Two dozen friends and family had gathered last month in a hospice room where St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter read a proclamation declaring March 18 Vic Rosenthal Day in St. Paul, hailing him as "a champion for racial, economic and social justice."
When Carter was finished, Rosenthal, lying in bed, thanked him, recalling their collaboration over the years.
"When I pushed you, it was because I respected you," a friend recalled him telling the mayor. Then he asked Carter to do everything in his power to make sure reparations become a reality in St. Paul, a reference to efforts to make amends to the descendants of Black enslaved people — including the Black residents of the Rondo neighborhood who were forced from their homes between 1956 and 1968 to make way for the construction of Interstate 94.
Rosenthal lobbying from his deathbed on a social justice issue was "absolutely classic Vic," Carter said this week. "That was what everybody loved about him, someone who completely lived his values."
Rosenthal, 68, of St. Paul died March 28 of metastatic bladder cancer, said a son, Aaron Rosenthal.
"He was the pillar of the local Jewish activist community," said Mordecai Specktor, editor and publisher of American Jewish World, the newspaper of the Minnesota Jewish community.
Rosenthal was executive director of Jewish Community Action for 17 years. Formed in 1995, it was designed to be the Jewish community's voice of social justice, partnering with other progressive community-based organizations, said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, one of the founders. "There were many organizing campaigns that had his imprint," Hornstein said.
Those included efforts to help families in north Minneapolis keep their homes during the 2008 foreclosure crisis; going to bat for hundreds of workers at an Iowa kosher meatpacking facility who were arrested during a 2009 immigration raid; defeating two referendums in 2012 that would have prohibited same-sex marriage and required voter IDs be shown on Election Day; and securing light-rail train stops for communities of color along University Avenue.
"He understood race and the impact of how race defines people in Minnesota," said Metric Giles, co-director of the Community Stabilization Project, a nonprofit that works on housing issues.
"From the time I met him, there was a just a fierce and unyielding moral compass, and that never changed," said author and close friend Wayne Coffey, a college classmate at State University of New York, now Binghamton University.
"He was intense about everything he did; he was just full of love," said his wife, Chris. "If you got caught in his web of love, you were stuck."
They met in 1978 in Wyoming when they were both on cross-country trips and married in 1980. The couple have two sons, Aaron of St. Paul and Ben, of Boonton, N.J.
"We always felt he was a particularly devoted father," said Aaron, "and his ability to do both of those things — being so involved in trying to improve the world and being a supportive and attentive father — was very special."
Rosenthal and Michael Kuhne, an English instructor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, co-authored a book on how to do community organizing within a Jewish context, and Kuhne said he's now seeking a publisher.
"Vic really believed in developing talented leadership and making sure the people affected to be out front to lead the cause and he would do everything behind the scenes to prepare people for that moment," Kuhne said.
Besides his wife and sons, Rosenthal is survived by a sister, Wendy Christopher of Marlborough, Mass., and two grandchildren. Services have been held.