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From the Archives: The Power of a Voice

This article is part of the series From the Archives. From the Archives highlights primary sources that have changed the course of history, for an individual, a community, or the world.

‘Tis the season, once again, when we are asked to make our voices heard. With 200 million people registered to vote in 2016, some voters wonder if an individual can really effect change. Lea Rubel would tell you that just one voice can make all the difference. She spearheaded a community-led campaign for low-cost senior housing in Detroit in 1965. This is one of the many letters she wrote to Jewish leaders.

Letter from Leah Rubel to Mr. Safron, 1966
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Letter from Leah Rubel to Mr. Safron, a leader in the Jewish community in Detroit, 1966. Courtesy of Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives.

Rubel’s story began seventy years before she started advocating for Detroit-based seniors. Born in 1897, she was living in Austria with her husband Charles and young daughter Isolde when WWII began. When Charles was imprisoned at Dachau, Rubel brought to the camp the medal of valor he had received fighting for the Austrian army during WWI, and won his release. Thanks to fate and a lot of luck, the family managed to escape Germany. When Isolde developed an earache, the nurse who treated her provided an introduction to a man issuing visas: the nurse’s father. The Rubels set sail to the United States from Genoa, Italy in March 1940. Just three months later, Italy entered WWII on the Axis side.

When Charles died in 1965, Rubel lived with family but advocated for housing where other seniors could live independently and with dignity. Her strategy was simple: persistence. She wrote letter after letter to leaders in Detroit’s Jewish community for more than five years.

Senior housing was not a new concept in Detroit. The Jewish Old Folk’s Home (later called the Jewish Home for the Aged) opened in 1907 to provide a place for seniors who could no longer live in their own home and who wanted a kosher residence. This wasn’t an option for Rubel and people like her in the 1960s. For one, the Jewish Home for the Aged had a long waiting list. More importantly, many seniors didn’t need nursing care. What they needed, according to Rubel, was subsidized apartments where they could remain self-sufficient and live with dignity.

In 1961, a subcommittee on aging had evaluated the need for low-cost senior housing and recommended “immediate action” be taken to develop reasonably priced housing for older people. The matter had been been at a standstill for four years when Rubel began her letter-writing campaign.

Federation Apartments, Detroit 1971, Cropped
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Federation Apartments, opened in Detroit in 1971 after Lea Rubels tireless work. Image courtesy of Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

Rubel’s senior housing campaign continued year after year as she refused to back down. Finally, her dream was realized in 1971 when the Federation Apartments opened. She was one of its first tenants. In a letter to the Detroit Jewish News shortly after she moved in, Rubel said, “The Federation Apartments is what I hoped for; to live an easier life and not to be lonely in old age. It is a fulfillment…[I have been] waiting for, for five years.”

Rubel died in December 1972, just over a year after achieving her goal. But her long-fought battle was not only for herself––it was for all seniors who shared her dream. Today, the Federation Apartments still exist as part of Jewish Senior Life.

While it so often feels like one voice can’t make a difference, Lea Rubel’s determination proves otherwise. She spoke out, and the results still benefit the seniors of Detroit today. It isn’t hard to imagine what Rubel would say about making yourself heard through your vote: she loved the United States and its democratic system. In a local writer’s journal, she wrote, “In my life I went through all kinds of regimes. We in the United States have the best. Do your share to keep it good! Republican or democrat, the president, the regime, is democracy. You have it better than any other people.”

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Lea Rubel, An Advocate for Senior Rights in Detroit
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Lea Rubel, an advocate for Senior housing rights in Detroit in the 1970s. Image courtesy of Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
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How to cite this page

Terman, Robbie. "From the Archives: The Power of a Voice ." 3 November 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 14, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/from-the-archives-power-of-voice>.

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