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JNF Wire: Pastor Chris Harris Brings Hope to Chicago's South Side After Trip to Israel

March 18, 2016
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
212-879-9305 x222
By: Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
      Pastor Chris Harris at Ammo Hill.jpg
Pastor Chris Harris (far right) and a group of his colleagues visit Ammunition Hill as part of their JNF tour.
The group spoke with a number of organizations that JNF supports to gather ideas for how
they can help their own communities in the States.

In an average month, there are 39 homicides in  Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. There are 246 shootings per month. And according to Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church, that puts the total of murders since January 2012 at 1,900–not including those shot and wounded.

"Who does trauma counseling for those families–of the victims and perpetrators? Studies show that no one does," says Harris.

Until recently. 

Eight years ago, Harris and a team of colleagues launched Bright Star Community Outreach, a 501(c) 3 that focuses on anti-violence work and mentorship for the mostly African American members of the Bronzeville community and close-surrounding areas. The program helps youth cross gang-dominated streets to arrive at school safely, holds community festivals where parents can get their children much-needed school immunizations and supplies, offers tutoring, after school homework help, and prayer sessions that help infuse hope for those in need. Between 2011-2015, Bright Star touched the lives of more than 5,000 people.

"There is indeed a lot of need," said Pastor David Swanson of New Community Covenant Church. "But there are also many incredible stories of people with good faith doing amazing work."

In 2012, when Pastor Harris, an active member of Christians United for Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, visited Israel for the first time, he was struck with the uncanny similarities between the trauma his community faces and the trauma experienced in Israel. In Israel, people live in constant threat of violence, many have suffered trauma, or know someone who has, and there are greater-than-average cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

"During that mission to Israel we traveled across the country," said Harris. "We ended up one day at NATAL-Israel's Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War. I was struck by the work they do. I wanted to bring that information  home to Chicago."

For more than two-and-a-half years, Harris and his team, which includes Swanson and Rodney Carter — who were in Israel last month on a separate mission — have been working closely with NATAL representatives to create a strategic trauma plan for Bronzeville.

According to Harris, it has largely involved training clergy — who tend to be on the frontlines for those in the community — to deal effectively with PTSD. The Chicago team has come to Israel and vice versa. 

NATAL's model is based on moving trauma victims and their families from a place of surviving to thriving by building a sophisticated network of support, according to Maya Tadmor-Anderman, executive director of American Friends of NATAL. NATAL's multidisciplinary approach includes individual counseling, building community resiliency, running a knowledge center, and raising community awareness about trauma — all aspects that Harris has tried to infuse in his Chicago community with NATAL's help.

But the synergies between Bronzeville and Israel have not stopped there. During their most recent visit to Israel, Harris, Swanson, and Carter were among a group that held strategic visits with a group of Jewish National Fund (JNF) programs that could supplement their work in the States.

In a discussion with JNF partner Green Horizons, the group heard how Green Horizons participants learn about Israel’s history, geography, and culture while immersing themselves in lessons on the importance of social participation, tolerance, and personal responsibility, instead of spending their time in front of television sets and computers. Green Horizon’s activities are designed to build self-confidence, independence, and leadership abilities.

Pastor Chris Harris in Israel.jpgHarris, Swanson, and Carter (all at left) also spoke with a representative from another JNF partner, the Israel Fire Scouts program, which gives high school students the opportunity to fulfill their community service requirements by volunteering at their local fire stations. This transformative program instills in participants the value of helping others, shaping them into better citizens and better people. Volunteers learn that they are responsible not just for themselves, but for their entire crew, their family at the station, and the residents of their community. 

They also met with folks from Kibbutz Lotam about Eco-Kef, a center for creative ecology, and held discussions with those involved with Project Baseball, which gives Jewish and Arab youth an opportunity to learn life lessons and tolerance while building lasting friendships, all while enjoying the great American pastime that is quickly becoming popular in Israel.

"We were all definitely on the same page," said Shahar Hermelin, director of JNF tourism in Israel. "Everyone is dealing with kids who are exposed to some kind of danger and and hope to find ways to give them better lives. We are all about creating and building and developing and living in peace–and that is what they are trying to do in Chicago  in their own way."

"If you ask anyone in our neighborhood if they know anyone who has been shot, every hand will go up," noted Swanson. "The difference is that those in Israel have a way to talk about that threat. There is awareness that this existential threat is not normal. In our neighborhood, people are not aware that this is not normal, to some extent."

Swanson said what he and his colleagues are learning from NATAL and JNF — among others in Israel — is how to teach people of the effect this has on them emotionally and psychologically, and how to properly deal with it.

Harris talked about when he toured the cities of Southern Israel that have been bombarded by thousands of rockets over the past decade.  He was struck not only by Israeli resiliency, but also by the fact that Israelis worked hard to develop the Iron Dome technology to protect its people from Hamas-launched missiles. 

"The way I see it, we are both facing terror," said Harris. "But in Israel there is a protective mechanism in place that we don’t have in Chicago. And then there is the counseling — something in place for those that still suffer. We are facing PTSD in our community, but unfortunately we still don’t have these resources."

Harris added: "So, it’s my hope to bring a piece of Israel home to Bronzeville."

 # # #

JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.

JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.

For more information on JNF, call 888-JNF-0099 or visit


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