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A Very Rough Draft of an Interview with Ari Hart of Uri L’Tzedek

Teens with a group of professors and students from Yeshiva University and students from Alianza Dominicana to the “Sosúa: A Refuge for Jews in the Dominican Republic” exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC’s Battery Park City. They boarded a bus from Washington Heights for the field trip.

Redefining Community:
Ari Hart Builds a Better Neighborhood

Ari Hart is standing in the back of the room.

The future rabbi cuts an imposing figure in a navy suit, green tie and blue and white checkered shirt. His tanned, unlined face is serious as he watches Rabbi Ari Weiss and other volunteer activists of Uri L’Tzedek role-play through skits in front of the 25 or so young Jews who have turned out that afternoon to learn more about Tav HaYosher, which means ethical seal, a local, grassroots initiative to bring workers, restaurant owners and community members together to create just workplaces in kosher restaurants.

The NY Times recently featured Shmuly Yanklowitz, co-founder and Director of Uri L’Tzedek, as he spoke about the new initiative, a move away from the more controversial boycott Uri L’Tzedek instituted against Agriprocessors earlier this year. But while Weiss and Yanklowitz represent the face of Uri L’Tzedek, co-director Ari Hart seems more comfortable acting as one of the brains behind the operation.
The first thing that strikes me about Ari is that he’s really busy. Co-directing Uri L’Tzedek is a full-time gig. And he’s juggling it alongside his second year as a full-time rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, where he was awarded the 2008 Herbert Lieberman Award for Community Service. When we try to set a date for our interview, Ari offers to squeeze me in between a call to Israel, an Uri L’Tzedek meeting and the little sleep he’s getting at night. It sounds like trying to change the world is a thankless job with long hours that wait for no man, but Ari is more than willing to spare half hour, after which he’s scheduled to run off to work on another event.
“What’s keeping you so busy?” I ask him.
Ari laughs. He looks younger. He looks much closer to his age, 26, sitting cross-legged in a chair and swaying slightly with frenetic energy.
“It’s a lot of things. We’re launching a non-profit, doing visioning, fundraising, making copies, teaching, organizing, buying food for events, programming and leadership, following up with people, doing a lot of one-on-ones with people, putting stuff together,” Ari begins.

I open my mouth to interject but he’s not finished.
He adds with a bright smile, “And then…yeshiva, of course. It’s basically two full-time jobs.”
But Ari’s not complaining. When the Chicago-native moved to Washington Heights, a degree in Music Theory and Composition under his belt from Grinnell College, he knew that he wanted to work to effect change in his new neighborhood. He’d been doing much of the same back in Chicago.
At age 23, Ari was working as a CASA Advocate for abused and neglected children in Cook County. At age 24, he won a Nadiv Social Justice Fellowship through the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. The next year he launched Or Tzedek, the Teen Institute for Social Justice in Chicago. He resigned as director when he decided to come to New York to pursue a rabbinical degree at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
Upon his arrival in Washington Heights, Ari would pursue a number of social justice projects before taking things to the next level. He started by becoming a member of the local Community Board.
“When I came to Washington Heights…one thing I’m particularly interested in is relationships between the Orthodox community and broader communities and mobilizing the Orthodox community to act beyond narrowly defined self-interest and to be partners in the improvement of society for everyone, including the Orthodox community, not only for people outside, for everybody together,” Ari says.
“How does that work exactly?” I ask him.
“A big part of that is civic engagement and civic action and addressing common problems and finding common solutions and building relationships and partnerships. I began doing that work on my own in Washington Heights, when I first moved to there,” Ari says. “I just started meeting different religious leaders and community activists and trying to find out what was going on in the neighborhood, what some of the issues were, what people were working on and also trying to build a group of people in the community who are also interested in working on that as well. I got hooked up with Uri L’Tzedek and they were like that’s great, we should do something together.”
Ari would come onto my radar, then, when he began to cooperate with Uri L’Tzedek to develop projects in Washington Heights. He asked my husband, a fellow YCT student, and me to speak just before Passover on racism in the Jewish community in Washington Heights. He thought that as an interracial couple with ties to the neighborhood (I’m a native), we would be able to offer an interesting perspective. But it was Ari’s perspective that interested me. I not-so-secretly wondered why a white boy from Chicago was so worried about the divide between the Dominican and Jewish communities in Washington Heights.
I find the answer on the Uri L’Tzedek website in a telling transcript of the speech Ari gave after I spoke.

“[On Passover,] we are instructed to view ourselves in a position of opportunity and freedom, eager to share our meals with others, eager to share our liberation with those still oppressed. At the same time, we are to view ourselves as if we ourselves were slaves, as if we ourselves were oppressed. This Pesach, as we enjoy our freedom and many blessings, we must not forget our responsibility, and our unique ability to fight for those who are still being enslaved, whether it be by human trafficking, poverty, treatable disease, prejudice, religious persecution or any other form of oppression.”
Ari continued by quoting Martin Luther King, “All too often the religious community has been a taillight instead of a headlight.” I remember him pausing then to let this message hit home before he closed with his final words. “The Jewish people have been a headlight for thousands of years. May Hashem bless us this Pesach that we merit to continue to spread the light of righteousness and justice across the world.”
I ask Ari if he can elaborate on this speech that he gave many months ago. I coax him with a question that’s been bugging me for a while, “Why is a Jewish organization so interested in non-Jews?”

“It’s very clear in the Torah that we have to look out for the ger [the stranger], because we were strangers in a strange land and therefore, when there is a stranger in our midst, we have a responsibility to support and protect those who are weak and vulnerable,” Ari says.

But how does that work in practice in the community of Washington Heights? Last year, Uri L’Tzedek collaborated with several Washington Heights organizations on a clothing drive.

“The twist to the clothing drive was that it wasn’t just the Jewish community donating clothes to the Dominican community or to some other community, it was a lot of different groups coming together as a community. We had churches collecting clothes and Jewish people collecting clothes. And it wasn’t just the Dominican community [that benefited], there’s also the broader community, other people in the community, there’s also white people—”Ari begins.
“There are white people in Washington Heights?” I tease him. Though, the Washington Heights community, which spans from about 158th St to Dyckman Street, is predominately Dominican and Jewish in most parts, hot housing prices in Upper Manhattan have brought in an infusion of yuppies from lower Manhattan.
“Yes, there are white folk,” Ari kids before he continues. “We wanted to do a project together. We wanted to bring people together to do something that was positive. It was new and exciting and fun. The process was the purpose. The process of bringing people together and learning about the different organizations in the community, learning about the different services people provide, and having people interact and plan and work.”
Spearheading the process as an Uri L’Tzedek representative, Ari united Alianza Dominicana with other local organizations, including a church and a youth program. Uri L’Tzedek volunteered their people to help women at Alianza Dominicana coordinate a program for disadvantaged women. Then, Fort Washington Collegiate Church was brought in to donate clothing for the Alianza Dominicana program. Finally, Fresh Youth Initiatives (FYI), an organization based in Washington Heights that organizes youth to perform service projects around the community, joined by offering, among other things, manpower.
“So it was a lot of finding all these groups and people and becoming the glue linking people together and creating this thing out of all these programs that already existed,” Ari says. “Honestly the clothing drive itself didn’t really matter.”
Michal Brickman, an Uri L’Tzedek volunteer who worked with Ari on the clothing drive and other activism projects aimed to impact not only the Jewish community but the Washington Heights community as a whole, thinks Ari is being humble about the clothing drive.

“The initial goal of the drive was to help alleviate a shortage of clothing at a New York psychiatric facility, but the project quickly grew and the drive ultimately succeeded in collecting enough clothing not only for donation to the psychiatric facility but also to three local community organizations in Washington Heights and to a woman in the neighborhood who lost her belongings to a fire in her apartment,” Michal says.
But Ari does not gloss over the impact that working with FYI teens has had on him. In March, Uri L’Tzedek joined teens from FYI on a project dubbed ‘The Traveling Clothing Bank.’ FYI teens collected clothing for the project, a clothing drive and then handed them out in the neighborhood at a weekly event. A lot of the clothes end up traveling from Washington Heights to the Dominican Republic. Ari organized Uri L’Tzedek volunteers to help out at this FYI event but first, they coordinated a program where the mostly Jewish members of Uri L’Tzedek hung out with the mostly Dominican teens from FYI.

“It was a really profound thing. I live in this community. I’m here every day but I have no interaction with these people. And they’re really cool, l they want to make the community better and I want to make the community better,” Ari says. “People found it very meaningful.”
Carlos Cepeda, a group leader at FYI, agrees.
“At first, I didn’t know what to expect. We come from two different cultures. But after talking to Ari on the phone, he came across as a really nice guy who’s really concerned about young people and community. I realized that we had a lot in common. We genuinely care about helping people. Regardless of what race they might be, we want to help,” Carlos says.
Carlos believes that working with Ari and the Uri L’Tzedek team was an illuminating experience for “his kids.”
“Unfortunately there are certain stereotypes that exist in our community. In the Latino community, there’s a stereotype that Jews keep to themselves, are not very social and very cheap. I’m really glad my kids got to meet Ari,” Carlos says. “Ari came across as only Ari can. He completely abolished all those thoughts. A lot of the kids said, you know, this is the first Jewish person I got to meet and chill with and hang out with, and he’s a great guy. He broke a lot of those stereotypes that some of our kids have.”
After working together on the Traveling Clothing Bank project, Uri L’Tzedek and FYI partnered together on another initiative. Teens from FYI joined Jewish teens from an organization in Queens called The Lounge in some community building activities.
“At the core, good people are good people and we all share more in common than we have differences. We need to know more about each other to break down these stereotypes. We had a kind of cultural exchange,” Carlos says. “They brought typical Jewish cuisine and our kids ate from it. We brought our music. We played our music and spent a good half-hour showing each other how to dance. Even though we’re different and we don’t really know each other, there was a time where we reach out to each other and get to know each other as human beings.”
Uri L’Tzedek members and FYI went still one step further, coming together to visit the Jewish Museum for an exhibit on Sosua. Sosua is the tiny community in the Dominican Republic that took in Jews during the Holocaust. Carlos believes Ari took a major step towards healing the rift between the Dominican and Jewish communities of Washington Heights by reaching out to local nonprofit organizations in the area.

“Ari and some of his colleagues were looking for a way to cross [that divide] because in Washington Heights there’s a big population of Jewish people and there’s a big population of Dominican people but they rarely and seldom interact and I think he saw that as something that needs to be addressed,” Carlos says. “Regardless if you’re Dominican, Puerto Rican, Jewish, Russian or Irish, there’s one thing we all have in common and that’s that we live in this community and this community is ours.”

Troy Schremmer, Director of Education at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, is a part of the community. He also paints a very positive picture of working with Ari and Uri L’Tzedek.

“Ari came and found us. He came in one day and we sat down to figure out ways that we can interface. It’s been quite a casual partnership but it’s been a little one sided,” Troy says. “They’ve us more than we’ve helped them. We’ve helped them in giving them opportunities to help the community.”
Troy notes that he has a hard time keeping track of all the organizations Ari has put him in touch with around the neighborhood, everyone from Alianza Dominicana and FYI to the YMHA of Washington Heights/Inwood. Boxes of used clothing were just sitting at the church, which struggles with ways to distribute them, when Ari and his team swooped in to help sort clothing and redistribute it. The day of the drop-offs, Troy drove Ari around and watched as Ari smooth all the bumps along the way.
“Ari made all the contacts. I made the drop offs when we did it. I remember the day of, things don’t always go as they’re planned, and Ari was calling ahead as I headed towards different groups. I was in the van and I had to say, ‘Ari where are we going?’ And he’d say, ‘these guys can take some clothes’ and we’d head there. It was fun,” Troy says with a laugh.
Working with Ari has led the church to another partnership with the Hebrew Tarbernacle, a Reform Jewish congregation in Washington Heights. Troy feels he’s learned much more about the Jewish community from these experiences. But he’s learned even more about Ari.
“Ari has been trying to raise awareness that people of faith can work together and that we do have common ground, especially when it comes to taking care of our neighbor. That’s an imperative for People of the Book. I’ve been very encouraged by his attitude about it and just the different ways I’ve seen him show that by example and encourage others to do it,” Troy says.
Troy strongly believes in what Ari and Uri L’Tzedek are doing for the community.
“He believes in the principles laid out in Torah and how we should be living according to those and how that has direct impact on the Jewish community and folks taking care of one another,” Troy says, “But also how that also has ramifications outside of what we perceive as our family or our close-knit community. I see him extending that. I don’t get the impression that he thinks it’s a popular idea or an idea that’s real cool. It really comes from his faith and his understanding of how he reads god’s word and god’s law. I see him as an authentic person who is trying to follow God’s direction in very practical ways in this community he is living in.”

It’s these principles that got Ruth Balinsky involved with Uri L’Tzedek. Ruth met Ari when he hired her at her first social justice job as an Or Tzedek staff member in Chicago. Most recently, Ruth has worked with Ari on several projects, including the clothing drive and Tenants Rights Awareness events.
“He has continued to encourage me ever since [Or Tzedek] to pursue more projects in that field. Having worked in a variety of Jewish settings, I am well aware of the importance of Uri L’Tzedek. Not only is ‘Uri’ an extraordinarily competent and impressive organization, its role as an Orthodox voice in the movement is critical to my participation. While there are many Jewish social justice organizations, few, if any, seriously confront religious issues, and genuinely incorporate them into their work. ‘Uri’ is a perfect blend of religiosity and social justice values, and has catered to the Orthodox community in ways that no other Jewish organzation can,” Ruth says.
Ruth is particularly passionate about the work Uri L’Tzedek does outside the Jewish community.

“After years of persecution and suffering, Jews finally enjoy a status of privilege in the United States. It would be criminal to enjoy my family’s privilege and success (none of which I personally earned) without repaying my debt to American society, particularly through working with communities that came here under similar circumstances and have unfortunately not been able to succeed as strongly as the Jewish community,” Ruth says. “That is one of the reasons I got involved with the clothing drive that worked with the Jewish and Dominican communities in Washington Heights. If we do not engage our neighbors in dialogue, then how can we engage other communities?”

And while Uri L’Tzedek and Ari move forward with Tav HaYosher, they haven’t forgetten about Washington Heights. Troy clues me into another project Ari has been working on in his “spare time.”
“Ari’s been real great about making himself available on individual stuff. Not to go into lots of details but he’s helped a lot of individuals in the community who have needed help,” Troy says but he felt uncomfortable disclosing the specific details about these situations. “He’s also made himself available to us to help us with tutoring some of our young people. I know that’s there’s one specific student Ari’s working with but there’s lots of other students who need help and Ari is helping network with other possible tutors.”
Ari is in talks with both Alianza Dominicana and Fort Washington Collegiate Church to coordinate over a tutoring program. But according to Uri L’Tzedek volunteer, Michal Brickman, the tutoring program is just one of two-community based youth initiatives Ari and Uri L’Tzedek are working on.
“The tutoring program will bring desperately needed math and English tutors to local schools and after school programs, both within and outside the Jewish community. And a schools supplies drive, will help alleviate the teachers in a Washington Heights public school and local Jewish day school of the burden of paying out-of-pocket for many of their children supplies,” she says.
Michal believes that none of these programs could have happened without Ari.
“Although Ari’s only been living in Washington Heights for a little over a year, he’s deeply committed to improving the local community. Ari is passionate about mobilizing the Jewish community to create social change. He believes that everyone has something to contribute to the community initiatives and is constantly encouraging people to voice their opinions and become actively involved. Ari brings a tireless enthusiasm for social justice and a deep respect for Torah ideals to the initiatives – and his optimism and positive energy are contagious!”
Ultimately, it seems that Ari and Uri L’Tzedek are working towards in Washington Heights will benefit everyone. Michal agrees, “Uri L’Tzedek’s efforts to improve tenants’ rights, the local environment, and education in surrounding public schools, availability of quality health care and the value of neighborhood apartments in Washington Heights will ultimately only enhance the lives of each of us in the Jewish community by providing a cleaner, safer, and friendlier neighborhood.”

In the end, Ari’s work has made Washington Heights a much smaller place. And he is still working tirelessly to keep it that way. Local churches, synagogues and other organizations that once ignored each other now call on each other as friends. Carlos Cepeda of FYI leaves me with his final thoughts on Ari’s community building activities.
Carlos says, “I remember a poem that goes something like this…. In a thousand years from now, it won’t matter what house I have or the car that I drive or how much money I have in the bank, all that’s going to matter is the difference I made in my community. I think that’s the message Ari and his organization live by.”

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