By Marita Anderson

Judy Marx has a track record of taking ideas that touch people’s hearts and translating them into large-scale programs and events that the Atlanta community rallies behind.

To Marx, the work of community relations is all about finding common ground and nurturing personal relationships, which, in her new role as the executive director of Interfaith Community Initiatives, she hopes will translate into communities standing up to intolerance, division and prejudice.

An Interfaith Community Initiatives delegation, including Judy Marx (back row on the right), visits Washington last year.

An Interfaith Community Initiatives delegation, including Judy Marx (back row on the right), visits Washington last year.

When ICI had its first Friendship Luncheon on Nov. 2, it was an event attended by 200 leaders of various faiths, including prominent rabbis and other leaders from the Atlanta Jewish community. Many of them came to the ICI event because of an invitation from Marx, who has been a vital figure in the Jewish community most of her career.

Marx spent more than 12 years working at the American Jewish Committee, much of that as the Atlanta director. However, Marx’s most prominent legacy is her work as the founding director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which has grown from a few dozen participants into the second-largest Jewish film festival in the world, with total attendance of more than 36,000 last year.

Marx said the festival started out as a “movie in a box” idea when she and her colleagues realized that people liked going to the movies and talking about their experience.

For her, organizing the first few years of the film festival was a steep learning curve, which included tending not only to the particular creative needs of the filmmakers, but also to the tastes and needs of the moviegoers.

What came out of that hard work is a rich tapestry of conversations about topics that are sometimes controversial, other times boundary-breaking and often enlightening.

“I am a community gal,” Marx said about her shift from a central role in the Jewish community into her position as the first executive director of the Interfaith Community Initiatives.

It’s apparent that Marx is coming from a place of love and deep care about the Jewish community, but her passion has shifted to creating conversations that would put our community in the center of a larger dialogue about common concerns across Atlanta.

ICI is engaging in advocacy issues that are vital to the future of our community, such as gun violence, environmental sustainability, LGBTQ rights and rights for people with disabilities.

Marx is working alongside several organizations to promote dialogue about gun violence and recently joined a collaborative effort to screen the documentary “Newtown” in different faith communities and neighborhoods.

The goal of ICI is to develop constructive relationships among communities and individuals of different religions. It is not a coalition of organizations, as other interfaith initiatives might be, but an organization that invests in individuals and potential change-makers.

ICI focuses on contact and cooperation among people of different backgrounds with the intention of creating understanding, while honoring differences and cultural heritage.

“Let’s not wait for a crisis to come together,” Marx said.

She recounted the traumatic experience of being evacuated from the AJC office during the 1999 day-trading shooting, the worst mass shooting in Atlanta’s history, with 12 people killed and 13 others wounded.

Atlanta came together to mourn in a heartfelt ceremony, but the memorial was a Christian service, even though many of those who were killed were not Christian. Marx said that event was a pivotal moment for her because “Atlanta could have done a better job representing its diversity.”

Since then, Atlanta has come a long way in responding with a voice that is more reflective of the city’s religious and cultural pluralism, but it has taken a concerted effort and intentional work on the part of faith leaders. Nurturing those voices is the goal of ICI, which is preparing to take a stand against any proposed Muslim (or any other) registration, as well as a stance of support for immigration reform and a clear, open path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

ICI’s World Pilgrims traveling program has become one of its most impactful vehicles for interfaith encounters. Its philosophy is that to create bridges between people of different faiths and cultural backgrounds, you have to take them out of their comfort zone and to a neutral ground, offering opportunities for healing, deep learning and exchanges of faith experience.

Last year, the World Pilgrims took their 20th pilgrimage to Washington, where they shared what they had learned through their travels and dialogues with national interfaith leadership. In 2017, they are planning a pilgrimage exclusively for young professionals to Salt Lake City and the Canyons.

It is not uncommon for headlines to be filled with stories of religious extremism and intolerance because those stories get the attention of the media and public. The actions of communities of faith against prejudice and hatred often remain beneath the radar. But in the current political atmosphere of fear and anxiety, Marx and other leaders are working against the tide of division.