Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Leader Share Faith — But Little Else

Firebrand African-American Convert Is Thorn in Mayor's Side


By Menachem Wecker

Published September 10, 2013, issue of September 13, 2013.
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But criticism of Lewis and the CTU is not hard to find among Jewish parents.

Rabbi Brant Rosen, who leads the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in nearby Evanston, faced pushback after writing a blog post supportive of Lewis. One comment, from “Concerned parent” called her a “bully” and “not a good example of the Torah at all.”

Lewis, who told the Forward that she eagerly anticipates the new beginning and the time for reevaluating spiritual goals that the High Holidays present, says her study of Jewish texts informs her work. “They’re not separate at all,” she said. “There’s this notion all through the Torah about social justice,” she said, though she noted the Torah has some “stuff that’s pretty scary” too.

When she read the Torah section at her adult bat mitzvah recently, the story — about the spies sent into Canaan by Moses as the Israelites approached the Holy Land — was “basically about these guys preparing the way to massacre a whole bunch of people,” she said. “There’s all of these really interesting contradictions and notions of what justice looks like.”

Lewis decided to convert to Judaism after experiencing Kol Nidre services at Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where she grew up. By the time her formal conversion took place in 1993, she was 39. “You look for something spiritual,” she said, adding that that she enjoyed the “spectacle” of Kol Nidre. “I like a bit of pomp and circumstance,” she said. Lewis remains a member at Rodfei Zedek, a Conservative synagogue, and is “pretty much there every Shabbat service.”

“I was telling somebody at kiddush a couple of weeks ago that I’m addicted to shul,” she said. “It’s the one thing that I’m actually angry about if I have to miss it.”

Her schedule won’t allow her to take regular Hebrew classes, but she can read well enough to follow along with the weekly Torah reading, although she doesn’t understand the Hebrew words she is reading. She’d like to learn more about the language and its grammar, she added, and that emphasis on study is part of what attracted her to Judaism.

“You can have a variety of different ways of looking at something, and it’s all considered valuable if you make your point in the text,” she said. “That’s a very rich, intellectual tradition for me. I’m such a geek that it just speaks to me on that level.”

At the synagogue, Lewis appreciates that the congregation is made up of people “with every different political stripe that you can imagine.” She noted that Elliot Gertel, Rodfei Zedek’s former rabbi, under whom she converted, was very conservative politically. Members, she said, know not to accost her on Shabbat with advice or criticism of her work. (Sometimes non-members are less considerate, she added.)

To Rosen, Emanuel and Lewis represent “two very different Jewish responses and different Jewish role models.” The former represents the “power elite” and partners with corporate interests, while Lewis personifies the “venerable Jewish tradition” — dating back to Moses in Pharaoh’s palace — “of speaking truth to power,” Rosen said. “To me, she embodies what I believe to be the best about prophetic Judaism.”

Rosen invited Lewis to address his Evanston synagogue in April and encouraged her to use the talk as a test run for her upcoming bat mitzvah speech. In an interview with Chicago Magazine, Lewis said she saw the Torah portion, Shelach — in which Joshua and Caleb break ranks with the other spies who say that conquering Canaan is impossible — through the lens of her fight for teachers.

“It’s a perfect portion for me,” she said. “It’s about people being told they can’t do something, and they were able to.”


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