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Debbie Coltin: Now on Your Radar

When you google Debbie Coltin, not much comes up. If you ask her why, she’ll say it’s because she’s a private person; she’d much rather fly under the radar. But as a writer, a Jew, and a young woman, I feel that Debbie’s contributions to Massachusetts’s North Shore Jewish community are too valuable to simply “fly under the radar.” Luckily, since Debbie has given me permission to share her story, they no longer have to!

Debbie Coltin is the executive director of the Lappin Foundation, an organization which prides itself on enhancing Jewish identities across generations; conveying the beauty, joy, and fun of being Jewish; and developing a connection to and love for Israel. She works with people of all ages to help instill a sense of pride in their Jewish heritage. In 2017, the Lappin Foundation funded 209 free programs, classes, and services, with a total attendance of about 8,704 people. Programs included everything from Introduction to Judaism classes to “Rekindle Shabbat.” Additionally, 905 children received a total of 8,000 PJ Library books in 2017 through the Lappin Foundation’s affiliation with PJ Library.

Debbie also coordinates the Lappin Foundation’s “Youth to Israel” program–a fully subsidized, two-week trip to Israel for Jewish teens from the North Shore. Growing up, I always heard about Debbie and her work organizing these trips. When I was in middle school there was a trip that nearly had to be cancelled because of bombings in Israel, but Debbie saved the day. I remember hearing about how she stayed up all night working on rerouting the trip to make sure the kids were safe, and also that the trip was still a worthwhile experience. When it came time for me to go to Israel, I felt safe and at home with Debbie leading the trip. She took care of all of us, made sure we were having fun, and, of course, learning. From being on this trip with Debbie, I learned that she cares deeply about others, that she’s incredibly passionate about helping young people find their home within Judaism, and that she’s a brilliant educator. But there’s a lot more to Debbie.

She was raised in a traditional Jewish family and recalls going to shul with her grandfather and sitting in the men’s section. She loved the sound of the praying, the tunes, and the language. She loved the pomp and circumstance of the Torah being carried. She loved going to Hebrew school, and she excelled as a student, but very few girls went to Hebrew school. When her older and younger brothers had their bar mitzvah ceremonies, she recalled feeling, for the first time, left out of the Jewish community. She wanted to have a bat mitzvah badly, but girls weren’t allowed this rite of passage, and her parents told her that even if she did have a ceremony, it was highly likely that nobody in the family would come. She accepted this and continued her Jewish studies. And then, when she was 41 years old, she became a bat mitzvah!

When I asked about her bat mitzvah, Debbie told me about a time when, as a young woman, she thought about how badly she wanted a biblical name. It wasn’t until she was going to be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah that she realized she did have a biblical name, Deborah. 

To commemorate becoming a bat mitzvah at 41, Debbie took on the mitzvah of wearing tefillin. From what she knows, she’s the first woman in our area to have worn tefillin and tallit. It took her three tries before she finally found a man willing to teach her how to wrap the tefillin. It was an emotional and intense experience for her. When I heard this from Debbie, I wondered to myself if her trailblazing was part of the reason why I could so freely wear a tallit at my bat mitzvah. For me, this was an important reminder about how things have changed and progressed for women in Judaism, and that it’s the women who have come before me who have driven that change.

Something else that I was able to take away from my conversation with Debbie was her commitment to spirituality. She chants prayers every morning when she wakes up, and every night when she goes to sleep. She blesses every morsel of food before she eats it, and she finds comfort in marveling at G-d’s miraculous work. She feels that spirituality is G-d’s way of manifesting inside of her, and keeping her aware of G-d’s ever presence in her life. The way that Debbie spoke to me about the integral role spirituality has played in her life encourages me to find the time in my own busy life to look inward and find more beauty in the simple things.

Personally, the most important takeaway from my conversation with Debbie–what actually moved me to tears–was what she told me about her work in helping Jewish teens be proud of their Jewish identities. She said, “Being Jewish is being part of an important legacy. It’s a thousands-year-old tradition, and one that has given so much to the world in every field of human endeavor, and I would never want anyone to take that for granted ... It’s a legacy I want every Jewish person, and especially every young person, to be proud of...”

I wish our conversation could’ve continued forever. Debbie is truly the most genuine and intriguing person that I’ve ever met. I can’t say enough good things about her. I’m incredibly thankful for all that she has contributed to my own Jewish identity, and I’m proud to be the one who finally gets to share her story; I can only hope that I’ve done it justice. 

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Emma Mair in Jerusalem
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2017-2018 Rising Voices Fellow Emma Mair (purple pants) in Jerusalem. Debbie Coltin, Executive Director of the Lappin Foundation, is pictured two to the left of Emma (white hat).
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How to cite this page

Mair, Emma. "Debbie Coltin: Now on Your Radar." 9 May 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 21, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/debbie-coltin-now-on-your-radar>.

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