Joni Rabinowitz was born on July 30, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York. She grew up in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City. Her father, Victor, a lawyer, represented trade unions and others whose unpopular ideas made finding legal representation difficult. Although her mother, Marcia, had advanced education, she remained a home maker and became a community activist who worked to integrate the public schools in New Rochelle.
In 1959 Rabinowitz graduated from New Rochelle High School and entered Antioch College, a liberal arts college located in Yellow Springs, Ohio, that offered “cooperative education programs where students alternate between on-campus study and off-campus work.” Having grown up playing the cello, she entered as a Music major, but by her senior year, she changed her major to Political Science. She was active in various left political causes during her college years, including a period in 1963 when she went to Albany, Georgia, to volunteer for voter registration work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This was part of her co-op experience at Antioch. While in Georgia, she was arrested three times on the street for vagrancy (charges later dropped), and fasted in jail once for fifteen days and once for nine days. She was also charged with perjury by a federal grand jury and tried along with eight others as the "Albany Nine." Although she was convicted, the 5th Circuit Court eventually reversed the conviction.
In addition to civil rights, Rabinowitz while at Antioch was also active in Fair Play for Cuba (she helped organize a student trip to Cuba at Christmas time 1960), attended the Helsinki Youth Conference in 1961, and worked for peace, free speech and socialism. In 1964, along with over 100 other protestors, Rabinowitz was arrested for demonstrating against a Yellow Springs barber who would not serve African-American patrons. She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at Antioch in 1965.
Rabinowitz completed one year of Social Work school at Adelphi University in New York. During this time, together with students from other social work schools in New York, she worked to support civil rights work in the South. In the summer of 1966, she worked with the California Migrant Ministry in the San Joaquin Valley as a community organizer among Mexican-American farm workers. After this experience, she returned to New York to take a job with the New York City Welfare Department, where she remained until 1969. She was also involved with the local Social Service Employees Union (SSEU), welfare rights, and opposition to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Her SSEU involvement lead to her being arrested three times during a strike in 1968. The SSEU was independent, but eventually merged with District Council 31 of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers). Rabinowitz was also part of Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS), a local New York "grown up SDS" which had chapters in the welfare department, teachers, city planners and cab drivers.
While providing draft counseling for the union in New York, she met John Haer, who later became her husband. In 1969 they moved to Pittsburgh where his draft board had sent him to do alternative service at Mayview State Hospital, as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
In the early 1970s Rabinowitz helped organize a 24 hour telephone hotline for youth, known as the "Switchboard," and wrote for and distributed an underground newspaper, the
Pittsburgh Fair Witness. Also during this period she worked with the Gulf Action Project and other groups around the country in anti-corporate campaigns. In 1974 Rabinowitz earned a Masters of Social Work degree in community organizing from the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1971 she was a founding member of the New American Movement (NAM). This nationwide socialist-feminist organization promoted democratic socialism, feminism, economic democracy, anti-racism, labor unions, gay rights, anti-war actions, international solidarity, women's rights, civil rights, and utility reform. It aimed to create a broad movement for American socialism. It also had an extensive education program, both internal and also for the public. Additionally, NAM sponsored cultural events, such as films and folk-singers and groups. In 1973 the Pittsburgh chapter produced a slide show, "Pittsburgh 1902, a People's History" and also created a People's History of Pittsburgh wall calendar for 1973. In 1982 NAM merged with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Rabinowitz was one of the minority of members, nationally, who opposed the merger.
Rabinowitz was a leader in both the local and Industrial Heartland Region organizations of NAM. Between 1971 and 1982, she was off-and-on again a Steering Committee member in the Pittsburgh Chapter, and also attended every annual national convention during those ten years. Along with her husband and several others in the Pittsburgh chapter, she was on the committee which published the
NAM Newsletter, a monthly publication beginning in 1972, which was mailed to several hundred interested people. In 1982, after the merger, the name changed to the
Allegheny Socialist and was published for several years after that. She was also involved in the Peoples Power Project, a NAM campaign for utility reform, from 1976-1980. In 1974-1975 she worked through NAM on a City Budget Campaign, organized to get Pittsburgh City council to fund more human services.
Between 1979 and 1982, Rabinowitz managed Wobblie Joe's, a small bar on the South Side of Pittsburgh owned by some friends who hoped to bring together the mill-worker culture with the music of Appalachia. The bar had live music every night -- at least two nationally-known figures got their start there: folk singer Anne Feeney and blues singer Ernie Hawkins. Economic problems were the primary cause of the bar's closing in 1982. Rabinowitz and the co-owners also had disagreements with the staff, which were solved by the staff forming a union.
In 1983 Rabinowitz took a job as a public policy advocate for the Hunger Action Coalition. Two years later the organization split and Rabinowitz helped found Just Harvest, an anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocacy organization. She remained as one of two co-directors at Just Harvest until 2010, when she retired. During her 25 years at Just Harvest, she organized on the national, state and local level for public policies which benefit poor and hungry people. These included food stamp policy, school meals, and welfare policies, among others.
Currently, Rabinowitz lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two cats, Claudette and Tippy. Since her retirement, her activities include volunteering at a cat shelter, being elected to her neighborhood board, gardening, and organizing against Marcellus Shale drilling.