Foothill College Jewish Heritage Month 2022
January 13, 2022
Posted by: Julia Abramson, Community Engagement Associate
Speech delivered as part of Foothill College’s Jewish Heritage Month Opening & Tree Planting Ceremony on Wednesday, January 12, 2022.
If you were to tell me five years ago that I would be doing community organizing at a Jewish nonprofit, I would not have believed you. I may have even laughed. I really had never put any thought into being Jewish, and would even sometimes shy away from owning my Jewish roots. It's funny to think about now, because every day at the Jewish Community Relations Council, or JCRC, my Jewish values are at the core of my role as Community Engagement Associate – it’s where I use how passionate I am about intersectionality and equity, and working with civic and elected leaders, to make our community landscape better. I was a little late in the game in realizing this, but what I learned (and my reminder for you today) is that your Jewish values and perspectives will ultimately be at the root of your social justice work. As a queer Jewish person, I’ve always felt different, and I always knew that I valued my intersecting my identities, I just really didn’t think I would be able to make any sort of difference. Who would listen to one random girl from Ohio?
Every story has a beginning, and mine started in Columbus, Ohio (contrary to popular belief I was not born in a cornfield but around the corner from one). I grew up in a family of political junkies, history lovers, and social justice advocates. Because my grandparents were first generation Americans with extended family who died in the Holocaust, being Jewish to my family meant that it was absolutely vital to stay on top of the news and history, so as not to repeat it. This also for our family meant embracing the tradition of Tzedakah, or charitable giving. My grandma took this to the next level. She lived in Wayne County, Ohio, which is known for being in Amish Country. If the Amish country part didn’t give it away, I’ll let y’all know that there were not many Jewish people there. Already an outsider in her hometown, my grandma helped start Wayne County’s first Planned Parenthood. Being Jewish had taught her that if she didn’t stand up for those who needed it, who would? This was my first example of how Jewish values influence and inspire social justice work.
While now I’m here talking about how much Jewish tenets have given me a voice and a will to help others, I was still a rebellious teenager. I was so tired of everything in my family wrapping around being Jewish – I felt like I couldn’t be my own person without this expectation of being Jewish just inundating everything that I did. So, at 22, equipped with a B.A. in English and absolutely no life plan, I was ready to commit my most rebellious act yet – moving to the Deep South.
Moving to Atlanta made sense to me at the time. It was only a tiny bit bigger than Columbus and only an eight-hour drive away, and – the most important piece of all – I knew absolutely no one there. Despite fielding at least 10 panic-stricken calls from my mom (and one from my dad asking if I knew how to get an oil change), it was the first time I could fully act as an individual. I could explore my queerness and my passion for voting rights and equity as individual entities (or so I thought, but we’ll get to my epiphany about intersectionality later).
What I didn’t realize was that Atlanta’s legacy as the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement pulsates throughout the city. There was an electricity in the air – I was surrounded by the most inspiring, intelligent, and just downright fun people doing their part to make the South a true place for “all y’all.” I did corporate recruiting to pay the bills, but my weekends were filled with voter-registration events, marches, and canvassing. As the bright-eyed Ohioan, turned a little more southern and a little more rooted in daily life, it dawned on me one day that I knew virtually no Jews. I had amazing relationships in Atlanta, but I came to realize that my individual experience being Jewish, and having the intersecting identity of queerness, gave me a particular voice and vision for being an activist and ally.
I remember I called my mom after a particularly degrading day in the recruiting world. It was 2019, months after the contentious gubernatorial race between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, and I was just in a funk. I felt like I could have done more for the cause, and that 40 hours of my week was being thrown out the window, down a sewer grate, and was sitting unused in the underbelly of the Atlanta sewage system. I told my mom I was “literally incapable” of having a corporate job, and that I needed to be in the nonprofit space full time. After I hung up the phone I sat with my thoughts.
As a Jew, I knew what it was like to live with the generational trauma of systematic hate. But I also knew that as a queer person. Jews of Color face racism along with antisemitism every single day. So, the issues I wanted to focus on – voting rights, abortion access, racial equity, etc. – these were all Jewish issues as well.
Life has a funny way of pointing you in the direction you need to go and, apparently, I needed a global pandemic to point me to mine. So, in July 2020, six years after moving to Atlanta, when being a recruiter in a market where no one was hiring was possibly the worst job to have, I got laid off. The pandemic was exposing blatant inequities in our country, and I knew that I could not go back to having a corporate job
After what felt like approximately 500 applications in almost all 50 states (I didn’t think rural Alaska was for me) I came across the JCRC Administrative Assistant posting. I was a few thousand miles away from the job and had absolutely no experience in full-time nonprofit work, but from reading the job posting and going to the website, I saw that it was exactly the organization I needed to work for. JCRC believes that Jewish identity compels us to create social change, which at that time was something I had really just begun to live my life by (I know, a little late to the game). I applied and the interview must have gone okay – one year and four months later, a pandemic-move across the country (that is a whole other 20-minute rant), and a job title change later brought me here to speak.
Each person watching this has an identity that either consciously or subconsciously guides them, whether they realize it or not. Everyone watching has a point of view and unique experiences that have led them to see the world the way that you do today. And, as obvious as this may sound (it only took me and is taking my entire life to figure this out), you are the only one with your perspective! So, if you’re feeling imposter syndrome creep in, know that your values and culture are always there to offer a lens that no one else has. Embrace your identity. Move in the spaces it tells you to. And let it guide you to help others, as Judaism ultimately has guided me. Thank you.