by Jessica Kim Cohen
JCUA Intern, Communications
Nearly 350 people gathered on Wednesday, June 5, 2013, for JCUA’s annual Acts of Change event, where Sylvia Neil was presented with the Rabbi Robert J. Marx Social Justice Award for her commitment to social justice and human rights.
Martha C. Nussbaum, scholar of law, philosophy, gender and social justice, gave the keynote speech, which discussed the need for compassionate concern when working for social change, while not losing sight of the challenges posed by oppressive social institutions.
Rabbi Capers Funnye, event chair and vice president of the JCUA board, remembered Sylvia Neil’s steadfast support of his predominantly African-American synagogue years ago. “It was difficult to find leaders of the Jewish community who would support me and my congregation. Sylvia Neil stepped forward in support, delivering a powerful message of inclusion,” said Rabbi Funnye in his remarks.
“At the time, it was a gutsy move on her part, a bold step,” he continued. “She spoke out. She took action. That’s the same way JCUA has operated from day one. Recognizing the need to say something, to take bold action, to fight unceasingly for justice.”
The message of speaking out against injustice resounded throughout the evening.
During the cocktail reception, JCUA staff set up a “Voices for Change” stage, where attendees raised their voices in support of four different causes JCUA has been focusing on: immigrant justice, housing, combating hate and bigotry and teen leadership.
Postcards placed on dinner tables also encouraged attendees to call Sen. Mark Kirk, asking him to vote for SB744, the comprehensive immigration reform bill.
While many may feel overwhelmed by the immensity of social justice issues, Sylvia’s children, David and Deanna Neil, illustrated the change that one person can make in his or her lifetime, and what it was like to grow up with a social justice champion.
Speaking to Sylvia’s work fighting for religious liberties, such as her opposition to prayer in public schools, David emphasized the way his mother has influenced many of our lives today. “Thanks to Mom, we are now freer to practice the religion of our choosing. But tonight is about you, not us.”
After these moving remarks, Sylvia was presented with the award.