For Esther Saks and Family, Social Justice is a Way of Life

A colorful quilt by the artist Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, hangs on the wall in the dining room of Esther Saks’ Chicago apartment in Lakeview. Its elements are finely detailed—down to the images of people woven into the fabric. And like the images woven into the quilt, so has the desire to do social justice work been woven into the fabric of who Saks is.

“Living a self-sustaining and self-supporting life is a given, but above that offering one’s resources, time and intelligence to your communities, takes the meaning of life next level,” said Saks. “Our family has always felt that one owes something to your community,” she said.

Saks, 80, shared this passion for social activism with her late husband Alan Saks, and in their 50-year marriage, the couple were deeply committed to many political and social justice movements and activities, and raised four daughters who followed in their footsteps.

“Both my parents and Alan’s parents led by example – we always tried to do the same,” said Saks.

Esther and Alan Saks

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Saks began her career working as an art supervisor in Appleton, Wis. It was during this time when Saks’ life as a social and political activist took off.

In 1951 she joined others in signing a public petition against Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his hometown of Appleton, because of his Communist hunt, which became known as the Red Scare.

It was also there where she met her husband. “I was always very liberal in my politics and thinking and he was too, as well as lively, energetic, talkative and articulate,” said Saks.

Esther and Alan Saks

After getting married in 1954, the couple moved to Alan’s hometown of Chicago, where she served as president of their neighborhood PTA and was involved in the integration of Evanston schools.

Her interest in school issues carries on today, as she serves on the board, and was a founding member of, the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School. It is the only all-girls school in Chicago with a curriculum emphasis on math, science and technology. It supports its students to develop as leaders in non-traditional fields for woman, pursue college degrees and lead productive lives.

The Esther Saks Gallery, which opened in 1982 in Chicago, became a popular site for numerous benefits for pro-choice and political causes, as Esther used her business in much the same way Alan did – to support the social issues and community challenges of the times.

For example, when Chicago neighborhoods were experiencing rapid urban flight in the 1960s and 1970s, Alan opened Saxon Paint & Hardware stores in communities being abandoned by national chains. Saks recalled that a particular store her husband opened on 89th and Stony Island Street became very successful.

“Many people in the community could see Saxon’s commitment to the neighborhood – the other stores moved out and we moved in. It became one of our best stores,” said Saks.

Across the city, Alan worked with community leaders and other progressive leaders to strengthen local neighborhoods, businesses and schools.

Alan Saks

As president and CEO of the 50-store chain, Alan Saks became well known for his ethical business practices in the Chicago communities in which his stores were located, and provided paint for many nonprofits across the city.

And, said Saks, the business also had a profound impact on her children.

“Our kids were surrounded by conversations about business and politics, and our life values. They understood the connection between all of these ideas because they saw how we made choices and ran our businesses as well as our social activism. We hoped our example of social action would be very influential in their lives,” she said.

Ruth Saks became the fourth generation of Saks family members to work with Saxon Paint, which was founded by Alan Saks’ grandmother in 1914.  She worked to keep up the equitable and responsible businesses practices her father worked hard to maintain. In 2004 she started Ruth Saks Ltd., an advertising and marketing consulting business geared toward helping businesses stay afloat during the recession.

Beth Saks previously held the position of chief financial officer & treasurer at Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, and is currently treasurer and chief financial officer of The Global FoodBanking Network, an organization working collaboratively to reduce world hunger.

Alan and Esther Saks with granddaughter

Additionally, Beth spent eight years doing financial management consulting for various nonprofits.  She and her husband Scott Fithian have two teenage children, Sam and Sarah.   The entire family continues to be involved in volunteering for various organizations from soup kitchens to social justice initiatives.

Jane Saks is the founding executive director of the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media, Columbia College Chicago which uses the arts and media to create original works, research, public engagement/education, and advocacy. She works to challenge and champion issues of gender, sexuality, human rights, race and power within the worlds of arts and culture, politics and civil rights, academia and philanthropy.

She serves on several boards including: Advisory Board for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, co-chair of Chicago Foundation for Women’s Lesbian Leadership Council, Chicago Committee of the African Women’s Development Fund and Radio Diaries of National Public Radio.

Naomi Saks founded and directed the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, a San Francisco Bay Area-based education and social development organization that advocated for women and girls in economically disadvantaged communities to have entrepreneurship and financial literacy skill opportunities.  She recently completed her Master of Divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School where her studies focused on spiritual care, bioethics, interfaith collaboration, and Jewish studies.

She currently works as a spiritual care and bereavement coordinator at a hospice in Northern California. She is also working toward receiving ordination as a rabbinic pastor from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Esther Saks said it’s gratifying to see her daughters carrying on the family’s tradition of social justice work in their own unique ways — their impulse to pursue justice woven as tightly as the threads of the quilt hanging on Saks’ dining room wall.

“Alan was and would continue to be very proud of them,” she said.

Saks and her daughters will be honored for their social justice efforts at the Rabbi Robert J. Marx Social Justice Awards Dinner hosted by the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs on Nov. 18 at the Millennium Knickerbocker, Chicago.

To join in honoring the Saks family and to support the important work of JCUA, please contact Pamela Klier-Weidner at or (312) 663-0960.

2 Responses to For Esther Saks and Family, Social Justice is a Way of Life

  1. Sol Bleiweis says:

    My best wishes to Esther and her daughters on a recognition well deserved. Yes they are following in Alan’s foot steps. I have very pleasant memories of my long association with the Saks family. I would have liked to be part of this evening but circumstances are a little difficult. Sol Bleiweis

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