Editor’s Note: “On a Just Path” is a series of stories about former JCUA employees, where they are now and the impact JCUA had on them. Interviews were conducted and edited by Nathaniel Seeskin, AVODAH Organizing Fellow at JCUA.
Q. When were you at JCUA and what was your position?
A. I had the pleasure of working for JCUA from 2003 to the end of 2005 in the position of Director of Outreach and Education.
Q. Tell us about your time at JCUA.
A. My role was to lead the Outreach and Education Department at a time when JCUA was exploring deliberate ways to reach out to the Jewish community. JCUA had a longstanding strength in working in low-income communities, but there was a renewed interest in organizing within the Jewish community. We had an incredible team of people who were and still are very dedicated to the Jewish community and social justice. Our work at JCUA at that time included:
- Organizing the Jewish community to work with day laborers in Albany Park to create a day labor center, partnering with public housing tenants to stop the demolition of Cabrini-Green and raising concerns about the fates of tenants, and working to support hotel workers during the Congress Hotel strike. We built a strong social justice voice within the Jewish community in Chicago.
- Running the Judaism and Urban Poverty (JUP) curriculum, one of JCUA’s hallmark programs at the time. We initiated the Nadiv Fellowship, through which dedicated young people in their twenties and early thirties studied Judaism and social justice and then taught the JUP curriculum to seventh graders in synagogues through Chicago and in the suburbs.
- Creating the Jewish Muslim Community Building Initiative (JMCBI) and partnering with the Chicago’s Muslim community on programs like ‘Iftar in the Sukkah’ and ‘Cafe Finjan’.
- Running social justice trainings and public programming in synagogues and other venues. For instance, we held a full-day Jewish social justice learning event for over one hundred people at the Spertus Institute, and we developed a series of community organizing trainings for synagogue leaders.
Q. What impact did your work at JCUA have in the community?
A. We saw the Jewish community become much more invested in doing justice work in Chicago. We saw synagogues thinking about how to organize internally. We saw Jews who were getting deeply involved personally and starting to build community around doing justice work. In April of 2005, we organized a national Jewish Social Justice conference in Chicago. It was the first time that Jewish social justice leaders had come together in recent memory. There were some 200 people and that was really a turning point for the cause of Jewish social justice nationally in seeing itself as a movement and not a group of disparate organizations.
Q. Is this linked to the current Jewish Social Justice Roundtable?
A. That conference is sometimes credited with sparking the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. It was pretty amazing when we looked around and realized there were more than 200 people in the room–we always thought of ourselves as a very small movement! It was several more years before anything coalesced to a Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, but I see the conference as one of the first moments of realizing, collectively, that there was an important role for us on the national scene.
Q. How would you say your work at JCUA impacts what you do now?
A. I direct T’ruah, which is a national rabbinic human rights organization. JCUA was my first position out of rabbinical school. I came out of rabbinical school knowing that I wanted to do social justice and I got very lucky. I’d never heard of JCUA before and I’d been to Chicago maybe once in my life, so it was a real leap of faith for me. Certainly it has led to everything I have done since. I went on to do national work on Jewish social justice at Jewish Funds for Justice (now Bend the Arc). When I realized that as a rabbi, I felt compelled to work both on Israel and on domestic concerns, I was lucky to find my place at T’ruah. I’ve been Executive Director since 2011 (the organization was founded in 2002).
Q. Is there anything else you would like to mention?
A. JCUA has an amazing history as one of the first Jewish social justice organizations. I would also like to note that Rabbi Marx had an incredible influence on me, both in terms of our personal relationship and his writings. As we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Selma, it is amazing that there is an organization that started then which is still around and doing work inspired by that history.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis and cantors and tens of thousands of American Jews to protect human rights in North America and Israel. She is the author of two books on Judaism and social justice: There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition and Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community.