Jewish doctors and lawyers in Minnesota in the 1950s were notoriously discriminated against. You weren’t allowed admitting privileges. You couldn’t become a partner in a law firm if you were Jewish. It’s a history that Vic Rosenthal knows well, and it’s one of the reasons he does what he does.
“We can’t go back to that,” Rosenthal says. “I don’t mean we can’t go back to that as Jews, I mean as a society we can’t allow that to go on in our country.”
The history of anti-Semitic prejudice is one motivator for Rosenthal’s work as the executive director and community organizer for Jewish Community Action. The organization works with residents in the Twin Cities and beyond to help people save their homes, to assist LGBT couples in the fight to gain the right to marry, and to continue the civil rights struggle that Jews traditionally have been involved in, fighting for voting rights and equal protections under the law.
Rosenthal’s grandparents escaped the pogroms in Russia in the late 19th century and came to the United States. His grandmother on his mother’s side raised several children after her husband died, and resorted to bootlegging during Prohibition in order to support her family. Rosenthal says the stories of Jewish oppression motivated him deeply.
“Jewish people need to never forget,” he says. “Just because we’re white and many of us are affluent, we need to never forget that our history is one of oppression and suffering.”
There is phrase is Judaism called Tikkun Olam. It means to repair what is broken, and Rosenthal says Jewish people believe they must be partners with God to help others. That sense of Jewish tradition is woven into the fabric of his work at JCA.
Jewish Community Action
Last fall, JCA was part of the successful dual campaigns to defeat Minnesota’s anti-gay marriage and Voter ID amendments. Community leaders told JCA that it would be impossible to work against both amendments, but Rosenthal decided that JCA would oppose both. Carin Mrotz, JCA’s director of operations and communications, remembers what Rosenthal’s response was when folks said that working on both would weaken their position.
“Vic said, ‘We’re not going to be the ones who left our allies wondering where we were when it was important to show up for this issue,” says Mrotz. As a result, JCA had conversations with thousands of Minnesotans about both amendments and organized phone banks devoted to working on what they saw as core civil rights issues. Rosenthal’s enthusiasm, says Mrotz, was at the center of JCA’s effort.
From Yonkers with Love
Rosenthal, 58, grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., in a middle class Jewish family. He moved to Minnesota nearly 26 years ago to be with his wife, Chris, who grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota. Politics was a big part of Rosenthal’s early life. His mother campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. Rosenthal remembers door knocking for George McGovern in 1972. His sister and father debated who would be a better president in 1964 — Johnson or Goldwater. Through all of this, he remembers the keen feeling that there were underdogs and there were bullies. Life was a struggle about fairness, and Rosenthal wanted to fight for the underdogs.
Out of college, he joined the New York Public Interest Research Group and started working with senior citizens, advocating for them during their most difficult decisions.
State Rep. Frank Hornstein was doing work with Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group, when he met Rosenthal in the mid-1990’s. Hornstein sought him out as a fellow organizer and saw how Rosenthal’s faith and organizing came together in a powerful and meaningful way. Hornstein asked Rosenthal to be a part of an organization that would help mobilize Jews in the community on social issues. They launched JCA in 1995.
“We talked a lot about ‘Tzedakah,’” Hornstein says, using a Hebrew term that implies the kind of charity work that is required to correct injustices. “Justice is talking about changing an entire system and preventing poverty. People have a fair chance in the world as opposed to handouts.”
Rosenthal started having conversations with members of his synagogue about housing issues and poverty, eventually bringing those concerns with him when he landed on the board of directors at St. Paul’s Temple of Aaron.
Back to the North Side
The North Side of Minneapolis was once home to many Jewish families. In the 1950s and ’60s, however, the community experienced what Rosenthal calls “white flight.” A lot of Jewish people left and the community became predominantly African-American.
In 1998, a few years after joining JCA, Rosenthal made a commitment to re-connect with residents on the North Side. He sat down with many African-American residents and just listened. He wanted to know what was important to them. A few years later, JCA stood in solidarity with the North Side when the city decided to build Heritage Park and knock down low-income rentals that many in the neighborhood called their home.
JCA has put a lot of effort and resources into the Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition, or NCRC — an arm of JCA that has brought together community leaders and voices in the neighborhoods to help strengthen the community. And, as the housing crisis deepened, the relationships Rosenthal had fostered between JCA and the community proved crucial to the work to save homeowners from sheriff’s sales and foreclosures.
JCA helped residents fight banks that tried to foreclose on their homes while Rosenthal lobbied at the Capitol for a Homeowners’ Bill of Rights (still awaiting passage). Rosenthal says what inspires him to work against foreclosure are the friendships he has made on the North Side. One of those connections is with homeowner Cathy Spann.
Spann lost her job in 2009. A few weeks later, her husband died suddenly. A few months later, her mother fell, and Spann had to go to Mississippi to help her. Still with no job and no income. Then in 2011, a tornado tore through North Minneapolis, damaging her home. Spann already was in foreclosure and facing a sheriff’s sale when she headed to Farview Park to sign up for storm relief with hundreds of other residents. She remembers running into Rev. Jerry McAfee who noticed how much she was suffering. McAfee advised Spann to call NCRC. Within days, Rosenthal showed up at her door. And said that if Spann wouldn’t give up, he would not give up, either.
“They restored my faith,” Spann says. “Without Vic and his staff, I would have been lost.”
Paying it Forward
JCA/NCRC wrote emails to Spann’s bank, JP Morgan Chase. They sent letters to Senator Al Franken, who wrote to the bank on Spann’s behalf asking it to call off the sheriff’s sale. Rosenthal helped Spann find new employment. Finally, the bank agreed to work with her. The bank also agreed to a mortgage principle reduction.
“(JCA) shared with me what true religion and belief was about,” Spann says. “They changed my life.”
Inspired by the work of Rosenthal and his staff, Spann decided to “pay it forward.” She now sits on the board of NCRC and does community work as well.
Rosenthal says his work is a lot about relationships and tireless efforts to reach people — not through social media but through door knocking and grassroots organizing. He feels optimistic about the chances for passage of a bill that would protect homeowners. His strategy with legislators is to bring them together and find things in common between their work and the needs of the community. Things like holding banks accountable.
After four decades of community organizing, Rosenthal still feels energized.
“I helped build an organization that makes a difference in peoples’ lives,” he says.
“At the end of the day, that’s all you can hope for.”