The Incredible Shrinking Bar Mitzvah

Zach Hertzman and his family get caught in the pandemic timeline.

 

Zach’s Bar Mitzvah, scheduled for March 28, 2020 was in the final planning stages when the State of Ohio began to shrink the maximum number of people allowed at public gatherings as a response to the rising number of coronavirus cases and fatalities. They were expecting 100 guests at the Bar Mitzvah and 175 at the celebration after.

Emily, Zach’s mom, explains, “We have a very  large  family. First it was a 100 people limit, then 50, then 10. The celebration was out when bars and restaurants were closed to events on March 15. So we focused on the ceremony. We worried about offending family members and friends if some got left out. We worried about the risk to grandparents and the people and staff who would be part of making Zach’s Bar Mitzvah happen. Zach didn’t want to reschedule or move it to Wise Center where it  could be live streamed. He was prepared and had his heart set on Plum Street Temple with its special character and rich history. So in the end, it was just the four of us—just Zach, his older brother Jake, Craig and me—in addition to the rabbi, the musician and the photographer. The intimacy of the service made it a very emotional experience.”

Zach’s dad Craig agrees, “It was an emotional day. While we were sitting there, I was thinking about all the things that have happened since the temple was built. Wars, genocide, social unrest, global health crises and so much more that people have endured over the last 150 years. During some very tough times, people sat in the same seats where we were sitting and came together to find strength as a community. It was very moving to participate in my son’s Bar Mitzvah at that moment in such a historical and intimate setting.”

Emily thinks that having no additional family and friends made  it easier for Zach to relax conducting the service without an audience, but “He also had to let go of what he thought the   day would be like, to no longer have his friends be part of the moment. He had to be adaptable and not be disappointed with the circumstances.”

With the stress of Zach’s unique Bar Mitzvah situation behind them, the Hertzmans have moved on with daily life. Both Hertzman boys are athletes, playing multiple sports.  Emily jokes that she’s their “mom-ager.” Craig, who grew up at Wise Temple, owns a facilities maintenance company. He feels that it is important to check in regularly with older family members and friends, making sure that loneliness and isolation don’t get the better of them during the pandemic.

Zach’s interests also include fishing and building computers. He spent the summer riding his bike to a nearby park, meeting his friends to fish. They research knots and lures on YouTube and Zach sends his mom-ager to Bass Pro Shop for the lures they want to try.

Technology has become something of a Mitzvah for Zach. As things opened up in May, he began teaching friends how to build computers. He creates a list of needed parts and sources, helps the kid make a slide show for parents about the project and cost, coordinates a trip to the store to buy the parts, then teaches them how to build the computer piece by piece, usually in an afternoon together. There’s no charge for the service and knowledge sharing. Zach simply enjoys the process.

The Hertzmans miss in-person temple events that are part of the community’s culture, but Craig says the silver lining is “we’ve been hanging out and doing things as a family that we didn’t have time to do before.”

 

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Have you felt guilty witnessing the pandemic-inspired culinary exploits of people who are making the perfect loaf of challah from scratch instead of binge-watching Netflix in their pajamas? Well, Rachel Levine and Steph Schroeder are two such over-achievers but blame it on their scientific bent. They’re not trying to impress anyone, just keeping their extra-restless brains occupied. Rachel and Steph met in college at the Rochester Institute of Technology where Rachel studied mechanical engineering (undergrad and Master’s) and Steph focused on biochemistry, then a Master’s in environmental sciences.

Rachel landed in Cincinnati first, at GE Aviation working in additive manufacturing (creating jet engine parts using 3D printing with metal). Steph was soon hired as an environmental consultant with Partner Engineering and Science. They had already started discussing what their life together would look like. Rachel was raised Jewish, but Steph was not, yet it felt right to them both that they would move forward in a Jewish-focused direction. Steph found the NextGen@Wise group and began working on her conversion with the help of Rabbi Danziger. Not long after, Rachel was transferred to Germany, and Steph to Poland, where she continued her conversion studies with the rabbi on Skype. It was in Europe that they became engaged.

After two years abroad Rachel and Steph returned to Cincinnati, where Steph finished her conversion and they lived in an apartment in downtown Cincinnati with Bella, their globetrotting foster fail pup. Next up  was their October 2019 wedding in Ithaca, New York. Rachel is from Harrisburg, PA, and Steph from New York state (Cincinnatus, no less!) so a destination wedding made sense. After a Vermont honeymoon, it was back to Cincinnati to prepare for the trip of a lifetime in February, Honeymoon Israel. Steph explains, “The takeaway is you have this Jewish focused experience together with other couples from your city, and hard conversations about what you imagine your Jewish life to be, then hit the ground running with a like-minded community of people.” Rachel and Steph met NextGeners Jazz Duncan and Eric Wolk, (who are getting married in  October) and cemented their relationship with them on the 10-day trip to Israel. Rachel says “We’ve become extremely close. They’re our partners in crime now.”

Just as the pandemic hit hard, Rachel and Steph closed on a house in Pleasant Ridge, what Rachel calls “South Amberley.” They were able to move in April, and because lock-down was already in full swing they had plenty of time to empty all the boxes in record time. What do two scientists do to keep boredom at bay? Steph admits,  “We’re social creatures and like to be out and about with friends, having new experiences. Living within the bounds of our property  line is an adjustment.” Rachel adds, “We  love to travel. I’ve never seen so many of our weekends just empty.”  Hence, the mission to create the world’s greatest non-dairy ice cream. Coconut milk is hands down the best plant-based milk. The best success so far? Chocolate marshmallow (amazing!) And the worst? Basil peach (yuck–pesto ice cream!)

After the whirlwind of the last few years, their new normal includes more sleeping, reading, and taking long walks with Bella. They are thankful to have jobs, healthy loved ones, a house and a yard. They are also just enjoying being with each other, establishing Jewish traditions in their home (like being together every Friday night for Shabbat), and sharing the foundation they have begun to build together.

 

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Jenny and Bob Oestreicher have lived in their house for four years but could count on two hands the number of times they actually sat at their kitchen table and had a family meal together. The pandemic changed that, Jenny says. “We have bar stools at our kitchen island, and most of the time we would just eat there, not really sit down intentionally and have a nice meal together. It’s been a real treat. We prepare our meals, we sit down and we eat as a family at least twice a day.”

Like any two-working-parents family, life was a blur of driving back and forth from daycare and work, shopping, temple, visits with grandparents, errands, carry-out, playdates, chores. The kitchen island was one of the few places they stopped for a breather. Stella is an energetic, spunky, social and smart 3-½ year old who keeps Jenny and Bob busy. When the stay at home order was implemented, and Stella and her parents relocated from daycare and offices to home, Stella had to wonder what was up. At the beginning, Jenny and Bob told her they were going on vacation, and that seemed to have worked. Jenny thinks that Stella was young enough accept the changes but not old enough to question why.

Stella easily grasped the adjustments required for life in the Covid world. Masks, social distancing, calling out her grandparents and her aunts and uncles if they came too close to her without their masks on and silly distance dance parties with her uncle in her grandmother’s garage were now the new normal. Stella adopted the role of pandemic police girl to help all the adults in her life stay in line.

The online world became a part of her life too: playdates on FaceTime and her favorite activity, YoFI Shababa (now on Zoom). Bob says that even though it would have been easy to plop Stella on the couch to play on her tablet all day, they tried hard to mix it up and play with toys,  go for walks outside, or go for a drive. They also took advantage of YoFI’s “Play It Safe” program, taking Stella to the Wise Center playground.

Many talk of how “surreal” the pandemic has made everyday life. Jenny and Bob experienced that, attending two Jewish funerals remotely. Each of them had a cousin who passed away. Bob mentions that “For me, it was the most concrete thing about this experience. It rang true that we’re really in a global crisis, when you can’t even go to a graveside for a funeral to mourn a family member.” He was grateful for the technology, however, pointing out “We were able to sit shiva through Zoom with our family. Imagine if this had happened five years ago, when none of these technologies existed on any large scale.”

Stella’s extra-long vacation ended when she went back to day care in August. Jenny, still working from home full-time, works in human resources for Luxottica, and Bob, who is going into work a day or two a week now, is employed at Tire Discounters as general counsel and manager of real estate growth and human resources. Hopefully, life is now a little less surreal for the Oestreichers, and they’ll be able to think soon about rescheduling their West Coast trip they had to cancel in March. Beach, anyone?

 

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Julie and John Cohen enjoy a long history at Wise Temple, having married at Plum Street Temple 48 years ago. But that isn’t the half of it. Julie’s mother, Bess Shavzin, was the temple librarian for 27 years, and her father was involved in Brotherhood, ushering, and fixing things around the temple. Both Julie and her sister Mary Lee Sirkin taught Religious School. John likes to say, “I married into the temple and was married in the temple.”

This legacy has given them perspective on how things were done in the past, and how they are now. The pandemic has produced new learning solutions. They thoroughly enjoyed Kafé Kamrass, Julie commenting that “At times it’s much easier to do a virtual class than actually go somewhere–it was a very pleasant and good experience.” They look forward to the Rabbis’ weekly video messages and John notes ironically that he’s gotten very good at Zoom meetings and Google hangouts.

On the flip side, they were planning to move into their new home in July when the pandemic put the kibosh on their timeframe. Also derailed was a yearly trip for John in September in which he combines his business (ophthalmology) with his main pleasure (fly fishing).

As a surgeon trained in surgical sterile technique, he views Covid as an invisible enemy. A personal loss has intensified his response: a friend and professional colleague contracted the virus and died. It hit him hard. “It made me very aware that a physician who supposedly knows how to take care of himself could die from it. So I was fanatically trying to decide if I should go back to work and risk bringing the virus home to Julie when both of us are in the age group with a significant mortality rate.” John did go back to work, taking stringent precautions with a face shield, double masks, gloves and scrubs that he peels off and puts in the laundry before coming into the main part of the house after work. He’s not afraid to ask someone he is dealing with (at the post office for instance) to please wear their mask properly or put one on.

Julie is a retired special ed teacher and feels badly about kids being cheated out of a big part of their schooling, but wants everyone, teachers included, to be safe. “If it’s not safe, the kids shouldn’t go,” she asserts. She also uses “invisible” to describe the virus, likening it to an invisible fence restricting her from her normal comings and goings. The pandemic has made her mindful of the uncertainty of life, so she treats herself to little luxuries occasionally like a little more mayonnaise on her sandwich or macaroni and cheese instead of salad.

Even with the stresses of pandemic living, Julie and John are grateful. Their two sons, Howie (and his wife Tawny) and Brad, who live on the West Coast (L.A.   and Portland respectively), are healthy and surviving the epidemic, as is their granddaughter Eleanor, who lives in Maryland. They enjoy each other’s company, play Bananagrams, and pack for their move to their new home. John’s stint away from work during the stay at home order taught him that he’ll be able to emotionally deal with retiring when the time comes.

Julie is also grateful for the Jewish values that are part of her DNA. She has  the quote “Make it a habit to do nice things for people who will never find out” hanging in her home as a reminder and her guiding star.

 

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Family Time Galore.

Tina and Michael Best appreciate how their family bonds have strengthened due to the pandemic. Tina, an art teacher at Cincinnati Public Schools, welcomed time during the stay at home order to spend with Max, 8 and Eleanor, 6. Usually, after giving her job 100% all day, she’d be tired and didn’t feel up to the same 100% for her family. Mike, an industrial process automation software designer with Honeywell, was happy his commute was reduced to a few seconds. He gets to have lunch with Tina and the kids several days a week, instead of being away for 10–11 hours every day.

Tina and Mike also observed that with the kids sequestered away from school and social activities, they’ve grown closer to each other. “This is good for them,” Tina notes, “They help each other and they’re best friends. Their relationship is stronger than ever, which is reassuring as a parent.”

All the silver linings don’t eradicate the fact that the kids were bouncing off the walls. Summer didn’t come a minute too soon. Tina and Mike have experimented with a mixture of indoor and outdoor activities, some educational sessions, quiet downtime in their rooms   or a little bit of TV, looking for the perfect balance. Tina shares that  Max and Eleanor have been helping out more around the house since everyone is there constantly and more needs to be done. “They have a couple new chores they enjoy. I went upstairs last night to put Max to bed and he was reorganizing his dresser. I said to him, ‘Oh, Max, I love you so much!’” 

Happy campers

Mike was raised Jewish, and Tina Catholic, but she was turned away by Catholicism’s strictness. After years of spiritual exploration, when the kids were born, she came to believe that Judaism provided the atmosphere and philosophy she was looking for, for her and her family. “I love how welcoming and accepting everyone is at Wise Temple. It makes me feel warm inside,” she says, a smile lighting up her face.

The pandemic summer has helped Tina feel ready for both kids to go to Jewish summer camp. This past winter when the subject of GUCI came up, she wasn’t sure she could send them off for two weeks  with no parental visits. “They were ready, but it was hard for me. I  was worried, ‘Are you sure you won’t miss me?’ Now we’re all ready!” Mike laughs, saying “I grew up in Cleveland, and my parents wanted find a camp far enough away that I couldn’t call and come home if I g homesick, so they shipped me 500 miles away to Wisconsin.” 

Between a rock and a soft place

Before the pandemic, Tina was creating replicas of famous paintings on rocks and hiding them in the neighborhood for her students to find. The Bests live two blocks from the school where she teaches, so she and her students are neighbors. The rock painting became a form of therapy helping Tina get through the pandemic. When the Wise Temple Family Engagement group announced the Wise Rocks program of painting rocks to place around the playground, Tina’s response was, “On it! Got this. Piece of cake.” Tina and the kids got busy creating rocks for the playground.

Her rocks have become a random act of kindness. Mike explains, “Besides the rocks for the temple playground she’s been putting rocks outside our house. We live in a pedestrian friendly place. She’s put out more than 50 rocks over the last couple of months just to see the kids and families pick them up and take them home. It always puts smiles on their faces.”

Mike says although the past five months have felt like five years, they are thankful for their family and all they have now more than ever. Tina adds, “We are so fortunate to be where we are as a family and I try every day to remember how lucky we are.”

 

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An old-world wedding in an old-world setting.

 

Ben and Tess Rosen spent March, April, and most of May not knowing if they would be married on June 6 or not. They had been engaged for two years, planned their ideal wedding with 160 guests at Plum Street Temple, and waited in limbo to see what restrictions would be placed on their nuptials by the powers that be. They had already cancelled the reception and considered cancelling the wedding. They wanted their immediate family there, and they wanted it at Plum Street Temple. Not until two weeks before the date did they learn their guest total could be 15 people.

At that point, they needed to either embrace it or scrap the wedding until some unknown future date. Tess says, “We went through a little mourning period, but then we realized we were still able to get married and have some truly beautiful moments that we wouldn’t have if the wedding had gone according to plan.” Ben adds, “Pre-Corona, we thought we needed a DJ with a reception venue, a big party, etc. and it turns out all we needed was our immediate family, the rabbis, the photographer and the two of us. We had a really intimate wedding ceremony and went to my parents’ for a family dinner that was our reception. It felt very back to the shtetl to me, back to the old world.” Coming out of Plum Street Temple and upon arriving at Ben’s parents’ home, the newlyweds were surprised by welcoming committees of friends who couldn’t be part of the wedding, cheering and celebrating their marriage.

Ben and Tess are no strangers to last minute changes to major plans. Ben is in his third year of the Rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College. The year before their wedding, he and Tess were planning to live in Jerusalem for his first year of study, when Tess was offered her dream job of teaching English at Sycamore High School where both she and Ben attended. Ben went to Israel alone and Tess bunked with her future in-laws, who live near the school. Tess says, “We ended up getting very close. They were an incredible support system while I was going through my first year at a new job, and missing Ben like crazy, every waking moment of the day.”

If you wonder what our society could look like down the pike, look no further than Ben and Tess, who are committed to careers of service and are hopeful for the future. They are gratified to see and participate in the work being done in the global pandemic to end racism and create a society based on equality. The state of the world right now has delivered some valuable insights they will carry with them into their new life together. Ben, in regards to the daily rat race of life: “Slow down, it’s probably not that important.” Tess: “Stand up and speak out for what you know is right, even when it’s inconvenient or hard.”

Ben’s parents, Debby and Jeff Rosen, married 30 years, are both from Cleveland, but love Cincinnati, and have raised their four children here (Ben, Emma, Sophie and Joshua). Watching their oldest child marry at Plum Street Temple was a moving experience for them. All of Ben’s major lifecycle moments took place there. “It was one of those happy, sad moments in life. We were ecstatic they could move forward, and so happy for them, with a little sadness mixed in that everyone who matters to them couldn’t be there,” Debby remembers. Jeff notes, “There were 150 people on Zoom who were part of Ben and Tess’s day. It was beautiful that they were there is spirit. It couldn’t have gone better.”

 

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Isaac M. Wise Temple provides an opportunity for congregants of all ages to live out their Jewish values by working together to influence systemic change through Civic Engagement@Wise (CE@Wise). The group focuses on societal concerns such as increasing voter participation, reducing gun violence, criminal justice reform, and securing reproductive rights for women. Through its affiliation with the Religious Action Center (RAC), Isaac M. Wise Temple is a “Brit Olam” congregation and has signed a covenant to confront injustice at its root.

As part of CE@Wise, congregants register voters, participate in marches, lobby legislators, plan educational programs on social problems, and collect signatures to support pending legislation. Our partners include the JCRC, ACLU, Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center and RAC Ohio that serves Reform congregations throughout Ohio. “Working with our partners strengthens our voice and contributes to our knowledge and influence on social justice concerns,” says Jenna Shaifer, co-chair of CE@Wise.

On June 30, CE@Wise sponsored a webinar attended by 70 Wise Temple members that featured “Understanding Racism at Home: A Conversation with Lead Pastor Paul Booth Jr. of Legacy Pointe Church and Rabbi Lewis Kamrass.” During the webinar, the speakers emphasized that voting is an important tool to address systemic racism and social injustice, but more needs to be done to create a more equitable future in American society.

In the upcoming days, CE@Wise is co-sponsoring with RAC-Ohio a state-wide webinar by Eric Ward, a long-time and nationally noted civil rights strategist. Ward’s topic for that webinar is “Racism, Antisemitism, and the Vote.” The event will be offered to Reform congregations across Ohio on Monday, July 27, at 7 pm and can be accessed through Wise Temple via zoom by registration in advance.

Up through the general election, CE@Wise will focus its efforts on mobilizing voters within and outside the congregation, advocating for voter access, and engaging teens and college students in the voting process.

CE@Wise has launched the campaign “Every Congregant Votes” within the membership of Wise Temple to ensure voting is accessible to all congregants, and that all congregants of voting age are accurately registered and to help them register if they are not. CE@Wise is also working to form partnerships with local organizations and other faith-based groups to encourage voting and to provide materials to other groups and constituencies in the larger community about access to voting that can be distributed within these settings.

To achieve these goals, CE@Wise has developed a variety of activities congregants can participate in over the summer: 1) postcard writing at home (possibly on Zoom) or in small groups where safety practices are followed; 2) texting and phoning congregants; 3) delivering voter registration forms to senior centers and other gathering places; 4) reaching out to groups and individuals who would benefit from clear information about how to register to vote; and 5) broadening voting opportunities by contacting Ohio State Representatives to oppose HB680 (which decreases voter opportunities); and to support SB191 (which expands abilities for Ohioans to vote). CE@Wise will provide volunteers with necessary supplies such as postcards, labels, contact lists, and sample scripts as needed.

Following the November election, CE@Wise will continue to address key priorities: preventing gun violence, criminal justice reform, and securing reproductive rights for women. As Amy Katz, Jenna Shaifer’s co-chair, states, “We know that working for social justice is challenging, but our Jewish values and texts are there to guide us, inspire us, and sustain our commitment.”

  • Published in The American Israelite 7/23/2020

The Faces of the Future

Eliana Goldner is not waiting to make the world a better place.

Sophomore Eliana Goldner plays soccer, both elite and on Turpin’s JV team. She’s also in Student Council, Key Club, and Innovation Club. And she’s WOOTY’s Vice President of Programming, so she’s all in on participating and being involved.

They Might Still Be Here

Last year two kids from my school committed suicide, both by guns. I knew one boy. He was a star athlete who worked with special needs kids. It was a shock to everyone. Maybe without a gun, he would have had to work on his problems instead. When I heard that Civic Engagement would be advocating for better gun laws, I wanted to help with that – if those two kids hadn’t had such easy access to guns, they might still be here.

Popping the Bubble

Growing up, my parents would ask me what I thought instead of telling me what they thought. It helped me comprehend what I was seeing and listening to and to form my own opinions. I think a lot of kids are sheltered by their parents’ opinions, and that influence closes off their minds. Maybe some would have different opinions of their own. Lots of kids are living in bubbles that I would love to pop someday!

Down the Road

Before Lobby Day, I considered studying engineering of some kind. I definitely wanted to do something to help people but wasn’t sure what. After Lobby Day, I began thinking about a government or political job where I could make a difference to peoples’ lives. I want to make as big an impact on the world as I can and do as much as I can with the time I have. I’ve been taught that as a Jew, it’s important to stand up for what I believe in, not to sit in silence as our neighbors are treated unfairly.

Talkin’ ‘bout My Generation

I brought a friend who wasn’t Jewish to Lobby Day. She learned a lot about Judaism from it and told me “You know I’m not Jewish, but I really like Jewish values.” When we told our friends the next day about it, they thought it was cool. It felt good to fight for something that so many people believe in. I would love to see more teens involved in stuff like this. It has a bigger impact on adults when a lot of kids come together to express how they feel. We will have to deal with what adults are leaving behind. I think it’s important to learn what we can do with our voice. Even though we’re young, we’re the next generation, and if we want to see change in our world, we need to start now.

 

Abby Rosenberg is not waiting to make the world a better place.

Abby Rosenberg’s got big plans. She’s interested in the ethical and societal implications of medicine and wants to be a trauma surgeon for a humanitarian organization like Doctors Without Borders. As WOOTY president, she focuses on bringing social action to the forefront of the high-schoolers’ agenda, like the interfaith MLK Lock-In that happened in January.

First Time’s a Charm

Last year I went with other Wise kids to a lobbying weekend in D.C., over President’s Day weekend. It was a big convention with teens from all over the U.S. We wrote speeches and went to Capitol Hill to talk to senators, representatives and aides. It was the first time I did anything like that and it was a really good experience.

A Case for Caring

When I learned the Civic Engagement group was participating in Lobby Day, I was excited, and got my friend Bettina Ernst to go with me. We were surprised there weren’t more teens, but it was a great way to show how much our community cares. I ‘ve known most of the people we lobbied with since I was a little kid. We lobbied for gun violence prevention, for the STRONG Ohio bill. 90% of people support background checks, but still nothing has been done in terms of tracking laws. It’s frustrating and doesn’t feel like I’m making a difference. But I had a meaningful conversation with Sedrick Denson, one of my representatives. He told me how much he looks up to young people. I had a moment of “This really matters.”

A Bigger Picture

It’s scary to think about how gun violence could happen to us at school, but it’s easy to lose sight of people who can’t fight for themselves and need to be fought for even more than ourselves. Gun violence has been happening in inner cities for a long time and gets no attention. Or there’s criminal justice reform that doesn’t directly affect our community. It’s not just the issues that are going to impact us. We need to think about other people.

Both Sides Now

Our Kulanu class has helped me to look at social action from the Jewish perspective – to think deeply about why I think what I do, why It’s super important to have productive conversations with people who have different beliefs from me, to truly listen to them and how to explain my positions to them. If we only ever work with people who have the same beliefs, and we only ever talk to people who reinforce what we think, we’ll never get anywhere. With how divided our government is today, it’s so important to know how to have constructive conversations with people on both sides.

 

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Last fall, Karen Goodman and her husband Richard became empty nesters. And in this new life space, Karen has found a way to give voice to her Jewish values. Although she and Richard are both from Amberley Village, they didn’t solidly connect until they found each other as young adults living in Boston. Marriage and three children later, a confluence of events led them back to Cincinnati, and Wise Temple, where Karen teaches about nature and does yoga with the kids in the Open Room on Sundays.

Karen grew up in a traditional Jewish home. She first went to Israel for her older brother’s bar mitzvah when she was five. “I was so young, but I remember it felt like a truly incredible place. This passion for Israel is a big part of my Jewish values.” She spent a year in Israel on a kibbutz in the Negev and in Jerusalem before gap years were a thing. “It was transformative in terms of my love for Israel and solidified Judaism as my cultural, spiritual tradition.”

Her mother was socially progressive – a feminist and environmentalist, committed to social action. Karen recalls, “She was very proud to be a woman, and showed me and my sister that it’s possible to be independent, to hold strong, deep values as a female, and still be a good mom too.”

Karen strives to parent by example, just like her mom and dad did. She believes that now is the time in her life to support the young change-makers who envision a better world. She is compelled to use her voice not only for herself and her own children, but for all those who don’t have the resources, the finances, or who are fearful to speak up for themselves.

“Truthfully, I feel most comfortable doing social action with my fellow Jews, which is how I ended up working with Civic Engagement. At this time in my life and with how I’m feeling about the world around us, it was a natural fit for me and it came at the perfect time,” Karen explains.

Regarding gun violence Karen says, “I just cannot look at news clips of killings – all of them: mass shootings, suicides, murders – and just say ‘Oh well, that’s how it is.’ I truly believe gun violence is a public health crisis and should be treated as a public health crisis. There’s nothing political about it. It’s really hard to stomach the idea that nothing can be done.”

She has equally strong feelings about reproductive rights and criminal justice reform. She hopes to contribute to the groundswell by helping and encouraging friends to channel the passions they have for societal issues into small doable actions that could lead to bigger ones. “We all have to show up. We should be able to leave our kids in a better place and to teach them how to ‘move the needle’ because we’re not going to be able to do it forever. The more people we get involved, the better!”

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Matt Nitzberg’s background in what he calls “the data and insight fields” has taught him many lessons about analyzing a situation. He’s logical, pragmatic and practical, with an objective eye for assessing the impact of his and others’ efforts in the new Civic Engagement program. But at 14, he engaged in his first political foray, volunteering for George McGovern, a presidential candidate he was not old enough to vote for, a candidate who lost every state but his home state, and D.C. “I grew up very aware that my parents felt strongly about social justice issues in the late 60s and 70s. They were very clear about their views, and I absorbed their message and became involved.”

It Could Happen to You, Too

He also inherited from his parents the notion of lending a helping hand to people who were in difficulty, at risk, or victims of discrimination. He believes that many American Jews (himself included), while successful in mainstream society, feel a sense of “otherness” as a result of the Jewish experience in the U.S. and in the world. For him, empathy and a desire to make the world a better place are the results of that otherness. “The most important forward-looking emotion is empathy. Sympathy is to comfort, and empathy is to improve. Both are important, but when it comes to social change and thinking beyond yourself or your own experience, there has to be a leap where you put yourself in others’ situations: ‘What if that was happening to me?’”

Critical Mass

Matt has been inspired recently by progress that grassroots activists are making in the area of common-sense gun safety laws. He has what he calls macro concerns for threats to our society in general, but also micro concerns personally for his family and friends. He feels the urgency and sees the momentum and hopes that the tipping point of critical mass is nearing as laws are changing statehouse by statehouse. “It’s empowering to feel you can make a difference by joining in and adding momentum to the wave. When I look at what some people have lost, and what other people are willing to put on the line, taking a day to go to Columbus with a friendly group of like-minded people seems both important and easy.”

Hope on the Horizon

Matt is hopeful that with efforts like the Lobby Day, the situation is changing from the status quo where lawmakers haven’t felt the pressure to advance the common-sense gun safety laws that a majority of citizens want. “I came away feeling like this was a good step and we need to do more of it.”

He plans to focus his attention on upcoming national, state, and local elections. “Something can always be done. Politicians can change their votes, and we can also change the politicians.” Matt believes in the power of the wave and in being part of it, and perhaps now the time has come.

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