Dr. Marc Swatez: “Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with God”

I’m frightened for those families who have been furloughed and are living off their savings just waiting until they can be back at their job, or start looking for new employment that for some never materializes. It may be a year or more before they approach us for help, long after the spotlight has turned […]

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I’m frightened for those families who have been furloughed and are living off their savings just waiting until they can be back at their job, or start looking for new employment that for some never materializes. It may be a year or more before they approach us for help, long after the spotlight has turned to the next big thing. I wish I could do something to encourage them to call us sooner, to let us help before their resources run out.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Marc Swatez Executive Director of The ARK. The ARK is the leading Chicago nonprofit that provides wrap-around services (medical, dental, food pantry, homeless shelter, mental health, financial and social services) to Chicagoland Jews in need. Prior to joining The ARK, Marc spent 14 years working as a synagogue executive director. Marc holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University and was one of the first faculty members at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies. He is currently on the teaching faculty and a mentor for Spertus Institute’s Masters in Jewish Professional Service program.

Thank you for joining us Dr. Swatez! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in a working-class family in the Minneapolis suburbs. We were a small but close family both in terms of our relationships as well as geography. My grandparents and cousins all lived within a mile or two of us and we did everything together. I was the first grandchild and the only boy on both sides of my family. If you were to ask my kids, I bet they’d tell you that explains a lot.

My sister and I were the only Jews in our elementary school. My mom was really involved with the PTA and became friends with the principal and teachers. Instead of being an outsider because of my religion, I was always made to feel special. I remember going classroom to classroom in even first and second grade to talk about the Jewish holidays and felt nothing but support from my friends. So, I’ve been standing in front of groups talking about what it means to be Jewish my whole life. I really can’t imagine doing anything else.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There’s a tiny gem of a book by James Clavell called The Children’s Story. It’s about a young teacher coming into a classroom and, in about 30 minutes, completely reinterprets the world for these impressionable young kids. The themes of the novella are freedom, religion, and the influence that one person can have on another. The last student to fall in line is the child who asked the most questions. Even though eventually the teacher eventually wins out, the importance of critical thinking and not taking authority for granted really struck a chord with me.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

The prophet Micah tells us to “Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with God.” As a leader and as a parent, I’ve found that almost all of the hardest choices I’ve ever had to make were ultimately having to pick between justice and mercy. Justice is about fairness, treating everyone equally. Mercy is about recognizing the differences in people and making exceptions. Micah teaches that we should hold these principles in balance with one another.

There are all sorts of justice/mercy situations — when an ARK client wants an extra roll of toilet paper from our pantry when one of my amazing staff does something deserving of special recognition, when my youngest child wants to do something that was not allowed for their siblings.

These days, when I’m faced with a justice/mercy question, I ask myself what is the “right” thing to do? If I were to read about it somewhere, what’s the story I’d want to be told? As I get older, more and more I am finding that the answer comes down on the side of mercy.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

The ARK has been the Chicago Jewish Community’s safety net since 1971 — providing wraparound social, medical and psychological services to Chicagoland Jews in need. When a new client enters The ARK, rather than address a single presenting problem, our highly certified staff is able to assist the whole person, or whole family, in multiple areas to help them with whatever challenges they may be experiencing. A client, for example, may have reached out for help paying this month’s rent, but we can also provide them with a healthy choice of groceries, and schedule them to see our dentist or an employment counselor. The ARK draws on our shared Jewish values of care, respect, empathy and loving kindness to acknowledge each member of our community as an important, unique individual. Our vital, tangible human services honor that individuality, helping those facing adversity navigate toward self-reliance. As we begin to celebrate our Golden Anniversary, we are now serving over 4,500 people each year.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

I think that in the context we’re talking about today, being a hero means rising to the opportunity and unprecedented challenges that we’re being confronted with in order to best serve our community.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

First, you need to find yourself in a situation where something needs to be done. Second, you have to be motivated and inspired to help and make that difference. Third, you have to have the resources needed to do it. Those resources might be financial and/or positional in that you have the right job and skills to make a difference. Next, it’s critical that the people in this situation are actually willing and able to accept the help you are offering. And finally, the hardest part is that you actually have to dig in and do the work. It sounds like a marketing slogan, but you have to show up, put yourself at risk, and just do it.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I think a lot of things need to fall just right for you to be able to step up in the current crisis like so many people who are being recognized as heroes are doing. With COVID-19, a lot of people had very real personal situations that needed to be prioritized like pre-existing illnesses, childcare responsibilities or even something as simple as age. There are many ways to be a hero today and I think a complete definition would need to include the people who made the courageous choice to stay home and take care of themselves and their families.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

Over the course of my more than eight years at The ARK, I’ve learned that whenever there is a critical issue facing the most vulnerable in our community, people look to The ARK for guidance. There is an expectation that The ARK is going to rise to the occasion and do the right thing. I take that responsibility very seriously as do the entire Board and staff of The ARK. So as this crisis evolved, we just kept rolling with the situation, doing whatever was needed in order to continue to serve our clients while keeping ourselves and volunteers safe.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

My maternal grandparents were both Holocaust survivors and have always been my heroes. My grandfather was taken on Kristallnacht and after he was released, he and his new girlfriend — my grandmother — left their families and their entire lives and moved to England. I can’t imagine the courage it took to do that as college-age adults, or the sacrifice my great-grandparents endured to let it happen. Almost everyone who stayed were eventually killed, but my grandparents built new lives for themselves. They lived an entire life of heroism.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

I’m most concerned about what comes after the immediate crisis is over. Many of us will ride this out and come out on the other end roughly where we started. I don’t mean to minimize the very real stress and losses we’re all experiencing, but most of us will recover. The people who were already vulnerable going into the pandemic will be living with the repercussions for years to come.

I’m frightened for those families who have been furloughed and are living off their savings just waiting until they can be back at their job, or start looking for new employment that for some never materializes. It may be a year or more before they approach us for help, long after the spotlight has turned to the next big thing. I wish I could do something to encourage them to call us sooner, to let us help before their resources run out.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

We can only support the community because the community has been supporting us. I am humbled and deeply grateful for the incredible and tangible gifts that have entrusted to us from both inside and outside our community. I’ve spoken with government officials at the city, state and national level and have received critical assistance from each sector. Senator Durbin’s office checked in about a PPP loan, our State Senator Ram Villivalam set up a GoFundMe page to support food pantries in his district, and Alderman Deborah Silverstein has actively helped us with grants. In the Jewish community, the Jewish United Fund has been both a convener and generous granting partner, along with so many of our major supporting foundations and individual donors.

Because of them, my hope and optimism lie in the confidence that The ARK is healthy and will be able to serve our community both during and, even more importantly after this crisis has passed.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

I’m inspired most by my staff and volunteers who stepped up, each in their own way, to serve the most vulnerable in our community. I’m disappointed by those public figures who feel they know better than the experts and put not only themselves but their followers, at risk.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

It really has in some important ways, yes. I mentioned some government officials earlier. One of them, I’m not going to say who, left me a message to call them back and left their personal cell phone. When I did, I spoke with them about my experience and needs on the “front line” as they were giving a child a bath! I’ve been on Zoom calls with various partner agencies multiple times each week since almost day 1, sharing best practices, shaping the community agenda, and supporting one another. I’ve held the title of executive director of one organization or another for over 20 years and never have I experienced this level of access and genuine concern and support. Relationships have been formed, partnerships have been deepened, and you can’t walk away from that. It will make us all stronger.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

I hope people have become more aware of how fragile life really is. I know I have. We take so many things for granted and we really should be more grateful for what we have. As we just found out, it doesn’t have to be this way.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Another of my favorite Jewish quotes comes from the book Ethics of our Fathers. In it we learn that there are three crowns, the crown of Torah (the bible), the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty. But the text goes on to say there is a fourth crown, the crown of a good name, and this crown surpasses them all.

Young people should always strive to earn that fourth crown, the crown of a good name. Anyone can achieve it, yet is the most precious thing there is. Earning it requires not just the knowledge of the right thing to do, but you also have to take action to carry through and do it. Only through both does a truly good name come.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’ve been trying to reach Max Levchin for years. Max is one of the founders of Paypal and the initial investor in Yelp. Max and his family emigrated from the Ukraine to Chicago and The ARK played an important role in their resettlement. I would love to talk with him about those experiences. He has proven himself to be such a visionary in his field, I can’t help wonder what he might see if he took a moment to consider The ARK.

How can our readers follow you online?

The ARK maintains an active social media presence on Facebook and Instagram at @arkchicago and you can reach me through our website at

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