Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
Logo of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
|Motto||"To combat poverty, racism and anti-Semitism in partnership with Chicago’s diverse communities."|
Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA) is a not-for-profit organization based in Chicago, Ill., that works with diverse neighborhoods and community groups to battle discrimination, antisemitism, poverty and other forms of oppression. Jane Ramsey was the organization’s executive director from 1980 - 2012. Judy Levey is the current executive director.
According to Slingshot, a Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation, “For 45 years, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA) has been perceived by many as the social consciousness of the Chicago-area Jewish community”. According to Sojourners magazine, JCUA is the preeminent model for today’s Jewish social justice organizations. As a Chicago-based organization, JCUA pioneered the American Jewish community’s participation in social justice work. Since 1964, JCUA has been working with neighborhoods targeted by social and economic depression and collaborates actively with immigrant communities to promote human rights and social justice. Working with other community-based organizations, JCUA focuses on issues that affect urban communities, such as “poverty, education, employment, housing, transportation and crime”. JCUA mobilizes the Chicago-area Jewish community in an effort to build partnerships and to advocate on behalf of disenfranchised Chicago residents.
JCUA was founded in 1964 by Rabbi Robert Marx, who at the time was the Midwest Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) and a committed civil rights activist.
JCUA’s origins can be traced to the civil rights movement of the 1960s when Rabbi Robert Marx marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Open Housing March in Marquette Park. JCUA was established as a Jewish voice promoting human rights and social justice for Chicago’s neighborhoods. In its early years, JCUA worked with the Contract Buyers League to fight unfair real estate practices in Westside homes that were causing excessive fines and evictions of black homeowners.
The first staff member of JCUA was Lewis Kreinberg, a young graduate student of the University of Wisconsin. Kreinberg’s first assignment was to work with the Northwest Community Organization (NCO) to counter slum landlords who were exploiting tenants.
JCUA continued its extensive work on affordable housing. The organization supported non-profit community based developers, advocated for improved tenant living conditions, assisted in organizing tenant unions, and aided in the formation and staffing of the Public Welfare Coalition.
JCUA focused on intergroup collaboration, working with Chicago’s diverse racial, ethnic, and religious communities. The organization engaged in dialogue with the African American community, and together created a service cooperative to focus on the needs of small local businesses. JCUA joined a coalition with African American and Latino communities to address job discrimination in Chicago-area corporations and to protest the Nazi march in Marquette Park. Working with local organizations in West Town, JCUA rallied in opposition to the post office, which at the time was practicing employment discrimination against Latino.
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) and JCUA created a summer youth program called the Youth Mitzvah Corps, empowering young people to volunteer in the inner city.
1980s and 1990s
As the [American] public was awakening to South Africa’s system of institutionalized racism, JCUA passed a resolution that condemned South Africa’s apartheid policies and called upon the organization’s membership to divest from companies engaged in business with South Africa.
As in the previous decade, JCUA continued its focus on local social services, assisting in the formation and staffing of the Chicago Coalition for Voter Registration, a group organized to educate about widespread homelessness in Chicago. Continuing its struggle for increased affordable housing, JCUA developed strategies to provide more low-income rental properties for the Latino community in Humboldt Park and for homeless women in Uptown, Edgewater, and Rogers Park. Working in several coalitions, JCUA continued the struggle for the preservation and rehabilitation of low-income and public housing. The Community Ventures Program allowed JCUA members to provide no-interest loans to non-profit developers.
Other JCUA campaigns focused on hunger and workers rights. Working with ICARE, JCUA organized statements for City Council which advocated for increased city funding and resources for hunger alleviation. With the Living Wage Campaign, JCUA fought for the Living Wage Ordinance which demanded employers with city contracts or city subsidies to pay employees a living wage.
JCUA helped initiate Progress Illinois, a group of Illinois-based organizations that supported a graduated state income tax which would alleviate the tax burden for middle and low-income families, also allowing for additional state revenue to fund education and human service programs.
JCUA developed several Jewish initiatives that worked to organize the American Jewish community around issues of social justice. The Judaism and Urban Poverty (JUP) curriculum was developed to be used in synagogue religious schools in order to teach Jewish youth about the institutional and structural causes of poverty. The JUP curriculum instructed children about the social responsibility, informed by Jewish perspectives, to improve the living conditions of those most in need. JCUA also assisted in the creation of a national organization called AMOS. The mission of AMOS was to make social justice a top concern of American Jewry. The Urban Mitzvah Corp was initiated as a program for Jewish college students over their winter breaks. Program participants rehabilitated housing with Habitat for Humanity and learned about poverty from community experts and local rabbinic leaders. To strengthen relationships between black and white Jews, JCUA created an educational and social program called Shalem (Hebrew for "Making Whole"). The program developed strategies to raise public awareness of African American Jews.
2000s to the Present
Marking the fifth anniversary of the Congress Hotel strike, JCUA mobilized more than 70 members of the Jewish community, including several rabbis, to support the strikers who are seeking workers’ rights, such as living wages and basic benefits. JCUA members and participants have continued to picket along with striking workers at the hotel through the seventh anniversary of the strike in 2010.
Demanding political accountability, JCUA along with several other community organizations created a comprehensive agenda to hold local government officials accountable. This campaign is known as “Developing Government Accountability to the People” or DGAP. In 2010, DGAP published updated information on the records of Chicago aldermen and asked local citizens to grade their alderman on the DGAP website.
JCUA has worked to ensure broad healthcare access in Illinois. JCUA won an increased 2008 budget for the Cook County Bureau of Health along with the creation of an independent board of directors that would take control of managing Cook County’s public health care system, the second largest of such programs in the country. JCUA continued its work to preserve affordable housing in the city of Chicago. The organization assisted residents of housing projects in filing a law suit, claiming that orders for the residents to relocate violated their human rights.
After 9/11, in the wake of increased prejudice against Muslims, JCUA created the Jewish-Muslim Community-Building Initiative (JMCBI), a program that brings together members from both faith groups through cultural and educational opportunities. JMCBI mobilizes Jews and Muslims to advocate collaboratively around several social justice campaigns.
Together with the Community Renewal Society, JCUA convened the Justice Coalition of Greater Chicago (JCGC), which brought together 100 faith-based, civil rights, other types of organizations to battle police and criminal prosecutorial misconduct. In a landmark success, JCUA and JCGC won a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, postponing all lethal injections until investigations could conclude why more Illinois executions had been overturned rather than carried out. JCUA initiated Or Tzedek, the Teen Institute for Social Justice. Or Tzedek is an urban-immersion program aimed at strengthening teens’ Jewish identities though social justice education and direct activism.
After the 2008 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid and the subsequent bankruptcy of Agriprocessors, Inc. kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, JCUA and Jewish Community Action of St. Paul, Minnesota were invited to join the Postville Community Benefits Alliance (PCBA). PCBA is a coalition of organizations that is working to ensure that the new owners of the plant (now called Agri Star) continue to distribute kosher meat products and that the company is held accountable to provide employees with safe working conditions and fair treatment
JCUA has been active in advocating for federal comprehensive immigration reform, and has “often been the public face of the Jewish community’s response to the immigration debate in Chicago.” JCUA supports legislation that would provide illegal immigrants with an avenue to achieve citizenship and advocates a ban on deportations.
JCUA works on several campaigns and projects concurrently. Some of the organization’s current activities are outlined below:
JCUA organizes Jewish-Muslim dialogue programs, such as “Iftar in the Sukkah” or “Iftar in the Synagogue”, events that bring local Jews and Muslims together to break the fast of Ramadan and to celebrate a coinciding Jewish holiday. In 2007, when the end of Ramadan overlapped with Sukkot, a Jewish festival marking the traditional time of harvest, about 150 Muslims and Jews congregated in Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Chicago, to socialize, eat, and experience each other's rituals. The “Iftar” programs have continued yearly.
From JCUA's inception until today, the organization has focused on preserving affordable housing opportunities for low-income Chicagoans. In reaction to citywide gentrification, JCUA is working with community groups to ensure affordable housing for displaced residents. JCUA provides seed money to real estate developers to encourage development of affordable housing. July 11, 2007. JCUA works with the Coalition for the Protection of Public Housing on the “Housing is a Human Right” campaign. The campaign opposes the unjust treatment of Chicago public housing residents by challenging forced evictions.
JCUA runs a teen urban-immersion program called Or Tzedek (Hebrew for “Light of Justice”). The week-long program gives high school students the opportunity to engage with urban issues such as affordable housing, health-care, immigration, poverty, and homelessness. Participants learn about these social justice issues through a Jewish lens while meeting and volunteering with community leaders and experts.
In the aftermath of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid in May 2008 of the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant, JCUA has helped organize an alliance of community groups and concerned individuals in Postville, Iowa. The group aims to reach a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with the new owners of the Agriprocessors plant. Since the 2008 raid, JCUA has raised money and supported the affected Postville community. The goals of the Postville Community Benefits Alliance are to ensure that the meatpacking plant is a responsible corporation and that it treats its workers fairly while providing a safe working environment.
JCUA has been at the forefront of the battle for comprehensive immigration reform. JCUA seeks to be a “strong Jewish presence” as it works with other faith communities, supporting the passage of federal legislation that treats immigrants fairly. JCUA, Jewish Community Action (St. Paul, Minn.) and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society co-convened “We Were Strangers, Too: the Jewish Campaign for Immigration Reform.” The campaign aims to pass “comprehensive immigration reform which should include family reunification, a path to citizenship, enforcement that reflects our values while bolstering national security, legal channels for future immigrants and resources that empower immigrants to integrate into our society”.
- JCUA was included in the 2009–2010 and the 2010–2011 editions of Slingshot, an annual guide that highlights innovative Jewish non-profit organizations. JCUA was the only Chicago-based organization to be selected in Slingshot’s most recent publication
- The "Forward 50" is an annual list published by The Jewish Daily Forward that highlights 50 of the most influential leaders in the American Jewish community. In 2009, The Forward included JCUA’s former executive director, Jane Ramsey. "In almost every social and economic justice issue that came up in Chicago — homelessness, unemployment, community reinvestment, racism, anti-Semitism — Ramsey was there, providing Jewish leadership".
- Jewish Funds for Justice
- Uri L'Tzedek
- Tikkun olam
- Postville Raid
- Unite Here
- Jill Jacobs (rabbi)
- Capers Funnye
- Jewish left
- "Honoring Social Justice Stars." Chicago Jewish News. June 22–28, 2007
- Sojourner’s Magazine, “Do What is Just.” February 2010
- Rosner, Shmuel. "Fixing the world, one neighborhood at a time." Haaretz. October 24, 2007
- "CBA (Community Alliance) Meeting". Postville Herald-Leader. August 19, 2009.
- "Let Their People Stay." Chicago Jewish News. July 16–22, 2010
- Ramirez, Margaret. "Jews, Muslims share a holy day." Chicago Tribune. October 3, 2007
- Lenoir, Lisa. "Group’s mission: possible." Chicago Sun-Times
- "Teens and the City...Chicago Jewish News. June 29, 2007.
- "Slingshot Hit is on Target: Chicago." Chicago Jewish News. November 5, 2009.
- "The Forward 50." The Forward. November 20, 2009.