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Women faith leaders urge collaborative activism to address community violence

Seeking solutions to common problems-even among people who may fundamentally disagree-is key to healing a community besieged by violence. And women can the job done, noted Emily Sweet, executive director, Jewish Community Relations Council and Government Affairs, and past executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Reflecting on her recent work to address violence, Sweet said, “It is the women of our city-and in many cases women of faith-who are the ones getting it done-organizing, moving the needle and leading the charge.”

Sweet facilitated a panel discussion, “Faith Leaders on the Front Lines,” with three Chicago faith leaders-one Jewish, one Muslim, and one Christian-during the April 20 Jewish Women’s Foundation Ideas Exchange, part of JWF’s two-day 20 th Anniversary Celebration. Nearly 90 trustees, former executive directors, JWF grant recipients, and staff attended the event.

“We’ve all worked around these issues of violence. Why aren’t we sitting in the same room talking about the same things?” said Eman Hassaballa Aly, Health Communications Manager at NORC at the University of Chicago, Muslim community activist, and Shalom Hartman Institute Muslim Leadership Initiative fellow. “We’ve all been working in our own circles, but now it’s time to make a difference together,” she said.


“We’re mothers, we’re sisters, we’re aunts, we’re surrogate mothers,” said Rev. Dr. Marcenia Richards, executive director, Fierce Women of Faith, an interfaith, multi-racial group working to bring peace to families and communities affected by violence. “We have so many things in common, and that’s what we wanted to build on.”

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover, associate rabbi at Temple Sholom in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, said her congregation has been focused on justice issues-in particular, restorative justice. “(We want to) bring a better way to restore the harm done in communities by violence,” she said.

“Eighty percent of our African American families are raised by women. The men are absent,” Richards said, noting that for this reason, it’s critical for women to lead social change efforts.

People need to spend time nurturing, organizing and setting the tone for their own communities-and they need to learn from other communities by inviting people from other communities to tell their stories, Conover said-even when it’s difficult to engage groups of people with different worldviews.

“Instead of skirting the issue (we need to) be able to have some of these conversations,” Conover said. “More often than not we do find ways to move our bigger agenda forward.”

Aly said some Muslim groups will not cooperate with Jewish organizations and causes because of fundamental disagreements about Israel-and noted that she personally does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement.

“What I’ve told these groups is, ‘The table is huge. There’s plenty of work to do, and the work is going to be done. Sometimes you have to put some beliefs aside…in working together on those (common) issues, you’ll find you can come together,'” she said. “We need to be intolerant of intolerance.”

“I try to get people to agree to disagree,” Richards said. “It’s a moral issue. It’s about the life of children.”

“The responsibility is always on somebody to do it,” Aly said. “I can sit back and let someone else do it, but if I want (something) for myself I have to create the space around me that’s going to work for me… The bonus is that it works for everybody else, too. That’s the kind of stuff that gives me hope.”

Building relationships with individuals from different backgrounds and groups makes it possible to bring them together to work on common concerns. Indeed all of the panelists had been connected over the past year as a result of various programs and events convened by the JCRC and JWF that were aimed at building and organizing a multi-faith coalition of women to address violence in Chicago.

“The only way that we can make an impact in Chicago is by working together” Richards said in her closing remarks.

The JWF Ideas Exchange included additional panel discussions facilitated by past JWF executive directors and featuring JWF trustees on the front lines of feminist issues and current JWF grant recipients. Future events include a Leadership Luncheon on July 20 in collaboration with the JUF Women’s Division, and Marketing the Movement, a stakeholder workshop, on Nov. 14.

For information on JWF and these future events, visit .

Since 1997, the Jewish Women’s Foundation, an independent project of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, has been seeking to expand and improve opportunities and choices in all aspects of Jewish women’s and girls’ lives through strategic and effective grantmaking. The Foundation empowers Jewish women as leaders, funders, and decision-makers. 

This article originally ran in the June print edition of JUF News and at


I'm a writer, editor, photographer and artist living in rural Southeastern Wisconsin. I grew up in Chicago, made my way to the deep woods of Northern Minnesota and then landed here among the cornfields and cows. It's quite simply my happy place.

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