“I feel like it reaches the core of my being.”
We speak with core JCUA member Mike Frankenstein about organizing for justice in Chicago.
How did you get involved with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and what have you been working on?
When I retired in October of 2014, I made a list of things I wanted to do. One of them was to reconnect with my roots with JCUA. I wanted to get involved with a community organization doing social justice work and I wanted to do it with a Jewish lens. My ethos and religious beliefs are based in Jewish ethics and Jewish tradition. I believe in the concept of “Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world), and being directed toward supporting the other. Especially because the Jewish experience has always been the other. So we need to make sure the other is treated with dignity and respect, that’s the core of Jewish thought. JCUA is a conduit to make us express and actualize that in the real world.
The first JCUA campaign I got very involved with was the campaign for domestic workers rights. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt passed legislation creating a 40-hour work week, putting certain benefits into place. Unfortunately, the old southern Democrats that were left over from Reconstruction always fought against rights for minority groups. This excluded the Irish, Blacks, Chinese and domestic workers, who were mostly women.
Domestic workers were leading a movement at the Illinois state level to ensure the same benefits. JCUA participated in a coalition with Latinx organizations to pass significant legislation. We wanted to add our voice to their voice. So I went to meetings, I spoke at a press conference at Grace Place. We canvassed, phone banked and held actions. Eventually we got it passed! It was a wonderful opportunity to establish JCUA as a strong voice for social justice in the Chicago community. And we built relationships with coalition partners that endure today. I was glad to be in it on the ground floor.
What is it like to be part of the JCUA community?
I get a special feeling organizing with JCUA, because being Jewish to me means being part of a family. When I go to JCUA meetings, there’s a relationship that ties all Jews together spatially and temporally. I feel connected to Jews across time, which is similar to the feeling you can get that in places in worship. In this particular venue, we focus on social justice as our primary goal and reason, which coalesces everything about being Jewish. The people I work with energize me and excite me and help me feel my Jewish responsibility. It is unique. I feel like it reaches the core of my being.
What role do you think JCUA plays in the City of Chicago?
JCUA is one of the significant community organizing groups that can push through social justice efforts in Chicago. We try to identify the root causes of disparity — some of them are economic inequality and systemic oppression and racism — and work to combat them through strategic campaigns. Though Jewish people are part of all segments of society, we have a certain influence, connections and access to resources. There are people in our community who are constitutional lawyers and immigration lawyers, and work in other community organizations — people who have certain expertise. We bring those skill sets to our coalition work.
What are you looking forward to over the next year, personally and politically?
I want to make sure we get the Fair Tax referendum passed. There’s already a lot of misinformation coming from the other side, so we need to educate voters. A Fair Tax would produce more revenue generation, which will relieve deficits, and restore public services like mental health services.
I also want to make sure that after three years, our GAPA ordinance is passed in City Council. We have to make sure it’s implemented correctly on all levels. And we also must make sure that Chicago is a truly welcoming city, with the closure of private detention centers that house immigrants. Working on these things is very personal.
How are you Raising Your Voice for meaningful social change in 5780?
I feel like I can raise my voice by meeting with the representatives who can pass legislation that changes life in Chicago. I want to help create a society that is well integrated, where people don’t live in fear, and treasure diversity and difference. We’re all part of the tapestry of Chicago and we all want to make this city beautiful. I hope to connect with people on the street, to make sure they’re being heard and their needs are being met.
JCUA is Chicago’s Jewish voice for social justice. We’re dedicated to ending poverty, racism and antisemitism in partnership with our city’s diverse communities. Join Mike and become a member today.