Reflections of a Career Volunteer
In Conversation with Jeannie Weiner, JCRC/AJC’s 2017 Activist Awardee
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
May 30, 2017
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. Leave it to her son, Joel, to paint a more personal picture in a recent post on his blog:
“Jeannie Weiner has always fiercely, yet peacefully stood and fought for me and for all of us. She is a champion of human rights, an awesome mom and the best person that I know. Though modest, she is ever-supportive, and will likely read my blog to the last sentence. So, I can say with love, mom, that I [join the Detroit community] and thank you for decades of generosity and sacrifice, and congratulate you for your much merited honor of this year’s Activist Award.” — Joel Jackson
Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Jeannie moved to Detroit in 1971, and there she met and married Dr. Gershon Weiner (z”l) her beloved 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, where she found herself drawn to the plight of Jews in the former Soviet Union. The issue ignited Jeannie’s 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, Jeannie 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, DC, bringing more than 1,000 Detroiters to the Capitol to stand up for religious freedom for Soviet Jews. Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jeannie focused her attention on the work of resettling the Russian Jews who had emigrated to Detroit, serving on the board of Jewish Family Service from 1989-2007.
Through her work with Council over the years, Jeannie’s advocacy for social justice has extended to community interfaith outreach and Israel. In her tenure as Council President, from 1991-94, she worked extensively with Detroit’s diverse religious and ethnic communities, leading missions to Israel with Michigan Governor 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, Jeannie is currently Vice President of the Jewish Historical Society, 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 Jewish Family Service. Jeannie is the 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’s International). She is a former Board Member of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the Anti-Defamation League.
Reflecting her Santa Fe roots, her travels to Israel, and her winter haven in Puerto Vallarta, Jeannie’s home in West Bloomfield is filled with Southwestern and Mexican art, Judaica and sunlight. “Everything here has a story,” she says. What follows are excerpts from her conversation with myJewishDetroit.
Q & A with Jeannie Weiner
Q: What does activism mean to you?
This is the way I would describe activism: 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 that 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 that 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. (And 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 on your journey in community service, what projects have 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 – when he was 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.
I began in 1975 with writing letters; then in 1981 Michelle Passon (2012 JCRC/AJC Activist Awardee) asked me to chair a community program for Soviet Jewry for B’nai B’rith Women. I didn’t know where to begin, but to my surprise, in our search for like-minded activists, the Honorable Damon Keith rose to the top of our list of speakers. That was the start of our long friendship. In community relations work, I’ve always found that you meet the most extraordinary people in every segment of the community – Arab Americans, African Americans, Muslims, Chaldeans, Christians — so many have become my lifelong friends.
Our intense involvement with Soviet Jewry ended in 1990. In reflection, well before I got involved, the movement started with a handful of Detroiters. Some say the worldwide movement started in 1967, when Golda Meir went to Moscow. At that time, the Jews there who suffered terribly from anti-Semitism dreamed they had a chance to get out. And suddenly, there was this homeland on the horizon, the victory of the Six-Day War, and there was this opening, and such jubilation! And we became a part of an international movement, this extraordinary opportunity to make real change.
Q: Is there community work or a 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 that 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 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.
“My mom is special,” writes Jeannie’s son, Joel. “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. I remember getting my mom’s help with a 7th-grade scrap-booking project on Soviet Jews and, in high school, marching on Washington with her for the cause, and later getting a summer job with the Anti-Defamation League as a file clerk. 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.”
Join us, Tuesday, June 20 at 7 pm, Adat Shalom Synagogue
There is an $18 charge to attend the 7 p.m. Activist Event, which will be followed by a dessert reception. Those who wish to help JCRC/AJC recognize Jeannie Weiner’s achievements may do so by donating online at jcrcajc.org or by calling the JCRC/AJC office, 248-642-5393. All Sponsors and Platinum and Gold Level Donors are invited to attend a 6 p.m. strolling dinner with a guest, prior to the award event. For information about sponsorship opportunities, please contact Beverly K. Phillips, 248-203-1527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.