When Roberta Shevin took over as the executive director of the storied Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews in 2009, she received excited congratulatory messages.
But among the stream of well-wishes from friends, it would be the sharply worded challenge from a stranger that motivated Shevin to abandon her organization’s name — sewn into its fabric since 1935 — to cast a wider net of inclusion in South Florida embracing Muslims and members of the LGBTQ community.
Under Shevin’s leadership, the newly branded MCCJ would host interfaith vigils at vandalized mosques in Kendall and Miami Gardens, organize annual summer camps for minority and LBGTQ youth to learn about prejudice, and continue fostering dialogue among everyone else.
“That’s when our friendship started,” said Shabbir Motorwala, a board member with the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations (COSMOS) and the author of a Miami Herald guest column that originally took MCCJ to task over what he considered a myopic name. “She became the ambassador for our community. It broke the stereotype that Muslims are outsiders.”
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Shevin, a champion of social justice and cultural diversity, died on Monday of a heart attack. She was 75. Shevin stepped down earlier this year from the organization..
“Roberta Shevin dedicated her life to making South Florida a better place; one that was inclusive and understanding of all cultures, religions, and races,” Nestor Rodriguez, the current executive director at MCCJ, said in a statement. “She wanted to make a difference in our community, and by way of her efforts, she did! Throughout the nine years of service as the executive director for MCCJ, Roberta made a difference. She will always be remembered for the impact she had on everyone who came in contact with this organization.”
Shevin graduated with a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from the University of Miami. Before leading MCCJ, she taught at Coral Park High School, co-owned All Star Paper Co. and Hanucraft and served as president and director of development at the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education.
Among Shevin’s signature contributions as head of MCCJ were the development of the MetroTown summer camp program, which brought together teenagers of different backgrounds who have experienced prejudice or bullying. During the six-day camp, the teenagers would discuss their differences — sexual orientations and gender identities, ethnic backgrounds or religious creeds — and learn how to spot stereotypes and empathize with each other.
She also introduced a public forum called “Can We Talk. Really, Can We Talk?” aimed at giving the community a stage to civilly discuss issues affecting South Florida, the Student Voices anti-bullying program and the community-building #ConnectMiami initiative, a 10-day event that brought strangers together over shared activities and meals.
Miami-Dade Archbishop Thomas Wenski said in a statement to the Miami Herald that Shevin took over MCCJ at a time when the organization was on the verge of bankruptcy. She was “particularly effective” in addressing youth and diversity issues, and her efforts over nearly a decade of service helped unite the faith community of South Florida.
“Thanks to Roberta and the MCCJ, relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims have been strengthened in this community,” Wenski wrote in an email.
Brian Dervishi, MCCJ’s board chair, described Shevin as having a potent mixture “compassion, intelligence and unlimited energy” to lead the organization to national acclaim.
“She restored MCCJ to its central role among South Florida nonprofits who shared the common goal of building a good and just community,” Dervishi said in a statement. “Roberta’s passing is not only a great loss to MCCJ but to South Florida as well.”
She is survived by her children, Adam R. Shevin and Alison Glicken, her sister Phyllis Ward, and grandsons Benjamin and Andrew Glicken. Services will be held at 11 a.m. on Thursday at Bet Shira Congregation, 7500 SW 120th St. in Pinecrest.
“Roberta was an exceptional human being full of gratitude for her family, friends and colleagues whatever the circumstance,” Shevin told the Herald. “A woman of valor whose goal was to make the world a better place.”