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Alex Kotlowitz Chronicler of Children in Chicago Public Housing to Receive First Irving B. Harris Award

When author Alex Kotlowitz envisioned a book chronicling the true story of two African-American boys and other children growing up in the Henry Horner Homes a now-defunct Chicago housing complex on Chicago's West Side he suggested

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When author Alex Kotlowitz envisioned a book chronicling the true story of two African-American boys and other children growing up in the Henry Horner Homes a now-defunct Chicago housing complex on Chicago's West Side he suggested the concept to the boys' mother, LaJoe. She liked the idea, but hesitated, and said, But you know, there are no children here. They've seen too much to be children.

In the book, aptly named There are No Children Here (Anchor Books, 1991), Kotlowitz follows the lives of those boys, Lafayette and Pharoah Rivers. Over a two-year period in the 1980s, the boys confront gangs, drugs, crime, and abject poverty, realities of "the other America" as Kotlowitz calls it, an America that many in this country know little about.

Kotlowitz agrees with LaJoe that, in many ways, her kids were robbed of their childhoods. But they have also played baseball and gone on dates and shot marbles and kept diaries, Kotlowitz writes. For, despite all they have seen and done, they are and we must constantly remind ourselves of this still children.

Since the book was first published, the Rivers family has escaped public housing and now lives in a townhouse on the city's West Side. They still struggle, but their lot in life has steadily improved, according to the author.

Kotlowitz, an award-winning Jewish journalist and best-selling author living in Chicago, will be honored at the Jewish Family and Community Service (JFCS) Annual Benefit Dinner and Auction on Dec. 2 at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago.
JFCS, an agency of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, has been providing emotional and practical support to families in the Chicago-area community for more than 144 years.

When one person hurts, the whole family hurts, said Natalie Ross, executive director of JFCS. A family can also be a source of strength. The power of the family to make change is greater than that of any one family member. JFCS is here to help families access their strengths.

JFCS will announce the creation of the Irving B. Harris Award at its annual benefit to pay tribute to Harris, a philanthropist and corporate leader, for using his expertise and resources to better early childhood education. Kotlowitz will receive the first Irving B. Harris award for putting a human face on racism, poverty, and violence and their effects on children and families.

Guests will have the chance to bid on silent auction items and view a new photography exhibit entitled A Celebration of Family the theme of this year's benefit created for JFCS by Chicago photographer Steven E. Gross. The exhibit features the many faces of families, representative of families in the JFCS community.

Kotlowitz, whose grandfather was a cantor and who grew up in a culturally Jewish home, compares the Riverses' saga as an oppressed minority with that of the Jewish people. You look at our history and at what we've had to go up against and, on some level, I empathize with Lafayette and Pharoah because of what they're up against, he said. Our people's history is a history of struggle, a struggle in some ways just for survival as a people. That's the struggle that any oppressed minority would feel.

The entire Jewish tradition is based upon the notion of family and children, according to Rabbi Michael Siegel, spiritual leader of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago. The Bible speaks about the Jewish relationship with God as a covenantal one, which the prophets will later interpret as a marriage. Since the destruction of the temple, the Beit HaMikdash, Jews have been mandated to make their homes holy miniature sanctuaries: The Shabbat table has become the altar, the challot (braided bread for Shabbat and holidays) the sacrifice, and when parents bless their children, they assume the role of the priest.

From the opening chapter of Genesis, Jews are commanded to be fruitful and multiply. They are directed to raise their children to be moral people, to shape their children to the best of their ability, and to serve as models to their children on how to live a proper life, according to the rabbi.

But when parents in society are unable to provide a safe environment for their children, the Jewish tradition mandates for the protection of these most vulnerable members of society. The prophetic message which is the Torah's message is to hear the cry of your brother, is to remember that you were a stranger in a strange land, said Siegel. [We must help] anyone who is a stranger in our society or who is being treated as a stranger in society. And there is no one who is more vulnerable or more dejected than children in poor areas of our country, who are being ignored because they can be ignored. This is the call of the prophet, and the Jewish community cannot ignore this call.

Kotlowitz has two children of his own, an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. My hope is that of any parent. I hope they're able to live a good, happy life and they're self-sufficient and independent, he said. Separate from that, I hope they have a sense of openness, tolerance, and community.

JFCS offers professional counseling and a range of other services including crisis management, emergency financial assistance, Family Life Education groups, resettlement assistance, and programs dedicated to Holocaust survivors and the hearing impaired.

For more information on the benefit, please call (312) 673-3213.


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