The Board of Directors of Jewish Community Action announced on Feb. 1, 2017, that Vic Rosenthal would retire in March from his role as Executive Director but that he would remain engaged as a consultant through May as Carin Mrotz transitions into the position from her role as deputy director. TC Jewfolk spoke with Vic about the impact and legacy he built after 19 years with the 21-year-old organization.
After 17 years as Executive Director of Jewish Community Action, you are now officially retired. Why did you become involved in JCA and what made you stick it out for so long?
I started in the Fall of 1998 as a full-time staff person doing organizing until the early summer of 2000 when I became executive director. Prior to that I was doing organizing with the Minnesota Senior Federation for about 9 years, or a little less, and did organizing in various other ways before that. I came to JCA because it allowed me to combine my organizing approach to social change and connect it to my interests in Jewish heritage and history. I also became involved because of this idea that Jews are supposed to do work to make the world a better place — Tikkun Olam.
Did you come from a family heavily involved in social action and community organizing or from where do you think your drive and dedication to such causes stems?
My parents were very politically oriented and talked about social action a lot. My mom door knocked for Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey. My sister was a little bit involved in the anti-war movement in the late 60s and early 70s. Also, I was bullied as a little kid by neighborhood bullies who used derogatory phrases for my being Jewish and because I was a small and vulnerable kid. I was determined to fight back against bullies.
So from my early years growing up, I always had these beliefs that I would fight back against bullies and injustice. But one of the most impactful moments for me was hearing a speech by Ralph Nader in 1975 when I was in college. He talked about young people doing things to change the world and it had a significant impact on me.
JCA has done tremendous work with efforts to build affordable housing, pass marriage equality, protect the rights of immigrants, prevent voter suppression, and reduce prison sentences. If there is one legacy you’d want to be remembered for from all that you’ve accomplished at JCA, what would that be and why?
The legacy I want to be known for are the relationships that I built and the alliances JCA formed. We spent all these years building relationships within the Jewish community and outside our community — especially with people who didn’t expect it from a Jewish organization — African Americans, Latinos, Somalis and Muslim Americans — these are people we need to work with.
We, JCA, not only built these relationships and alliances but we sustained them all these years. They see us as an organization to show up and defend the rights of those who are marginalized and excluded. In a lot of ways, I would say that the issues flow from that. If it wasn’t for the actual work that we did, building the relationships and alliances, we wouldn’t have won on those various issues — housing and marriage equality. It is how we came together and sustained those alliances that are important.
You’re leaving JCA at a time when the community is seeing a rise in discrimination and anti-Semitism from slurs written on dorm room doors at the U to bomb threats at the St Paul and Sabes Jewish Community Centers to so many other issues facing women, Muslims, indigenous people and people of color. What words of wisdom do you have for the Jewish community in how to best face these issues and be a part of the greater solution?
This is related to the previous answer. What I think more than anything is we have to look outside of our community and stand together with diverse communities and be in solidarity with others who are victims of hate and look for allies with those who have not always been the allies. We need to welcome the stranger. We may be treated as the other right now, but so are others. Rather than be insular, we need to say that an attack on one is an attack on all. The Jewish community needs to take a bigger risk and stand with others in solidarity.
In your goodbye letter to the community you said it is your plan to stay active as a consultant in the many critically important racial and economic justice campaigns in the Twin Cities, but what else do you want to do with your time?
Given what is going on in our country and our local community, I want to remain a part of organizing and resistance. It doesn’t have to be with a Jewish organization. I would be very excited to do this work with other organizations that are not Jewish. I can be more flexible, working with whoever is trying to fight the good fight. It can be with an organization locally or nationally or organizing efforts or an issue campaign. I want to be very very involved and put myself out there as a part of a stronger effort to resist across the country, whatever that looks like. I hope people will see that there are skills and passion that I still have left.
What else is on your bucket list?
To continue to have more time as a grandfather. I have just one grandchild, who lives in New Jersey. Being a grandfather is the personal thing that is real important to me. That, and getting more rest. I recognize that I am not as young as I used to be. I need more time to recuperate and take care of myself because I have not always done that in my organizing career.
If you could have chosen any other career what would it have been?
I had thought about becoming a lawyer because it seemed like another way to fight for social change, but I bombed on the LSAT. I think the lawyer idea was out of my mind by the age of 21.
When you look at today’s young adults in their 20s and 30s, what comes to mind?
I had this wonderful opportunity to work with 20- and 30-somethings over the years. It gives me great energy and joy to know that generation is engaged and I hope that they will stay engaged. I have two children in their 20s and 30s and I am really proud of both of them because they have been willing to push themselves and take chances and are doing things that are related to taking a critical look at the world and the role they can play in changing the world. It gives me a lot of hope that people in their 20s and 30s are engaged.
Who is your favorite Jewish author or playwright?
Neil Simon, the playwright, because he was really good at laughing at himself and laughing at the Jewish community and I think it is really important for us to laugh at ourselves. I laugh at myself. I think self-deprecation keeps us humble. And I like to laugh. Plus, Neil Simon wrote a few plays that made me laugh and he lived in the town that I did — Yonkers. So there is that personal connection.
What’s your favorite Jewish food?
Matzo ball soup. It reminds me of my mom, and my wife uses her recipe. And because it always soothes me. It remains that thing I have when I am not feeling my best and even when I am feeling good.