Zoe Mikva, Educator and Activist, Dies at 90

Zorita “Zoe” and Abner Mikva. (Courtesy of Mikva Challenge)Zorita “Zoe” and Abner Mikva. (Courtesy of Mikva Challenge)

Zorita “Zoe” (nee Wise) Mikva, an educator and activist who, along with husband Abner Mikva, created the Mikva Challenge more than 20 years ago, died Saturday at the age of 90.

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“She was an activist at heart and helped bring Martin Luther King Jr. to Soldier Field in 1966,” said Mikva Challenge President Brian Brady on Monday. “She was a fearless leader and ahead of her time.”

Abner Mikva died July 4, 2016 at the age of 90. The two married on Sept. 19, 1948 and had three daughters.

In 1998, the couple launched the Mikva Challenge, a nonpartisan organization that promotes civic and political engagement among high school students.

“She was the secret ingredient to our success,” said Brady, who considers Mikva a friend, mentor and boss. “She was a former teacher herself, so she really understood how schools operated and that if we were going to be successful with the program, we had to add value to the lives of schoolteachers and make their job more fulfilling and satisfying.”

Family will be both Zoe and Abner Mikva’s number one legacy, says Brady. “Outside of that, the Mikva Challenge was their proudest legacy,” he said. “(Zoe) just loved meeting the students and was very proud of that work.”

Brady says he’ll always remember how much she enjoyed interacting with students. “How much enjoyment she had with seeing students do leadership work and challenge public officials that sticks out,” he said. “Zoe herself never shied away from challenging a leader. … She could be very forthright and fearless.”

Zoe Mikva’s career in public service began with the Illinois Division of the American Civil Liberties Union. She then lobbied for the Friends Committee on National Legislation and worked on two election campaigns with the CIO Political Action Committee.

When her daughters were young, Mikva taught at primary schools in Washington, D.C. and Evanston. She brought old typewriters into her classroom to encourage her students to write stories, according to an obituary by the Mikva Challenge.

Mikva later served as special assistant to the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In that role, she evaluated state highway safety programs and developed educational materials. During the early and mid-1980s, she co-owned and managed The Hill Company, which provided support services for people and organizations who were visiting Washington and wanted to affect public policy. She also served as director of development of The Advocacy Institute, a Washington-based organization that counseled public interest and grassroots lobbying groups, for seven years.

She dedicated four decades to volunteer activities, including PTA leadership positions, the initiation of Chicago schools’ Operation Headstart, the Board of Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, the Board of the Illinois ACLU and the Board of Micah House, a shelter for previously homeless and addicted women.

She was also an elected representative of the District Education Council of the National Education Association and her local school board, and she tutored for the Washington Literacy Council and was involved in many federal, state, and local political campaigns.

In 2005, Zoe and Abner Mikva received the Public Humanities Award from the Illinois Humanities Council. Zoe Mikva was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928. She received both her Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago.

She is survived by three daughters and their spouses – Mary (Steve), Laurie (James), and Rachel (Mark), and seven grandchildren, Rebecca Cohen, Jordan Cohen, Sarah Pfander, Samantha Pfander, Benjamin Pfander, Jacob Mikva and Keren Mikva.

A graveside service for Mikva will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at Zion Gardens Cemetery (3600 North Narragansett Ave., Chicago), with Shiva at the home of Mary Mikva and Steve Cohen, 510 W. Erie St. Unit 2202, in Chicago. It will begin following the graveside services and continue until 7 p.m. Monday and will continue from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday. Shiva will continue 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at the Mikva residence, 2960 North Lake Shore Drive, Unit 2400, in Chicago.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Mikva’s memory may be made to the Mikva Challenge

Contact Kristen Thometz: @kristenthometz | [email protected] | (773) 509-5452

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