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On its golden anniversary, JCUA looks at today’s challenges

Wed, Jul 23, 2014

Judy Levey (left), executive director of JCUA; Rabbi Robert J. Marx, founder of JCUA and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Hakafa; and Jane Ramsey, longtime executive director of JCUA.

Judy Levey (left), executive director of JCUA; Rabbi Robert J. Marx, founder of JCUA and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Hakafa; and Jane Ramsey, longtime executive director of JCUA.


The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA), honored its founder, Rabbi Robert J. Marx, at a recent 50th anniversary gala. Since 1964, JCUA has pursued “social and economic justice,” and its partnerships with other civil rights groups have helped the organization remain active, inclusive, and influential.

As a civil rights advocate, Rabbi Marx has an accomplished legacy— both independently and as a member of JCUA. His activism includes marches alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago and Alabama. In August 1966 when Dr. King organized open housing marches in South Side Marquette Park, Rabbi Marx wrote a letter to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in which he said, “Leaders of the civil rights movement have tried to capture Judaism’s vision of a city that is truly open to all people, to all races, to all religions.”

His new book, The People in Between: The Paradox of Jewish Interstitiality, explores the dynamic between the Jewish community and its neighbors from a social justice standpoint. In a recent phone interview with Rabbi Marx, StreetWise asked him questions about JCUA, religion, service, inequity, and what it means to have created and sustained a successful social justice organization:

Lew Kreinberg (from left), Rev. Shelvin Hall and Rabbi Robert Marx meet in front of the Friendship Baptist Church, formerly a Jewish synagogue (c. 1967).

Lew Kreinberg (from left), Rev. Shelvin Hall and Rabbi Robert Marx meet in front of the Friendship Baptist Church, formerly a Jewish synagogue (c. 1967).



On Disparity

“Yes, I am worried about the gaps that seem to be growing wider in our society. They’re not only income gaps, but gaps in terms of power. There seems to be a conscious effort to divide up the voice of people who are powerless. Immigration is one issue. Gun violence is another issue […] All these are used to make the issues much more complicated today than they were 50 years ago.”

On Service and Proximity

“It’s always easier to be a prophet in a foreign land. It’s much harder to be a prophet in your own territory, where people introduce the complexity of issues that they feel justify their own misbehavior. In your own land, it’s hard to deal with the selfishness, the greed, the corruption that one can see clearly in another land far away.”

On Being A “Practical Faith”

“A practical faith means that rather than rest in the clouds, you take individual cases, individual situations— poor people, oppressed people—and, rather than offer them nostrums such ‘love thy neighbor,’ you actually get down on your hands and feet and knees into the gritty business as to what it means to love your neighbor.”

On Acting Beyond Self- Interests and Individualism

“I think that you have to have an awareness of ‘the other’—the people who are not blessed with the gifts that you are. And you have to have the imagination that places you in the position of those who are less blessed with the material things of life. Then, thinking of that, you have to act to do something about it […] The trouble with individualism is that you lose a sense of collective responsibility. You say that my interests, my needs, my welfare is all-important. And what we have to do, I think, in order to create a just society is to say that, if we’re going to encourage life, we have to make life worth living for all peoples, rather than just for ourselves alone.”

On Youth At JCUA

“One thing I’m concerned about is setting the best example that I can and doing the best job that I can do and hoping that somebody will take up the tools and the shovel to do the difficult work that has to be done in each generation. I did it for my generation, what I could do—and it was certainly inadequate and not enough—but I hope that people will keep trying and not become tired.”

On Challenges Ahead

“What needs to be changed is the indifference that we still feel for people who are suffering and are hungry and can’t earn enough of a living, and despite their efforts to work, can’t earn enough to sustain themselves and support there families. I think this is the task that we have to continue working on.”

On JCUA’s Survival

“I think 50 years ago the issue was simple and straightforward: it was civil rights. Today, the voices of people who are oppressed are drowned out by complex issues that divide people who would otherwise be united in their pursuit of good.”

Lya Dym Rosenblum, longtime member of the JCUA board of directors, was the first enrollee in JCUA’s new membership program.

Lya Dym Rosenblum, longtime member of the JCUA board of directors, was the first enrollee in JCUA’s new membership program.

During the 50th anniversary gala dinner, Gov. Pat Quinn sent a letter that called JCUA “an incredible asset not only to the Illinois Jewish community, but to our state as a whole.” Mayor Rahm Emanuel wrote that Rabbi Marx’s vision “continues to reach across religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.” The closing benediction came from Dr. Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Network, who was mentored by Rabbi Marx. He was accompanied by Nikki Stein and Bud Lifton, gala co-chairs, and by Rabbi Bruce Elder.

As its 50th year unfolds, JCUA is on a mission to build passion and involvement by developing a membership base.

Through a series of gatherings, individuals interested in helping lead JCUA’s next campaigns are coming together to learn more about JCUA’s organizing methods and help shape the next campaign.

At the first official membership meeting (on June 30), the discussion looked at criminalization and race as core issues facing Chicago today. JCUA members identified economic disparity as the root cause of most of the community issues that JCUA addresses. They expressed a need to build an active base within the Jewish community.

In early August, JCUA members will meet again to further the discussion and develop more leadership skills around organizing effectively. Membership meetings are open to the public.

For more information about JCUA membership, contact Rabbi Ben Greenberg at ben@jcua.org or visit www.jcua.org/join.

To hear Rabbi Marx speak more to the issues addressed above, please visit the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjXYwR-Nr0Q

Frani O’Toole
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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