A conversation with the 2024 JCRC Community Leadership Award recipient

Jan 23, 2024 | Article, JCRC, Newsletter

Jacki Cooper Melmed is the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) 2024 Community Leadership Award recipient. The JCRC is the public policy arm of JEWISHcolorado.

Since October 2021, Cooper Melmed has served as the Chief Legal Officer for UCHealth, where she oversees legal, compliance, governmental, and regulatory affairs. Prior to joining UCHealth, she served as the Chief Legal Counsel to Governors Jared Polis and John Hickenlooper for more than six years.

Cooper Melmed has served on the JEWISHcolorado Board of Directors and as the chair of the JCRC. Recently, she talked with JEWISHcolorado about the many ways her work with the JCRC has been meaningful to her.

When did you first get involved with the JCRC?

Jacki Cooper Melmed 2024 Community Leadership Award recipientPeople knew that I am a lawyer with an interest in public policy and public affairs, so I was invited to join in 2009. I thought it was the right way for me to get involved with what was then the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado—now JEWISHcolorado.

Were you familiar with the work of the JCRC at that point?

I knew very little about the JCRC. Actually, it would be more accurate to say, “I did not know about the JCRC!” But when it comes to getting involved, knowing nothing about an organization is not a dissuader for me. I tend to jump into things and say, “Let me see how this goes.” I learn by osmosis.

Something must have intrigued you about the work of the JCRC.

Advocacy with state and local leaders was interesting to me. It was a way to be active and engaged in the community with work that helps the Jewish community in the long run. It reminds people of who we are and what we are about. When I first started, Gov. Bill Ritter was in office, and we had both worked at the same law firm, so I knew him and that was helpful.

Did you come from a family that was active in the Jewish community?

I was raised in a very involved family, a family that cared about getting things right. I draw on that a lot. My parents are personally humble people, but they are doers. When they get involved, they do so with tremendous integrity, and I learned that from them.

There is an art to effective advocacy. How would you describe your personal approach?

I do not like propaganda. I prefer facts. I don’t like advocating through confrontation but rather through the cultivation of relationships. I try to truly listen and be honest at all times. I like to educate people, and I like the challenge of getting people to understand issues in a way that works for them. If I am talking to a public official with no experience in the Jewish community, I like to explain why they should care about an issue that is important to my community.

Can you give me an example of how you put that into action?

I have gone on multiple Public Officials Mission Trips to Israel—six over a 10-year period. During one of those trips, we had just gone to Yad Vashem, and a lawmaker interested in right-to-life issues approached me. They said that, in advocating for the pro-life movement, they sometimes compared abortions to the Holocaust. “What do you think of that?” they asked me.

First, I was thrilled to be asked. We had been traveling together for several days, and I realized this person trusted me enough to pose the question. It gave me the opportunity to talk about how this comparison is not quite right. I said, “I understand where you are coming from. When you feel so passionately about an issue, I can see it’s tempting to make this comparison. But It’s damaging to compare this issue with the Holocaust, and this is why.” Then I talked about the significant differences between the two.

On these mission trips, you have time to talk about issues, and you can really get people to sit down, listen, and open their minds. I have also been on trips with public officials who were far to the left with very negative views of Israel. When they visit the country, they come away with a new understanding of how different Israel is from the way it is depicted on daily news.

Do you have any particular accomplishments from your years with the JCRC that you can point to with special pride?

The JCRC was an important part of the coalition that supported civil unions in Colorado. I remember a conversation with a lawmaker on a Public Officials Mission Trip—interestingly, again after our visit to Yad Vashem. They said that this experience had changed their mind about civil unions by showing them the direct result of discrimination.

When Boulder was considering a sister city relationship with Nablus in the West Bank, we worked with decision-makers to explain our position without vilifying the people of Nablus.

We tackled the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement in the Legislature, making sure the underpinnings of BDS were understood and that legislation was not codified at the local level.

When I went to work for the state in 2015, I was no longer the JCRC board chair because I could not advocate for bills on behalf of the Jewish community while working for the state, but I continued to go on Public Officials Mission Trips both as a representative of the governor’s office and a community member.

Through the years, I have found that nothing is ever done by a single person, so I cannot take credit for anything the JCRC has accomplished. We talk about policy, bills, and accomplishments, but the single most important thing the JCRC does is cultivate and maintain relationships with local and state public officials. When the JCRC is needed, we are there. I was a part of that process, and I am grateful for it.

What do you see in the future for the JCRC?

As a Jewish community, we cannot afford to sit out of the civic and political life of our communities. That is antithetical to what has made Jewish communities thrive and be successful throughout long history. Every legislator needs an expert in something they know nothing about. We need to be the experts in the needs and concerns of the Jewish community. What are our security and educational needs and why? Why do we care about Israel, and why does that not make us disloyal to the United States?

I appreciate this honor, but for me, it’s a great opportunity to thank the many people who were involved in my years with the JCRC and to acknowledge the importance of what the organization does. We will always have unique needs in the community, and the JCRC will always be needed. Having the opportunity to reinforce publicly the role that the JCRC plays in filling that need is important to me.

Make a special tribute to show your support for Jacki Cooper Melmed and join us on Wednesday, March 13, at the Denver Art Museum for the 2024 JCRC Luncheon.