Every Sabbath, the members of Congregation Am Shalom in north suburban Glencoe read a list of names aloud of the people who were killed by violence in Cook and Lake Counties that week. Very seldom do any of the victims come from the wealthy North Shore or the wider Chicago Jewish community. But the congregation reads the names anyway.
In early December, Phil Jackson, the youth pastor at the Lawndale Christian Community Church on the city’s west side, visited Am Shalom. “He looked at the list,” recalled David Sherman, a congregant and former chairman of the board of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, “and said, ‘I buried two of those kids this past week.’ He has a relationship with the rabbi [Steven Stark Lowenstein] and spoke before the prayer for peace. I was so pissed off,” Sherman continues. “I cannot believe this is going on in our city. It’s unacceptable.”
A few weeks later, the city announced the final murder total for 2016: 762. This was the highest tally in more than 20 years, higher than New York and Los Angeles combined.
On January 2, President-elect Donald Trump added his two cents on Twitter: “Chicago murder rate is record setting - 4,331 shooting victims with 762 murders in 2016. If Mayor can’t do it he must ask for Federal help!”
Throughout his campaign, Trump had targeted Chicago—President Obama’s hometown—as a hotbed of violence that needed a strong dose of law-and-order that only he could provide.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel had no immediate public response to the tweet. Like many of the city’s Jews (though not all), he’s not immediately affected by the violence, which is concentrated in the largely African-American neighborhoods of North Lawndale and East Garfield Park on the west side and Englewood on the mid-south side. But the Jewish community and its leaders can’t help but be concerned.
“I saw the tweet,” says Sherman. “The devil is always in the details. Every other Chicagoan is so desperate to see violence dramatically reduced, everything reasonable should be on the table. If there’s something I don’t know about that the federal government can help on, I’m open.”
But for Brendan Shiller, who runs a nonprofit legal services program on the west side and is more connected to the violence than most of the city’s Jews, increasing federal law enforcement is not the answer. He believes that in some ways, the reports of the violence have been exaggerated by the media, which rely heavily on daily press releases from the Chicago Police Department.
“They take the press release as gospel and write it up,” he said. “The violence has been decreasing for the most part over the past four years. Only in two areas has it increased to where it was 30 or 40 years ago.” Chicago’s per-capita murder rate, he noted, isn’t even in the top 25 of cities nationwide.
Still, the problem is real, and Shiller argues that the city needs to concentrate on the underlying causes. He points out that the increase in the murder rate was preceded by the closing of 50 schools and 6 publicly-funded mental health clinics, all on the south and west sides. “If the Jews are detached, we need to talk with the Jewish man who decided to close them. The root cause is that the community is devastated economically and closing schools and clinics is not going to help.”
Others feel that the problem goes beyond anything the mayor has done, or could do. “Is Rahm a perfect mayor?” Marilyn Katz, the president of MK Communications, a PR firm, and a founder of the group Chicago Women Take Action, asked rhetorically. “No. Do I think he can stem the tide of violence? No, I don’t. There are more things the city could do, but increasing police presence will not solve the problem.”
For Katz, the problem is mostly economic: the unemployment rate among young African-Americans in the city has nearly doubled since 2000: from 25% to 47%. (By contrast, New York’s 2014 unemployment rate for people aged 20-24 was 19.3%; in Los Angeles, in 2016, the number was 11.5%.) Given a choice between working at McDonald’s for $7 an hour with no health benefits or earning much more selling drugs, Katz said, most kids would go for the latter option.
Social justice action has a long tradition in Chicago’s progressive Jewish community. Katz stressed that many organizations, such as the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and Mount Sinai Hospital, have been working to address the violence’s underlying causes.
“Right now, people are in shock [over the outcome of the election],” she added. “Trump does this, Trump does that, and people respond to his provocations. We have to have our own agenda. It’s up to the city: What is the agenda necessary to get at the underlying causes? We need a strategy.”