In Conversation With Jeannie Weiner, JCRC/AJC’s Activist of the Year

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Jeannie Weiner, longtime community activist and volunteer, will be honored by the JCRC/AJC

Advocate, activist, agent of change, author … the list of Jeannie Weiner’s roles and accomplishments in her decades of service to the community is far too long to suffice as an introduction.

Weiner will be honored with the 2017 Activist Award by the Jewish Community Relations Council /AJC on Tuesday, June 20, at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. Featured speaker is Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Her son Joel Jackson paints a more personal picture in a recent post on his blog:

“My mom is special. I have always been profoundly impressed that she is forever active in the community without sacrificing an ounce of energy for her family, whom she always prioritizes. There were meetings and trips, but nothing that ever got in the way of the nurture and support of her children. In fact, when possible, we were included.

“While these experiences opened my eyes to a number of worldwide human rights crises, they were small things to do toward the massive effort needed to remind all people of our inherent humanity, and to dissuade entire communities from mistreating one another. Toward that colossal effort, by uniting with many benevolent organizations, committees and individuals, my mother was able to do big things, move people and make a real difference.”

Born in Santa Fe, N.M., Weiner moved in 1971 to Detroit, where she met and married Dr. Gershon Weiner, her beloved late husband of 37 years. While working as an early childhood education teacher in Southfield, Jeannie became involved with a B’nai B’rith Women’s professional group and found herself drawn to the plight of Jews in the former Soviet Union. The issue ignited her activism and showcased her leadership skills, initiating her involvement with the Jewish Community Council (now Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC), where she stepped up to co-chair the Soviet Jewry Committee.

A voice of social justice

As a leading local voice of the Soviet Jewry movement, Weiner served on the board of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry from 1984-89 and as the Detroit co-chair of the 1987 Summit Mobilization to Washington, D.C., bringing more than 1,000 Detroiters to the Capitol to stand up for religious freedom for Soviet Jews.

Activists in Detroit’s efforts to free and resettle Soviet Jews (1980s): Mike Winkelman, Jeannie Weiner, Gershon Weiner, Jerry Rogers and Betsy Winkelman

Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, Weiner focused her attention on the resettling of Russian Jews who had emigrated to Detroit. She served on the board of Jewish Family Service from 1989-2007.

Through her JCRC work, Weiner’s advocacy for social justice has extended to community interfaith outreach and Israel. In her tenure as JCRC president, from 1991-94, she worked extensively with Detroit’s diverse religious and ethnic communities, leading missions to Israel with Michigan Gov. Engler’s staff and congressional delegations. An active member of Jewish Federation’s Partnership 2000 (now Partnership2Gether), she has been to Israel on 24 visits, including trips to work with Detroit’s sister region in the Central Galilee.

An avid reader, writer and ever a student of history, Weiner is currently vice president of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, where she serves as a docent. Additionally, she is a member of the Advisory Council of the Jewish Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy Department, a board member of Hillel of Metro Detroit and of the Jewish Women’s Foundation, and a volunteer citizen tutor through JFS.

She also is a past president of the Michigan Jewish Conference (2004-2007), the League of Jewish Women’s Organizations (1988-89) and the Tzedakah Chapter of B’nai B’rith Women (now Jewish Women International). She is a former board member of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the Anti-Defamation League.

In Her Words

Reflecting her Santa Fe roots, her travels to Israel and her winter haven in Puerto Vallarta, Weiner’s home in West Bloomfield is filled with Southwestern and Mexican art, Judaica and sunlight. “Everything here has a story,” she says. The following are excerpts from her conversation with myJewishDetroit.com.

Q: What does activism mean to you?

As Jews, we are people of the book, and we believe in education. I believe becoming educated is the first part of activism. But, if you have this body of knowledge and see there are things you can do with this knowledge and you do nothing, then you haven’t really fulfilled the complete role of education.

For me, activism is action! Activism involves learning about something that you become passionate or knowledgeable about and then becoming involved and doing something about it.

When it comes to activism, there are lots of ways to become active. Let’s say you were worried about climate control and learned as much as you could, then you go to your synagogue and see they are not recycling or using LED lights. If you’re an activist, you say something. You don’t have to be loud about it. (Then they put you on a committee — make you chairman, and 30, 40, 60 years later you can be Activist of the Year!)

I’ve spent a career as a volunteer in community work, but I will add that I’ve been very lucky to do that, to have had the time and the support — that helps a lot.

Q: Thinking back, what project has been most significant to you?

It has to be my involvement in Soviet Jewry. Honestly, none of us involved from the beginning of the movement ever thought we would see the end of it. I told my youngest son at age 15 that he was going to have to carry on this work. Because we were up against the Soviet Union — this big, dark, powerful country that no one knew about, that didn’t let us in, that let no one out — a dictatorship we thought would never end as it did.

So, we worked on getting people out, one at a time, one family at a time — and every little victory was huge. When the wall came down, we were stunned. So being part of that and part of the Detroit community that worked on Soviet Jewry was so extraordinary because Detroit was probably the best community in the U.S. in terms of its work for Soviet Jews; Philadelphia and Baltimore were very good, too, but Detroit was exceptional.

Q: Is there a community project you still dream of starting?

I’m a member of three book groups, one of which I lead. And I still write articles and essays. I have a published novel, Santa Fe Sister, and, like every project worth doing, I had no idea how hard it was going to be before I started it. It took five years to write, and it takes a day to read. Sort of like making a good dinner!

As far as the work I still “dream” to do, well, speaking as an activist, there are many things to tackle that need tackling and, specifically, a number of projects I am doing now.

In light of the political climate today, I’m reminded of an initiative on gun control with a group I started back in 1991 called Enough is Enough: Women Against Gun Violence. This was long before these terrible shootings and tragic deaths in the schools. Raising the issues involving gun control is still of paramount importance to me and possibly could be one of my projects in the near future.

Another politically polarizing issue that deeply concerns me is immigration — and the fear people have about Muslims. I am involved in getting a group called JAM (Jewish and Muslim Women) together to talk about these things. This is all grassroots and very new.

Q: What do you see in Detroit that gives you the most hope?

Oh, lots of things! I’m in the city a lot. I care about it very much. One of the things I do as a docent with the Jewish Historical Society is to take people on tours. I care about building relationships between the city and the Metro area; and that, in fact, is what has drawn me to JCRC/AJC because they always have been involved in building partnerships in activism and community relationships throughout our city.

What I see in Detroit makes me hopeful because there’s so much happening in the city. Not only to change the landscape, but to change the attitude, the vocabulary and the way we talk about our city. We are no longer saying with our heads down, “I’m from Detroit.” And we’re not saying to people that Detroit is “not as bad” as they think or that the crime numbers are down. We’re not listing all the things that have gone wrong in the past. Instead, we’re saying, “Oh, you really should come. We have wonderful restaurants; you should see Campus Martius; you should go to the Riverfront. We’re a crazy sports town; if you love sports, go to a game. There’s life in our city, a new vitality you can really enjoy.”

Q: What do you tell young people to encourage them to get involved in the community?

If you think you don’t know anyone in Detroit, all you have to do is volunteer! Do something you are passionate about or something that interests you. Then you find people who are like-minded, and you have an instant circle of friends who think the way you do and who will be happy to go out with you — and march, if it takes that — or write letters or just talk about what we can do.

When I got here, I knew no one but my sister’s family. It’s funny, but my brother-in-law who grew up here says to me now that I know more people in the city than he does. That’s what community work gives you — a home base for making new friends. It may sound a little corny to say, but community work can be a rich and rewarding life! To have passion for a cause, to be part of a community and an active agent of change, really there’s not a better feeling.”

Vivian Henoch is editor of myjewishdetroit.org.

Tickets to the 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 20, Activist of the Year event at Adat Shalom are $18 and include a dessert reception. To help honor Jeannie Weiner, you may donate online at jcrcajc.org or by calling (248) 642-5393. All Sponsors and Platinum and Gold level donors and a guest are invited to attend a 6 p.m. strolling dinner prior to the event. For sponsorship opportunities, contact Beverly Phillips, (248) 203-1527 or phillips@jfmd.org.

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