on the roles of women within their community, inclusion of LGBTQ individuals, and other accessibility issues as simple as welcoming different styles of worship.

As an activist, he has embarked on several ground-breaking programs such as partnering with communities combating gun violence, leading anti-hate vigils, and supporting refugees.

“We’re trying to shake things up a little bit, do things a little different,” he said.

It is no understatement to say that Hart is a transformative force in the Orthodox Jewish community in Chicagoland, where he grew up, and beyond. The response from the Orthodox community to these new initiatives has been positive, in large part due to his approach.

“We’re making the path,” he explained, “not smashing it over people’s heads. It’s like ‘Hey, here’s a path you can take a step on.’”

The initiatives seem to resonate. Following Hart’s first year at Agudath Jacob in 2017, 69 new households joined the synagogue. The shul, which in 2017 had 160 households as members, now has just shy of 300.

Hart attributes his success to his focus on Jewish values like Torah, family, and “loving your neighbors.” As far as he’s concerned, it is that simple.

“We have these ideals that we’re trying to manifest in the world,” he said, “Judaism is not just something relegated to prayer halls, but something that needs to be in the streets. For people with deep Torah values and a desire to make the world a better place beyond communal boundaries, we create a path and invite them to walk it with us.”

His latest project is called Solu, a word from the Haftorah meaning to make a path. “We’re making a path for our community to get involved in feeding the hungry, loving the stranger, clothing the naked, all the things it means to be a Jew.”

Hart points out that the Torah says to love the stranger 36 times. “Why does it say this so many times?” he asked. “Because it’s actually hard to love the stranger. It’s a humanizing act everybody needs to be reminded of.”

Hart and his colleague Avidan Halivni, who leads the Solu program, are billing Solu as a kind of three-week summer of love, inspired by ahavat chinam, which translates to unconditional love or love in action.

Solu will take place between the Fast of Tammuz on the 17th of Tammuz (June 27) and Tishah B’Av on the 9th of Av (July 18) a time when Jews traditionally mourn the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple. The Talmud says this destruction was due to sinat chinam or acts of baseless hatred, often between kin. So to counter that, they plan ahavat chinam, channeling loss into action.

Their programming aims to counter what they see as hatred, fear, and division, both in the Jewish community and around the world right now. Hart described it as “just putting love out into the world.”

The first of these programs is building a family literacy center with Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side.

“Kids have been so impacted by COVID, there’s a crisis in education now,” Hart said. “The goal of the center is to provide books, tutoring and resources to help get kids back on track.” They are holding a book drive as well as building furniture for the center, hoping it will be a center of connection. “It’s going to be a group of Orthodox Jews with a bunch of COGIC African-American Christians,” Hart said, using the abbreviation for Church of God in Christ. “Not a typical pair, working together and building this together.”

The second Solu program is with the Rohingya Cultural Center. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group primarily from Burma, are one of the most persecuted refugee groups in the world, and the largest population in the U.S. resides in Chicago. The cultural center holds English language and citizenship classes, Koran classes, daycare, and has a youth club with an avid soccer team. While Orthodox Jews and Rohingya live together in West Rogers Park, they almost never interact.

Hart recognizes the backdrop of tension between Muslims and Jews, but sees an opportunity “to care for one another and do good things together.”

They are planning an evening dinner of traditional foods between adults of both groups, to get to know each other’s experiences, different and shared.

“We share so much with them,” Hart said, “a narrative of genocide, fleeing, wandering, exile. We both pray multiple times a day, our women cover their hair, and we are trying to figure out how to maintain faith in America.”

Sarah Pajeau, Rohingya Culture Center’s program manager, who grew up with a Jewish mother and Catholic father, said she understands this connection.

“There’s more similarities than differences,” she said, recalling reaching out to Hart to get kitchen supplies for a Rohingya community drive and getting his full support within a day. “He is always someone RCC can turn to,” she said. Pajeau will work with Halivni to coordinate the Solu project, which will also bring RCC’s Youth Club together with Orthodox Jewish youth.

The third Solu project will bring families to an Orthodox couple’s farm in Iowa to work, volunteer at a local soup kitchen, and “celebrate America outside our suburban bubble,” Hart said. There will also be an educational component. “Service will wither without an attitude shift”, he said. “Service must take its place along other Jewish obligations, grounded in Torah and in religious observance and identity. This is as important as praying three times a day and eating kosher.”

The hope, said Hart, is that Solu will transcend Chicago. “Whatever denomination, whatever affiliation,” he said, “let’s focus these three weeks on love.”

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