Activists, including members of JCUA’s board, assisted the homeowners during these repossessions - physically putting the families’ belongings back in the homes. Yet homeowners were repeatedly forced out. They were stripped of their dignity, their investment, and what little money they had.
As leaders of a nascent organization, Marx and Kreinberg coordinated with other activists throughout the city to oppose the unfair treatment to African American home owners – in this case by a small group of other Jews. When conciliatory efforts with the realtors failed, they worked to bring lawsuits against the participating sellers. With JCUA’s help, the West Side homeowners won a class action lawsuit against realtors. Although controversial within the Jewish community, the tangible and symbolic victories of their efforts were clear. Jews stood side by side with blacks as they fought for their homes and their dignity. With this first organizational effort, JCUA began to build bridges that would be crossed many times in the future.
The Jewish focus of JCUA’s work – then and still – is rooted in the spiritual and the historical. Founder Rabbi Marx notes, “It makes me feel that I am being true to the highest ideals that my religion offers to me. It is the highest ideal of Judaism to help people to help themselves.” He points to Tikkun Olam (the originally Kabbalistic notion of "repairing the world" that has, in the last several decades, become a sort of touchstone for Jewish activists) and the biblical mandate of “Justice, Justice thou shalt pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) as two theological building blocks of JCUA’s work.
More specifically, Marx built the organization on his theory of “Jewish interstitiality.” Jews, he says, have traveled through history in a kind of power purgatory - never holding the highest positions of authority, but most often avoiding the cyclical destitution of the most powerless. Prohibited from owning land or property in city limits, European Jews in the late 19th century often held the job of collecting rents and taxes from people who could not afford them. Their work put them in the direct line of fire between disenfranchised citizens and dictatorial czars.
Marx sees this historical middle ground as a point of power for Jewish activism today. Jews do not run city hall, he says, but they are not oppressed by it either. He believes that Jews have a choice to either assist in the marginalization of oppressed people, as with the contract buyers of the 1950s and 1960s, or follow the prophets and work to assist these groups to lift themselves up.
JCUA’s basic mission has remained constant throughout its 40 year history of working with the oppressed communities in Chicago. Executive Director Jane Ramsey, celebrating her 25th year with the organization, says, “The original mission was a wise one. It was based on partnership and respect for the communities; it allowed JCUA’s staff to work on a day to day basis within the community.” Today’s discrimination against minorities is more insidious and difficult to eradicate than in the 1960s. Gone are the overtly institutionalized policies that kept blacks out of schools and neighborhoods. Today, oppressed communities face skyrocketing housing markets, destruction of public housing, xenophobic immigration policies and brutal interrogations practices. And these days, community organizations approach JCUA for organizing assistance on social justice issues including immigrant and worker rights, police and prosecutorial misconduct, and neighborhood gentrification.
Interestingly, JCUA never goes into a community uninvited and always defers leadership to members of the oppressed community; its work, says staff and members, is to amplify the voice of the voiceless. Original staff member Lew Kreinberg likened JCUA to a phone book – “connecting the powerless with the powers that be.” In addition to direct organizing work within local Chicago neighborhoods, JCUA has formed partnerships with the larger network of Jewish social justice organizations around the country - a network that, in many ways, JCUA helped to inspire and create.
On April 10, 2005, JCUA will convene in Chicago - along with 17 partner organizations - for the first national Jewish social justice conference, called Tzedek Yalin Bah/And Justice Shall Dwell There: Strengthening the Jewish Commitment to Justice in Our Cities. Conference attendees will spend two days in workshops on topics ranging from community reinvestment, arts as a vehicle for change, and youth and social change. Staff and lay leaders from organizations around the country will share their vision of a Jewish community committed to social justice, as well as their expertise for creating change locally and nationally. Scheduled speakers include Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Jennie Rosen of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and activist Leonard Fein.
The goal of the conference is to strengthen the network of dedicated social justice activists, and create the space to allow these activists to share ideas, learn from one another, and recharge their commitment - particularly in light of a dispiriting national election - to Jewish social activism. Over the past two decades, JCUA has lent expertise and support to many budding Jewish social justice organizations around the country. They have helped these organizations – like Jewish Community Action in Minneapolis and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in New York - grow from burgeoning upstarts to effective organizations. The conference is a chance for these like-minded groups to come together to celebrate their individual and collective work for social change. Conference partner Vic Rosenthal, of Jewish Community Action in Minneapolis, says, “The conference will increase the energy of those working in the community and on these issues. While most of the people we’re bringing are involved, we want to show them that they are part of a national movement, that they are part of something much bigger.”
Standing on at the murder site at Rock Cut Road a few years ago, I felt part of something larger than myself – something that in many ways began with the work and deaths of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, but did not end there. The JCUA conference is evidence that even in today’s complicated political climate, in which more and more Jews identify with the right wing of the American political spectrum, the Jewish commitment to social justice remains. As JCUA executive director Ramsey says, “There is a lot of dissatisfaction right now, a lot of willingness to become organized. I believe that while there are forces in our community that have moved far right, the majority has not. The vision of a just society comes from our place as Jews, from our obligation as Jews.”
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Giving Thanks to Elijah the Prophet in Indian Manhattan
The Pursuit of Justice
God's Unchanging Hand
Our 610 Back Pages
Neurotic Visionaries & Paranoid Jews
April 7, 2005
Zeek in Print
Fall/Winter 2004 issue now on sale
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Whatever It Takes