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First rabbi chosen to lead Essex County social justice group

Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin.ECCO

For much of the past two decades, Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin has worked on the front lines of campaigns to secure fairer treatment and greater opportunities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Now, the veteran activist has a new opportunity to put those organizing skills to work as the next leader of the Essex County Community Organization.

ECCO, a faith-based grass-roots organization that fights for racial and social justice, named Ronkin its new executive director effective Jan. 15. The Jamaica Plain resident succeeded Alexandra Piñeros Shields, who resigned to accept another position.

Ronkin is a familiar face at Lynn-based ECCO, a network of 59 Essex County congregations and the North Shore Labor Council. From 2013 until now, she was the group’s director of clergy organizing and leadership development.

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”I feel honored and humbled to be put at the helm of this organization that I really believe is building a multifaith, multiracial movement for justice,” she said. “I think we have the kind of diversity it will take to win on some of the most challenging issues of our day.”

Ronkin’s appointent is a milestone for ECCO and for Faith in Action, a national faith-based organizing network to which ECCO belongs. According to Faith in Action, she is the first rabbi to lead one of its affiliates.

Ronkin said she considers her ongoing involvement with ECCO an extension of her faith and her work as a justice-minded rabbi.

”I think of ECCO as my congregation,” she said. “I have a great deal of love and a sense of responsibility towards it.”

The Rev. Andre Bennett, ECCO’s board president, said Ronkin’s commitment to the group’s mission and her work with clergy from different faith backgrounds made her the “ideal candidate” to guide the group forward. In addition to helping lead ECCO’s social justice campaigns, “she has worked assiduously to develop leaders crucial to securing wins in these campaigns,” said Bennett, a pastor at Lynn’s Zion Baptist Church.

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Though coincidental, Ronkin’s hiring in the same week as the Texas synagogue hostage-taking “strengthened ECCO’s message that we stand with the Jewish community not only in times of crisis,” he said. “Our movement centers the voices of many targeted groups — whether people of color, Jews, or Muslims, and we know we’re all safer and stronger when we work for justice together.”

A native of New York City and a Yale University graduate, Ronkin got her first major taste of activism when she led a national group that mobilized 97,000 college students to vote in the 2004 presidential election. While at Hebrew College, a Newton rabbinical school, Ronkin founded Kavod, a Boston-based Jewish community led by young activists, and coedited a book on Judaism and social justice.

After graduating from Hebrew College in 2011, Ronkin spent seven years as rabbi of Sha’arei Shalom, a congregation in Ashland. In 2012-13, she also served at Marblehead’s Temple Emanu-El, leading community revitalization efforts.

In her previous ECCO position, Ronkin expanded Black leadership in the organization. She also led ECCO’s participation in successful statewide campaigns to raise the minimum wage, guarantee paid family leave, overhaul the criminal justice system, and reform policing. Locally, she helped guide ECCO’s work to provide Lynn police with training on identifying and addressing implicit racial bias, to require officers to wear body cameras, and to create a city unarmed crisis response team.

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Ronkin said those successes “felt like miracles. Each campaign seemed impossible at first. And to see people who believed themselves powerless create positive change for themselves and their communities really feels very sacred.”

Ronkin said ECCO’s work, including an upcoming racial justice-oriented campaign to promote affordable housing, “seems more important than ever.

“America is going through a reckoning with the racial sins of our past and present,” she said. “At ECCO, we are so ready to take up the mantle of racial justice leadership, not only by speaking about racism but by bringing together people of all different backgrounds to work for change.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.