Understanding Comes from Perspective and Hindsight: A Visit with JCUA Founder Rabbi Robert Marx

By Judy Levey
Community Development Manager, JCUA

It’s not every day that one has an opportunity to interact with a living legend.  I suspect that Rabbi Robert J. Marx, founder and former president of JCUA, will not relish that “living legend” label.  However, as I listened to the assortment of extraordinarily interesting stories he conveyed at his home in Saugatuck, Mich., it was hard to think of a more apt title.

Ari Plost and Rabbi Robert Marx talk about JCUA history

On Thursday, Oct. 21 I had an opportunity to travel with JCUA colleagues and fifth-year rabbinical student Ari Plost from Hebrew Union College, to visit Rabbi Marx.

Plost, a former Rabbinical Fellow at JCUA, is working on a historical project focusing on Rabbi Marx and his influence on both JCUA and the Civil Rights Movement.

I had the good fortune to tag along for the ride and bear witness to Rabbi Marx’s stories, commentaries, and reflections.

With humility, generosity, and humor, Rabbi Marx shared some of his early experiences as a young Jewish leader and champion of social justice in the Chicago area.

He talked about the challenges inherent in backing unpopular but righteous positions, and about Judaism’s prophetic imperative to pursue justice.

He spoke of JCUA’s unique historic role in the Chicago region—working in collaboration with communities and helping promote equity and fairness.  He also talked about meetings in the early 1960s with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and representatives of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

When Rabbi Marx handed me the telegram that Dr. King sent him in the spring of 1965 asking him to join the civil rights marchers in Selma on March 7, I found myself shaking as I took it out of the envelope.

I am grateful to Ari Plost for his careful, insightful questions, which encouraged Rabbi Marx to relay a remarkable account of his work for JCUA during a tumultuous and historic period.

Rabbi Marx noted that it is difficult to determine what is historic at the time that history is taking place, and that understanding is a result of perspective and hindsight.

He also noted that JCUA continues as profound, dynamic organization that pursues the triumph of justice over injustice today, nearly fifty years after his vision first took hold.

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