Tag : Jewish Women

July 9, 2019 by

Addiction: Jewish Women Caught In The Crisis

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From the spiral ramps that frame New York’s Guggenheim Museum, thousands of small, white sheets of paper—each containing what looked like a prescription for OxyContin—came down like snow. In the lobby several people lay on the floor, staring vacantly at the domed glass ceiling some 90 feet up. Many more stood and chanted, “Sacklers lie, people die.”

The protesters had gathered earlier this year to call attention to the museum’s financial ties to the Sacklers, whose pharmaceutical company makes the powerful painkiller OxyContin. The Sacklers are prominent Jewish philanthropists, and as such their name appears on an arts education center at the Guggenheim, the medical school at Tel Aviv University and a staircase at Berlin’s Jewish Museum. Dozens of U.S. states have sued the Sacklers’ company, Purdue Pharma, claiming deceptive marketing tactics and wrongful drug deaths; earlier this year, the company settled a lawsuit brought by the state of Oklahoma for $270 million. (Under pressure, several cultural institutions, including the Guggenheim and the Jewish Museum, have said that they will no longer accept donations from the Sackler family.)

Opioids—including but not limited to OxyContin and its generics—killed more than 47,000 Americans in 2017. More men than women die from addiction, but the balance is shifting. Earlier this year, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that since 1999 opioid overdoses were up a staggering 492% among women ages 30 to 64.

The widespread use of these drugs beyond the depressed rural enclaves where they’ve made headlines, together with the Sacklers’ connection to the crisis, means the opioid epidemic—and addiction more broadly—can no longer be relegated to the status of “someone else’s problem.”

For a long time, “there was a sense that Jews don’t do this,” said Rabbi Ellie Shemtov, a New Jersey rabbi who has written Torah commentaries connected to the 12 steps used in addiction recovery. “Opioids are changing that because more and more people know someone who has been through this,” said Shemtov, whose former husband died of alcoholism in 2010.

Women make up about one-third of the residents at Beit T’Shuvah, the 140-bed drug treatment facility and Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, according to its founder and clinical director, Harriet Rossetto. In recent years, she’s observed an influx of affluent Jewish women who became addicted to prescription opioids following medical procedures. “Because the brain doesn’t differentiate between physical pain and psychic pain, all of the sudden they felt a lot better that they ever felt,” she said. “They kept refilling that prescription and at some point when the doctors stopped giving it, a lot of people got into heroin.”

At the same time their substance abuse is more likely than that of their male counterparts to be shrouded in shame and secrecy. Women often use in the privacy of their homes, and keep their addiction even from those closest to them—lest they be seen as “falling apart.”

“In American Jewish culture, there’s the pressure to succeed, to be the best, to look the best—there’s perfectionism,” Rossetto said. “If you feel that you don’t measure up, and you’re always comparing [yourself ] to other people, I think that’s part of the wound people feel.”

In an effort to dismantle the stigma around addiction, Lilith recently spoke to five American Jewish women in recovery—women driven to abuse prescription drugs or street drugs or alcohol by past traumas, by life transitions, by physical pain, or by casual use that became a physical dependency. Women who sought treatment amid pregnancies or overdoses or realizations that their addictions were leading nowhere good. Their stories are familiar; indeed, they are our stories.


 

Rachel Schwartz

As her marriage was dissolving, Rachel Schwartz turned to prescription painkillers, and then to a street drug that would dismantle her life as she knew it.

“Once I found meth, nothing else mattered,” Schwartz explained. As she got high, she would cry, feeling “the guilt, the remorse, the pain, and the shame” of her addiction to the dangerous stimulant. But as soon as she came down, those feelings gave way to the familiar question: What do I have left to sell so I can buy more meth?

“Every other concern, including food and water, goes away,” she said. “All the people you love, you can’t see them. All you care about is getting that bag of drugs.”

Schwartz never expected her life path would have led to such a dark and despairing place. She had grown up Jewish in Westchester County, New York, and attended Camp Ramah and Brandeis University. She had moved to Colorado, finished college, gotten married, and worked as a technical recruiter.

And yet, here she was, desperate for her next high. Even if it meant going without meals. Or stealing from friends. Or pawning her mom’s jewelry.

“I’m a good person, but it made me do deplorable things,” she said.

Schwartz was 28 when she started using drugs, as she was divorcing. At first, it was opiates, which she had been prescribed following dental surgery. Realizing she had a problem, she spent some $20,000 to send herself to a fancy rehab facility in Belize, replete with horseback riding and personal training.

Following rehab she moved, temporarily, to Houston, Texas, to be with some of the friends she had met in Belize. It was there that she’d relapse, and try meth for the first time.

“After my divorce, I was on a mission of self destruction—it was purposeful,” she said. “I had shamed my family; I had shamed his family. It was easier to just obliterate myself.”

And she almost did. Once hooked on meth, Schwartz struggled to hold down a job. She once spent a week in jail, locked in a cell for about 23 hours a day after her desperate parents called the cops on her for stealing. When they dropped the charges, Schwartz moved back in with her drug-addicted boyfriend and began using again. A few weeks later, she found out she was pregnant.

This time around, she was determined to get clean, and stay clean. For her son. For herself. She detoxed not at a resort-like rehab, but alongside other drug-addicted pregnant women, some of them homeless and almost all of them enduring painful withdrawal symptoms.

Her son is now a healthy 9-year old. 

“He knows mommy is sober,” she said of her son, whom she co-parents alongside her son’s father, also a recovering addict. “He grew up going to AA meetings.”

Schwartz managed to rebuild her career in recruiting. She made financial amends to those from whom she had stolen to buy drugs, and three years ago, she bought a home near Boulder.

“I had always felt like I could never do life on my own as a single woman,” said Schwartz, now 46. “Getting sober and being a single mom was me facing my worst fears.” As hard as that has been, Schwartz said the process “has reminded me how strong I am.”


 

Emma B. 

Casual recreational drug use is common among some subsets of young teens. For Emma B (we are not using her full name because of her age) an early dependency on pills would result in a nearly fatal overdose of the powerful opioid fentanyl. (In 2017, fentanyl and drugs similar to it claimed 28,000 American lives.)

Emma was 14, a high school freshman in Los Angeles, when she started abusing prescription drugs: “Adderall for studying, Xanax for coming down,” she recalled. “Maybe drink on Xanax for going out. If I just wanted to hang out, I’d do opiates. If I wanted to get fucked up, I’d mix it all.”

She could buy them from a dealer or bum them from a friend, noting, “Especially among private schools in West L.A., drugs were easy to access.” At Tulane University in New Orleans, where she enrolled after high school, she continued to use—in part to calm her anxiety, she said.

As a young woman, she was particularly vulnerable. “It’s easy to get taken advantage of ” by male addicts, intent on stealing money and drugs, she said. “Especially at a Greek-heavy school, you have to be on guard,” and that’s more challenging if you’re under the influence.

Plus, it was hard to know what was really in the pills she’d been sold. That was the case several months back, when she took what she thought was OxyContin, a powerful painkiller in its own right, but which had been laced with the far more potent synthetic opioid fentanyl.

By the time her housemate found her unconscious, next to a space heater, Emma’s left thigh had been badly burned. She was rushed to the hospital, where she remained for about a week—detoxing, being treated for the burn, and being closely monitored because she had flatlined before she was revived. “They had to do a lot of tests to make sure my heart was in good condition and my brain was fine, that it wasn’t too deprived of oxygen,” said Emma, now on a medical leave from Tulane.

Her parents, who had flown out to New Orleans to be with her, brought her back to Los Angeles and moved her into Beit T’Shuvah (Hebrew for “House of Repentance”), the L.A. addiction treatment facility and Jewish congregation. When she spoke with Lilith in the spring, she had been living at Beit T’Shuvah for five months, and expected to remain there for at least two more months. The treatment program there incorporates Jewish spiritual practices, which Emma said “is a cornerstone of many people’s recovery,” though not her own.

Emma, who considers herself culturally Jewish but is not observant, said that the 12-step work she’s done through Beit T’Shuvah has encouraged her to connect to something greater than herself (putting faith in a higher power is Step Two). Key to staying clean when she’s back at school—she is an English major and an aspiring magazine writer—will be attending 12-step program meetings and “finding something more tangible to believe in because I don’t think I’ve fully defined what my higher power is yet.”



Erin Khar

For Erin Khar, of New York City, developing a spiritual practice, and ultimately converting to Judaism, has been pivotal to her recovery from heroin addiction.

In her forthcoming memoir, Strung Out (Park Row Books, 2020), she writes about the night when, inside a Beverly Hills mansion, she shot up for the first time, and then lost her virginity. Khar had just turned 13.

Khar then struggled with addiction on and off for the better part of a decade, and almost no one in her life knew. Nor did they have reason to suspect that she was using. She was a straight-A student at a suburban Los Angeles prep school, a horseback rider and a cheerleader. When, at age 23, Khar was caught with drugs—by her then-fiancé—many who loved her, especially her parents, “were in such denial that this could really be my problem.” It seemed so unlikely.

Meanwhile, Khar was eager to name her problem. “I wanted to say, ‘This is what’s wrong with me. I’m an addict’,” she said. But there was more to it. She had been sexually abused as a child, and had struggled with suicidal thoughts since she was 8. Heroin, she said, was symptomatic of early trauma, of mental illness and of a primal fear “that if anyone knew about this, they wouldn’t love me.”

Khar tried to stop many times over the years, but always relapsed—until, that is, she found out she was pregnant, got clean, and has stayed clean ever since. Her son is now 15, and an accomplished ballet dancer.

“When my son was born, it felt like a switch flipped,” said Khar, now an editor and advice columnist for the website Ravishly. “I loved this baby more than I hated myself, and thatlaid the foundation for living without drugs, and regulating my emotions, for showing up in my life.”

She went to therapy and went on psychiatric medication that helped stabilize her mood. She also developed a spiritual practice, involving meditation, Kundalini yoga, and ultimately Judaism—her now-husband’s faith, to which she converted in 2014. (She is the daughter of a Swedish-American mother and an Iranian-born father, and grew up in a secular home where some Christian holidays were celebrated.)

Her journey “came full circle with Judaism because it provided a way to connect with my spirituality, with community, with tradition, with my family unit,” said Khar, 45, who now also has a 2-year-old son. Being part of a spiritual community, she said, may help ease the loneliness, isolation and lack of self-worth that drive so many people turn to drugs in the first place. For Khar, her adopted faith helps root her, and the Jewish imperative to repair the world “is very important for recovery because we build self-esteem when we are of service to others.”


Chani Lisbon

The ready availability of kiddush wine provided early exposure to alcohol. Right away, Chani Lisbon liked how it made her feel; only years on did she understand she had a problem.

Lisbon was 15 when she would often find herself around her married sister’s Shabbat table—drinking alcohol with boys from a local yeshiva.

Lisbon, now 37, grew up in Los Angeles, where her father was an emissary with Chabad-Lubavitch, the Hasidic movement known for its Jewish outreach efforts. She is one of 11 siblings (including half-siblings).

After high school she attended a religious seminary in Brooklyn, and later went to work in Manhattan’s famed diamond district. It was then that she realized that her relationship with alcohol looked different from that of her peers. Drinking wasn’t recreational, said Lisbon: “I needed it. I couldn’t go to the movies without alcohol. I couldn’t go to the grocery store without a buzz.” She spent her work day counting the number of hours left till she could leave work and have a drink. Grey Goose vodka, she said, “became a friend.”

“I don’t know if I was born an alcoholic,” she said, “and I don’t spend time wondering about it because it doesn’t really matter. I just know that I am one.”

Lisbon is a Brooklyn-based stand-up comedian now, though she rarely addresses her alcoholism in her act. But she does get personal, talking about her sexuality—she is single, has dated men and women, and identifies as queer—and her struggles with anxiety and an autoimmune condition that makes her hair fall out. “I was diagnosed with TMJ,” she’ll tell the crowd. “Too Much Jew.”

In all seriousness, trauma and pain were at the root of her addiction, she said. When at 25 she went, at a friend’s invitation, to a local support group for those who struggle with drinking, she could not imagine going a day without alcohol, “but by the grace of a power I don’t even understand, I was able to get sober,” Lisbon has said onstage.

It’s one day at a time—sometimes, an hour at a time—but she has been sober for more than 11 years.

Jen Simon

The trials of new motherhood, compounded by postpartum depression and anxiety, led Jen Simon to try one pill, prescribed to her for back pain and severe menstrual cramps.

At first, Percocet provided Simon, a stay-at-home mother in New Jersey, welcome relief of her physical and psychic pain. At the time, her baby was waking up every 45 minutes or so, and this went on for months. The sleep deprivation took its toll. Percocet, though, made everything feel more tolerable. It didn’t make her feel “high,” but rather “just a more relaxed, better version of myself.”

That was in the beginning, before one pill a day turned into six pills a day, turned into 10 pills a day, from six different doctors writing prescriptions. “If any of them had looked at my medical history, they would have seen drug-seeking behavior.” But none of them did, she said.

Two years in, Simon finally told her husband and her mother that she was addicted to painkillers. Her mom flew in to help as she detoxed on the couch, a process Simon described as “kind of like the flu, but more terrible.”

As soon as her mom left town, Simon relapsed, telling no one. She managed to quit when she became pregnant with her second son, but as soon as she was offered medication to treat pain following his Caesarean birth, “I was like, ‘Hooray, my body is mine again,” and Simon became hooked once more. She continued to use in secret for the better part of three years after her initial detox at home.

The end came into sight only when she realized that the medications she had been prescribed, and those she was stealing from other people’s medicine cabinets, were no longer providing relief. She needed more pills, stronger pills. She knew she had a choice to make: get help or get a dealer. If she chose the latter, if she went from Percocet and morphine to OxyContin, “how far away could heroin be?” she wondered, noting that heroin had always been a red line for her.

That’s when she finally admitted to her husband and her parents that she was still struggling. Detox, rehab, individual therapy, group therapy, opioid blockers to curb cravings, antidepressants, and participation in an intensive outpatient program followed. So, too, did an essay she wrote in the Washington Post, titled, “I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’m an addict.”

A contributor to the Jewish parenting site Kveller, Simon recalled the supportive feedback she received when she wrote previously about her struggles with postpartum depression. Still, she feared that opening up about addiction was something that would drive people away.

“I thought I was going to lose friends, left and right, that people would abandon me,” Simon, 42, said. “I didn’t know if they’d let their kids play with my kids anymore.”

Instead, her circle has grown—as strangers, some of whom she now considers friends, have come forward. She now runs a secret Facebook group for some 90 moms struggling with addiction. This is me, women in the group tell her. I felt so alone until I saw this.

Gabrielle Birkner is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. She is the co-founder of Modern Loss, and she is the co-author of Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome (Harper Wave, 2018).

Art: Deborah Wasserman, “Plurabelle,” www.deborahwasserman.com 

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February 21, 2019 by

Baking Torah into the Challah

 As my mother drove a car full of kids to elementary school, I sat in the backseat, creating dough. The blue mixing bowl on my lap didn’t protect my clothes and the vehicle from a light layer of flour, and the practice was probably not the most sanitary, but the Friday was busy, and 7:30am was the only time for dough prep.

Challah, a staple of Shabbat, holiday tradition and Jewish cuisine, plays many roles: a rushed ritual in the back of a moving vehicle; the perfect bookends for a deli meat sandwich; a piece tossed across the family table; the loaf the dog can’t seem to get enough of. For Vanessa Harper, challah has become a space for shaping and sharing Torah.

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December 13, 2018 by

7 Jewish Feminist Highlights of 2018

I don’t need to tell readers of Lilith that parts of this year have been soul-crushing for Jewish feminists.  In 2018 we mourned those massacred at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and many of us gnashed our teeth about antisemitism in our own feminist movements.

But Jewish feminist hope, grit, and creative resistance were also part of 2018. As the secular year winds down, let’s remember and celebrate all that has healed and nourished our souls. Here’s my annual list of 7 Jewish feminist highlights (7 being the number associated with creation and blessing in Jewish tradition):

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October 29, 2018 by

To My Friend, Whose Celebration Was the Day of a Massacre

We were at the mikveh on Friday, nine of us, seven celebrants and two attendants who witnessed our joy as you marked your birthday and a moment of pause in your high profile, high impact job. It was a soul-filled morning, saturated with reflections on some relationships that spanned decades, and some that were bright and new but still profound. 

You had never been to the mikveh, the ritual bath that cleanses and prepares Jews for many roles – that of sexual preparedness and procreation, that of convert, that of celebrant. Preparing for immersion strips you down to your barest place, with not a spot that can come between you and the waters. The waters which are rain waters, waters that have been a part of this earth for millennia, touching your skin, soothing your heart, marking your passage.

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September 27, 2018 by

Arizona’s Jewish Latinx Candidate Shakes Things Up

Alma Hernandez, a first-generation Mexican-American Jewish candidate for Arizona’s state legislature, earned a spot on the November ballot in a hotly-contested August primary, part of a wave of young female candidates who, in their primary victories, have thrilled prognosticators and upset the political order. With a master’s degree in public health and a deep familiarity with the woes of her Tucson community, at 25 she’s one of the youngest candidates in the country. Yet she is politically seasoned; active in campaigns as a volunteer for 11 years, she and her two siblings even made a splash as a trio: all serving as official Arizona delegates for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic convention.

Hernandez’s local race presents a fascinating microcosm of the fraught responses a progressive, Jewish, female, pro-Israel candidate elicits. Accompanying Hernandez as she canvassed neighborhoods prior to the August primary meant appreciating how her devoted team of family members and friends reach out beyond those who consistently vote Democratic to make her case to independent voters who might swing to the Dems.

“Since the age of 14, I’ve been helping Democrats get elected here, and I decided to run for office because I feel that my community for far too long has been underrepresented and ignored,” she told Lilith. “In a state where Hispanics and Latinos are the majority but still the ‘minorities’, I felt that it was time for the voice of my community to be that of the people who have actually lived here and grown up here and know the issues.

“The majority of the people in my community come from single parent households,” she said, speaking of a district that includes wealthy university neighborhoods along with trailer parks and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Reservation. (Yaqui tribal leader Sally Ann Gonzales, running for re-election as an Arizona state representative, often campaigns alongside Hernandez.)

“There’s a lot of poverty. We have high unemployment rates.” Concerns about health care and its attendant expenses are high on this list for Hernandez. Plus, “the funding for education is always severely cut in our districts.”

Hernandez knows the anguish many in her district suffer. In her campaign radio ad, she described how, at 14, after being “brutally attacked” at school by white girls, she was exposed to the criminal justice system, where she saw first hand “how the school-to-prison pipeline is rigged against people of color and those without means.” She had fought back against her older attackers, whose assault left her with permanent injuries, yet she was the only one the school police arrested. “I feel like the dignity and innocence of my youth and teen years were stripped away from me.

“I went from being an honor student to a criminal, warned by a prison guard that I’d be there [in jail] a long time. Nothing will change what that experience did to me. If it weren’t for the support team I had at home—my parents got me out later that night—I wouldn’t be where I am. I was able to not be a statistic like they wanted me to be to be. Instead, I wanted to make sure I understood statistics, and I studied statistics so that I could help other kids in my community.” Hernandez’s widely varied activism includes speaking with at-risk youth at what she calls alternative schools. “It’s important that young people have someone to look up to. A lot of times just having that conversation can change their life.”

The fallout from that early attack has surfaced even in this race. Hernandez recently emailed that “It’s disappointing that a candidate claiming to support women doesn’t address or stop the misogyny from their supporters attacking how I look, from my facial expressions when I sit to how I speak. As someone who has lived with chronic spinal pain, “sitting up straight” and not having “resting b**** face” [sic] is not an issue of not caring but instead the pain I live with each and every single day as a survivor of an attack that has caused permanent damage.”

For Hernandez, social justice causes like women’s rights, prison reform and immigration issues are close to home. Her mother, Consuelo, born in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, still has close family ties to that region, which is only 68 miles from Tucson. Hernandez speaks movingly of the suffering of people there trying to find refuge in the United States. 

Hernandez’s mother is one of 13 siblings, and though her own father did not support her early dream of becoming a doctor (supporting her brother instead), she graduated from the University of Guadalajara with a degree in laboratory clinical pathology and became the first woman in Nogales to own her own clinic. After she married 30 years ago and moved to Tucson, she became a stay-at-home-mom. 

Hernandez identifies not only with these Mexican roots, but also with her Jewish forebears. Her mother’s father, and both his parents, “were Jews, Mexican Jews, and they came from the Cohen family; they went from being Cohens to Quinones. My grandmother [Consuelo’s mother] is Catholic, so my mother’s father is the one who—whether or not he ever practiced or wanted to talk about it—I mean, he’s Jewish because his parents were Jewish.” 

Hernandez is a Jew by choice as well as by ancestry. Although her father is Catholic, he supported her official conversion to Judaism. “My parents don’t like quitters. So my dad and mom made sure that if I was going to start something I had to finish.” She was thorough: studying with Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, at Tucson’s Congregation Chaverim, immersing in the mikveh, and adopting the names of her great-grandmothers Malka and Librada— meaning, Hernandez jokes, that she could be called “Queen of Freedom.” 

The process of conversion felt like coming home. “I never felt like I really converted into anything. Does that make sense? I always felt like it was who I was and a part of me.” Rabbi Aaron had been a mentor during Hernandez’ difficult teenage years. “We really just clicked,” she says of the rabbi. “Rabbi Aaron helped me cope in my own way. I really needed the spiritual and religious path that I was seeking. I was kind of lost and trying to figure out my life.” 

According to Rabbi Aaron, Hernandez is “genuinely devoted to the service of tikkun olam (repairing the world), intuitively understanding that to repair the world means to repair your own soul. When she learned that she is a Jew, she had to know.…[She has] incredible Sephardic Jewish roots, mainly on her mother’s side, but on her father’s side too, born out of the Mexican Inquisition, that are indestructible.” In addition, “Hernandez’s parents redefine the notion of what support for your child means.”

The culmination of the conversion process was her naming ceremony. “My family is big on milestones,” she says. So what started out as a private conversion celebration turned into “a big Mexican pechanga.” According to Rabbi Aaron, the synagogue was packed with community in support of Hernandez’s “choosing Jewish life for herself.” 

Hernandez’s later bat mitzvah was celebrated with another big party, the first held at the Jewish History Museum, where Hernandez and her father volunteer as docents. “My mom was very emotional, because it reminded her of her [Jewish] roots and her family.” Hernandez hopes to take her parents to Israel; she and her two siblings (who identify as Jews without having had formal conversions) have visited separately. 

The Jewish community has always been Hernandez’s base, through both volunteer work and employment during her teen years and beyond, including stints at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Most of the financial support for her campaign comes, she said, from Jews—including from Jews all over the country whom Hernandez met volunteering at aipac, and as president of the pro-Israel club at the University of Arizona. When she receives campaign contributions in amounts like $18 and $36, Hernandez said, “You can tell they are from our community.” 

The family may be a political dynasty in the making. Hernandez’s brother Daniel, 28, is a legislator who has just completed two years in the Arizona House of Representatives and is now up for re-election. And her younger sister, Consuelo, is running for the local school board on which their father also serves. The family members all support one another’s campaigns actively, driving around by car and truck to ring doorbells. Daniel Hernandez is something of a local hero; he is the man who, as a college student and legislative intern, saved the life of Representative Gabby Giffords when she was shot at a rally in her district in 2011. 

The family is making history again this season. After having been the first Arizonan trio of siblings to be elected delegates for the 2016 Democratic presidential nominating convention, they are also, from what they can tell, the first three siblings to all seek elected office simultaneously in Arizona. “We’ve done everything together ever since, you know, we were teens. As my brother said yesterday, it’s really because we don’t have anyone else. 

“It doesn’t matter where we are, whether my sister’s in New York or my brother is in D.C., we all return home for the High Holy Days, just to be together,” she says. “We always make it happen. We add our Mexican touch to everything, including on Passover, when a friend brings a bucket with the questions asked during the Seder—in every language you can think of, so my mom usually reads them in Spanish. My mother speaks English, but she prefers to speak Spanish.” 

After living in the U.S. for 30 years and helping other immigrants obtain citizenship, Hernandez’s mother finally became a citizen herself in 2016—“in order to vote for Hillary Clinton,” says her daughter. 

“Being a daughter of an immigrant is part of the reason why I started Tucson Jews for Justice,” Alma Hernandez says. The group, launched in March 2018, wants to be a Jewish presence at rallies supporting Dreamers, gun violence prevention and health care, among other causes. Hernandez speaks of immigration as a particularly Jewish concern. “Everything that I do is because I am a daughter of an immigrant who came here from Mexico, and who knows that as Jews we’re all immigrants, and that it’s our duty to do what we can to welcome others that come here.”

Hernandez undertook Jewish studies in college and became so dedicated a volunteer at the local Jewish history museum that she was given a key. “How can you not hear the stories and read the stories [of the Holocaust] and know everything that’s happened to people and not feel something in your heart and feel like you need to do something to help others?” she asks. 

In New York’s harbor, the iconic Statue of Liberty is seen as representing a universal welcome to immigrants, with the Emma Lazarus poem at its base inviting less-hospitable places to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” The “wretched refuse” arriving in the New York Harbor were mostly at the end of a journey from places where they had been treated harshly. At the southern border of the U.S., though, there seems to be no parallel symbol of welcome, nor even the pretense of welcoming immigrants, and Hernandez has seen that border up close for most of her life. 

“People think oh, it’s the drug dealers, oh it’s this – and I’ll tell you right now, the drug dealers aren’t going to be the ones walking the desert with their child to get here. The drug dealers have outsmarted everyone and they do a really good job of crossing the drugs over without having to put themselves in danger.” 

In May, vilification for Hernandez’s activism came from a particularly unnerving source. “I was attacked by David Duke for doing what I thought was right, helping families who are trying to seek asylum, crossing the border. They [the prospective immigrants] were waiting on the Nogales border, and my mother’s from Nogales, so for me it was very personal,” she says. “How can we not help provide food, the basic necessities which I would hope that anyone would be willing to give to any person?” she asks, her voice growing thick. “I get emotional because I don’t know how anyone can deny food or water or basic needs to any human. I’ve had family members that are Dreamers and have actually crossed the desert to get here. …I’ve had children pull onto my legs and tell me to please give them back their mom or dad. To not be able to help them, it really impacts you.“ 

News 4 Tucson reported that Duke, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Marshall, tweeted from an article describing Hernandez as “not the only Jew trying to help families crossing the border.” The kkk leader then added, “But for her the work is personal.” Duke has been a vocal white supremacist for longer than Hernandez has been alive. “He doesn’t believe in the Holocaust,” she said. “He’s a Holocaust denier, so for him to be using me as a target and the form of a joke is scary, but I’m not going to let this stop me. …We Latinos and Jews are here to stay.” 

Her ability to connect across divides may be a prime reason why Hernandez will be honored in November by the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom®, the Muslim and Jewish women’s organization. The advance announcement of the tribute reads, “Thank you for being a change agent and for being a teacher and inspiration…. You used your feet to pray as you went to the border. We would like to acknowledge your spiritual activism.” 

At times, she and her siblings have received flak from the left for being involved with right-of-center pro-Israel organizations like aipac and Stand With Us. “People try to make us choose between being progressives and being pro-Israel,” she says. “I’ve always told people no one can ever tell me I can’t be pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian and progressive. I feel as someone who really, truly cares about people, I can be all three.” 

Joan Roth is Lilith’s photographer. Susan Weidman Schneider is Lilith’s editor in chief.

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July 18, 2018 by

Ten Inspiring Quotes to Get You Through Dark Days

In today’s world of constant crisis, self-care pays dividends. Here are 10 quotes from Jewish women whom we love that should give you hope, inspire you to action, and spur us all to think differently about compassion.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 3.57.26 PM“The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or woman’s right to her soul.” – Emma Goldman

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July 5, 2018 by

Muslim and Jewish Women on a Southern Civil Rights Road Trip

Reaching across the aisle – Cyndy Wyatt (left) and Dorene Alama discovered they both attended the same Catholic school in upstate New York. Cyndy, now living in Stowe, Vt., converted to Judaism. Dorene, in Charlotte, N.C., converted to Islam. Photo credit: Amy Stone

Reaching across the aisle – Cyndy Wyatt (left) and Dorene Alama discovered they
both attended the same Catholic school in upstate New York. Cyndy, now living in
Stowe, Vt., converted to Judaism. Dorene, in Charlotte, N.C., converted to Islam.
Photo: Amy Stone

Back in April, a busload of white and brown Jewish and Muslim women, some in hijab, headed south along the civil rights trail from Georgia to Alabama to Tennessee. What could go wrong?

We’re riding with Brenda, a third-generation female bus driver from Asheville, North Carolina, and Todd, our African-American civil rights expert. We’re a world away from the 1961 Freedom Riders aboard Greyhound buses attacked by violent mobs for attempting to integrate southern bus terminals. But this is also far from a Disneyland outing. We’re in the Trump era of hate with his Muslim ban and war on immigrants.

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June 11, 2018 by

Why I Stopped Covering My Hair After Almost 20 Years

It was the Saturday night before Thanksgiving. My husband and I were planning on having a fun night out at Foxboro before traveling to see family for the holiday.  I wondered: should I wait till after Thanksgiving and not deal with my family’s reaction?  But no, I was ready now. 

So with that, I left the house without my hair being covered for the first time since I walked home from my wedding, nineteen and a half years ago. The sensation of the icy November evening air going through my hair was delicious.

Back in college, I had noticed that while Jews from all streams of Judaism went to dinner at the Kosher Dining Hall, it was primarily the Orthodox students who refrained from going to parties afterwards.  While I had no intention of becoming Orthodox back then, the integrity of those students’ behavior led me to include Orthodoxy in my soul-search while studying abroad in Israel, looking at it along with Reform and Conservative Judaism. 

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May 29, 2018 by

What It’s Like to Publish Your Debut Novel… at Age 90

All this week, in the grand tradition of Victorian periodicals, Lilith will be serializing an excerpt of Sadie in Love, the debut novel from 90-year-old former magazine editor Rochelle Distelheim. Look out for new installments every day this week.

Sadie in LovePart 1Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


Sadie in love

Sadie Schuster—fortyish, plumpish, a suffragist, and recently widowed—spends more time now talking to her late husband, Fivel, than she did when he was alive. Sadie keeps Fivel informed of her daily activities—especially her pursuit of a husband—because “An empty bed is a cold place for a hot-blooded woman.” A lover of ballroom dancing, the moving pictures, and night-school English words, Sadie’s true talent lies in the magic love-knots she artfully crafts for lonely, unwitting, immigrants willing to purchase hope wrapped in a schmattah for fifty cents.

Selling love-knots while seeking love, Sadie consults with her magic spirits to woo Herschel—the muscled ice peddler who reads poetry and pines for his newly departed wife. Her daughter, Yivvy, sells secondhand, possibly “pinched” tchotchkes in her antique shop and plans to marry the Irish cop on the beat. Enter Ike Tabatnik, the “Dance King of Riga, Latvia,” just off the boat and ready to take on America—and Sadie’s heartstrings. Comedy and chaos follow.

A stunning confession, following the wedding of one of her love-knot clients—which begins with one groom and ends with another—pushes Sadie to make a surprising choice. She then throws herself at the mercy of her magic spirits, asking them to do quickly for her what they have been doing for her customers—before it’s too late.  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Rochelle Distelheim about what it feels like to have her debut novel published when she’s in her nineties. 

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July 14, 2017 by

This Website Helps Progressive Female Candidates Run for Office

Eliza Cussen was on her way to see “Wonder Woman”, and listening to an episode of her favorite podcast, “Call Your Girlfriend.” This one focused on women in politics (or the lack thereof). Like many would in this situation, she was wondering: what can I do?

Right then, she decided to create what is now Project Sheila, an organization dedicated to helping female politicians launch campaign websites. Cussen has been interested in web design for most of her life, and was working as a digital communications specialist when she had the idea. She saw that although she did not have significant funds to donate to campaigns, she could use her expertise to help in another way. She put out a call to friends in her network, asking if anyone needed help with web design, and received several requests right away. Around three weeks later, Project Sheila went live.

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