Lila Zorn, president of B’nai B’rith Great Lakes Region, presents the B’nai B’rith International President’s Award to Joel Marwil.
Lila Zorn, president of B’nai B’rith Great Lakes Region, presents the B’nai B’rith International President’s Award to Joel Marwil. (Photo: Alan Muskovitz)

Joel Marwil is all about inclusion.

Joel Marwil, 73, of Farmington is the recipient of the 2019 B’nai B’rith International (BBI) President’s Award for his efforts in distributing the winning books from the Diverse Minds Writing Challenge to Detroit-area preschools and elementary schools. The organization has been championing human rights since its inception in 1843.

The national BBI Diverse Minds Writing Challenge competition asks high school students to write and illustrate a children’s book for elementary-aged students “that tell a story of tolerance, diversity or inclusion.” Contest winners in each city/region receive a $5,000 college scholarship and have their books published.

BBI Great Lakes Region president Lila Zorn of Farmington Hills accepted the award on Marwil’s behalf during a ceremony in Washington, D.C., this past November. “Joel is the consummate volunteer who cares about people,” Zorn said. “He took on the book distribution because he so strongly believes that a positive message of diversity be taught to our young children.”

“As satisfying as it is to receive the award,” said Joel, “I’m just happy to be able to give back to the community. That’s the real meaning behind it.” He plans on distributing more books and making himself available to read at schools once normal sessions resume.

Since 2006 B’nai B’rith said it “has published 41 original children’s books, some in two different languages (English and Spanish), awarded more than $337,000 in college scholarships and grants, and donated more than 45,000 books to public schools, libraries, and community organizations across the country.” You’d be hard pressed to distinguish the books of these high schoolers from their professional counterparts both in form and function.

Joel has a long history with B’nai B’rith. He’s been a member since 1972, ascending to trustee and president of the Tucker-Grant Lodge. He is a vice president of the executive board of the Great Lakes Region.

Witness to Injustice

When he was just 11, Joel became acutely aware of the impact that inclusion, or lack thereof, could have on an impressionable young mind. He remembers clearly the day in the summer of 1957 he and his 12-year-old friend Sidney spent an afternoon at the beach in Cape May, New Jersey. If not for segregated beaches, they may have enjoyed the afternoon together.

Joel is the Detroit grandson of Aaron and Fera Zavelle, his mother Lenore’s parents, who owned a prominent Philadelphia bookstore. Sidney was the son of Bill Harper, a longtime black employee of the Zavelles.

The Zavelles’ relationship with Bill and his family extended past the confines of their bookstore and their skin color. On this particular weekend in 1957, they welcomed the Harpers into their Cape May summer home. However, when the families left the front porch, Jim Crow laws prohibited them from enjoying the same beach.

Joel couldn’t fully comprehend why he and Sidney had to go their separate ways that day. “I was confused at first,” he said. “It didn’t sound fair that one person had to go someplace else because of the color of their skin…. I kept silent. I didn’t know what to say. I was getting an education.” Words escaped him, but not the feeling it left with him.

Seven years later, during another summer excursion to the East Coast, Joel and Sidney again arrived together at a beach in Atlantic City, only this time they did not part ways. Together, they were the beneficiaries of change that came with the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that year.

Joel still feels the joy of that new experience at the beach. “It was a wonderful thing that happened, a gift to humanity,” he said.

The witnessing of an injustice in 1957 and the righting of a wrong in 1964 are moments in time that Joel says “stayed with me the rest of my life” and profoundly impacted him personally and professionally.

Teaching Literacy

A 1965 graduate from Mumford High School, Joel went on to receive his teaching degree from Eastern Michigan University (1970) and a master’s degree in reading from Oakland University (1978). He has spent the last 50 years teaching children and adults in a diverse number of settings in cities throughout Metro Detroit, including a full-time teaching stint in the Detroit Public Schools, from which he retired in 1981.

That books would be part of the Marwil DNA is no coincidence. Aaron Zavelle passed his passion for books along to his son-in-law Milton Marwil, Joel’s late father. Generations of Detroit students frequented the beloved Marwil Bookstore, a fixture on Cass Avenue that Milton founded in 1948 and operated until its sale in 1983. It remained in operation under the family name until its closing in 2013.

The promotion of diversity by Joel and the Marwil family extends to the annual JCC Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival that Milton endowed in 1998 in memory of his wife Lenore. Its mission is “to enhance a sense of community and inclusion for a broad range of audience members.” Due to the coronavirus, this year’s festival, originally scheduled for May, has been postponed until further notice. In the meantime, film festival enthusiasts can go to for information about ongoing virtual events.

Prior to the school year being suspended, Joel was dividing his time between two preschools, helping children hone their English and Spanish language skills. You could also find him teaching citizenship to the Hispanic community in Mexican Village under the auspices of Michigan United, a policy advocate 501(c)3 that helps “ensure that our government and economy reflect our values of dignity, fairness, equity, and opportunity.”

Sixty-three years ago, Joel Marwil witnessed social injustice firsthand. Making a difference on that front continues to be part of the fabric of his life’s work, especially in light of today’s pandemic crisis, political divide, immigration crisis, global conflicts, and rise of anti-Semitism that reminds us to reflect on how much progress we still have to make. It’s a message he plans on sharing with the children upon his return to the classroom.

“The pandemic is making people pause about who they are and who they should be,” Joel said. “I can talk to them about being kinder and gentler to one another.”

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