Jessica ‘Decky’ Alexander looks to amplify Jewish voices throughout the county.
Washtenaw County now has its own full-fledged local Jewish Community Relations Council, courtesy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor.
When the Federation welcomed their new executive director Eileen Freed in 2017, they began to explore a JCRC to facilitate relations internally and externally with the community. The beginning phases started by convening a small working group of around 10 people to lay out a mission and a vision. The group also took notes from other JCRCs around the country that resembled the Washtenaw/Ann Arbor community.
Now, what used to be a “work group” has developed into a full-fledged local JCRC, with guiding principles and a bi-weekly newsletter.
After studying other JCRCs, Federation realized that they needed to be engaging with members of their community on what they believe their JCRC should look like. So this past year, they began the “Conversations with Seven” series — community–building and conversation events with individuals in Washtenaw County. Some participants were affiliated with Federation, and some were not.
“We had conversations with seven people who may not know each other and asked them questions on what it means to be a Jew today in Washtenaw County,” Jessica “Decky” Alexander, chair of the JCRC, told the JN. “We also asked them a lot of questions on identity, culture and belonging. As a result of that, we were able to lay out guiding principles and a framework that has allowed the JCRC to realize our potential.”
The JCRC’s main focus is on “fostering and building relations both within the Jewish community and beyond with other cultural, civic and ethnic groups and organizations, such as the NAACP, United Way, other religious organizations, and more.”
Recently, the council held a virtual candidate forum for Washtenaw County Prosecutor with Temple Beth Emeth’s Social Action Committee and Bend the Arc-Ann Arbor. Over 190 community members joined the Zoom conversation with the candidates. The JCRC is also working with Rep. Debbie Dingell’s office on convening a series of roundtables for local faith leaders.
“Our JCRC is focused on issues affecting the local community, such as educational funding, race relations, policing and bias and racial/ethnic profiling,” Alexander said. “We aim to remain flexible though, so we can respond to pressing or relevant topics as they may arise. Currently, we are focused on the upcoming election and are working with other organizations around voter registration and engagement.”
Alexander was brought in by Federation to serve as the JCRC’s chair. Previously, she worked in partnership with Federation on local and social issues in Washtenaw County, involving educational equity and conversations around policing and bias. In addition to now leading the JCRC, she is also a tenured professor at Eastern Michigan University and sits on the faculty advisory board in the school’s Center for Jewish Studies.
“For someone who lived in this area for a long time but wasn’t necessarily part of any kind of more formal or intentional Jewish entity, I recognized that there was a space and a need to do more broad internal relations among our Jewish community, as well as external relations,” Alexander said.
Washtenaw’s JCRC is not formally affiliated with the Metro Detroit JCRC/AJC, but the two organizations have a working relationship. Most recently, they participated on a call together with the NAACP to discuss a voter initiative.
“Our community is much smaller than Oakland County. Many Jewish individuals who arrive and root (even temporarily) in Washtenaw County are from other places and bring their own understanding, experiences and backgrounds of what it means to be Jewish,” Alexander said. “As a result, we are exposed to a diversity of ideas and experiences, which we hope to harness and validate in and through JCRC programming.”
Moving forward, Alexander said the JCRC hopes to be a “collaborator, a convener and a connector” for the Washtenaw community, as well as “be more intentional about making our Jewish voices heard on local issues.”. She wants to ensure that the Jewish voices in the community are heard, so she began the bi-weekly newsletter to ignite the JCRC’s guiding principles and bridge the community to both local and national issues.