Community Stories: One Woman’s Journey to Give Jewish Americans a Voice
Given the rising incidents of anti-Semitism and racism, the Islamophobia, and threats to abortion access under this new administration, I find myself scared about being a Jewish woman. I hate feeling powerless but have found a way to channel some positive energy by sharing stories that exemplify tikkun olam. I’m taking a page from Michelle Obama’s book and trying to “go high” in the face of many choosing to “go low.”
My name is Susan Neisloss, and I, along with my small, creative, and diverse crew, am on a cross-country quest to showcase individuals who are trying to repair the world in quiet and powerful ways. I’m privileged to be hosting and producing an original weekly series on Jewish Life Television called America Undiscovered.
This past Sunday, February 12, we introduced the world to some of the inspiring individuals who are making history by tirelessly trying to preserve our unique and rich heritage. It’s never been more important — we need to stick together at a time when only one in five American Jews identifies themselves as Jewish.
My journey over the past year and a half has led me to communities and people I would never would have met otherwise. We’ve researched and covered a lot of ground (much of it in an RV)—from Jackson, Mississippi to San Diego, California—getting to know Jewish people of various backgrounds who are all imbued with core Jewish values. Each person whose story we’ve shared exemplifies the rich mosaic of Jewish culture and a desire to keep our principles alive and well.
I have a special place in my heart for everyone I’ve interviewed, but a few have touched me in unexpected ways:
Ann Gerache in Vicksburg, MS, is 87-years-young and undaunted in her mission to keep the city’s oldest and only synagogue open. Like 40% of synagogues in the South, reform Temple Anshe Chesed (meaning “people of loving kindness”) doesn’t have a rabbi. Here’s a sneak peak at her story. With only a dozen or so remaining congregants, Ann brought in her Christian friends and neighbors to fill the pews. Talk about appreciating our differences—the cantor is a Methodist choirmaster who learned to sing in Hebrew, and Jews and gentiles share their holiday traditions together. The Passover seder is a community affair that has attracted more than 80 people. Ann comes from a family of successful cotton farmers and I’ll always cherish the unexpected gift she gave me—a beautiful challah cover made from her family’s cotton.
Harriet Rossetto, in Los Angeles, is a social worker by training. She found her calling when she started counseling Jewish inmates in prisons more than 30 years ago. Through that work, she opened Beit T’Shuvah (“house of redemption”) in 1987. It is the first and only non-profit drug recovery center where Judaism plays a starring role. Its unique combination of vocational, emotional, and spiritual programming helps addicts transform their lives. Harriet strongly believes people shouldn’t be charged if they don’t have money, i.e., “I think it’s wrong to take advantage of someone’s vulnerabilities and it’s not a Jewish way to be.” And, Beit T’Shuvat is not just for Jews. Thousands of people in need—of all religions, backgrounds, and challenges—have been helped by Harriet’s mission. Nanette Schein is one of the many success stories. She was in prison for nearly three decades—falsely accused as an accomplice to murder. Raised as a Catholic, she was drawn to Jewish values and converted. Harriet is her therapist in the program and Nanette is paying it forward by training to become a therapist too. As Harriet told me, “That’s the chain. That’s God.” She told me she practices tzedakah—translated from Hebrew as “fairness or righteousness” to others.
These are just a few examples of special Jewish women whose appreciation for our heritage has become a life mission; many other stories of Jewish women creating change live on JWA.org. I can’t wait to get back on the road to share hundreds of other stories about Jewish Americans who embrace our differences and aren’t afraid to speak up as they empower themselves and others. In the words of an iconic Jewish woman, Israel’s first female minister, Golda Meir: “Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all of your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.”
The flame inside me is burning a bit brighter thanks to my new journey. I’m excited about the road ahead and the possibilities.
You can watch the first episode of America Undiscovered here.
How to cite this page
Neisloss, Susan. "Community Stories: One Woman’s Journey to Give Jewish Americans a Voice." 14 February 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 16, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/community-stories-one-woman-s-journey-to-give-jewish-americans-voice>.