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Jewish American Heritage Month: Who Are Your Heroes? Part II

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As part of Jewish American Heritage Month, Schusterman teamed up with Repair the World to ask Repair Fellows, Schusterman ROI Community members and Schusterman REALITY participants, “Who is your Jewish American hero?” We received several unique and thoughtful responses, all of which will be shared throughout the week on both the Schusterman and Repair blogs. Repair the World enables people to transform their neighborhoods, cities and lives through meaningful service experiences rooted in Jewish values, history and heritage, including through its Fellowship program, in which volunteers commit to one year of service in their community.  

The Women I Know
Emma Adelman – Repair the World Fellow, Pittsburgh

When asked to pick my “favorite Jewish American figure, hero or inspiration,” hundreds of names rushed into my head. Three stood out: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Rosalyn Yalow and Constance Adelman.

Chances are you know Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but did you know that she was the first Jewish American woman to become a Supreme Court Justice? Or that earlier in her career she co-founded both the Women’s Rights Law Reporter and the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU?

Ginsburg, the 107th Justice of the United States Supreme Court, puts Judaism and Civil Rights at the forefront of her work.

In a recent interview with the Jewish Women’s Archive she stated, “I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.”

Justice Ginsburg has fought for social justice and worked towards tikkun olam her entire career.

Have you ever heard of Rosalyn Yalow? Did you know that her father-in-law was an Orthodox Rabbi and Chief Rabbi of Syracuse, NY?  That she was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Science, making her the first American-born Jewish Woman to win a Nobel Prize?

Her work in Radioimmunoassay (RIA), using radioactive tracers to measure pharmacological or biological substances with radioactive isotopes in humans, mammals and other animals has proven to be a major contribution to society.

Just think of anyone who has received radioactive iodine as treatment for thyroid disease or radiation for treatment for cancer, all of this wouldn’t have been possible without her.

Odds are you do not know Constance Adelman, my great aunt Connie. She grew up in a traditional Orthodox family in Chicago. Despite all of the barriers Orthodox Jewish women faced at the time, Aunt Connie taught Spanish at Morgan Park High School.

She went on to get her Ph.D. in Spanish from the University of Illinois and then taught at Circle Campus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The most impressive thing to me, is that in her early 80’s, Aunt Connie decided that it was time for her to have her Bat Mitzvah. In her youth, Bat Mitzvahs did not exist. Later in life, Aunt Connie claimed Judaism as her own.

Over her Rabbi’s “suggestion” that she do an abbreviated Torah portion and a less rigorous Bat Mitzvah than usual, Aunt Connie did the whole thing—- parashat, speech, chanting and partying. She wanted and got the real deal.

Ginsburg, Yalow and Adelman are my heroes and my inspiration. These three women fought the status quo, fought for their personal advancement, fought for the advancement of their colleagues, fought for their personal dreams and fought for future generations.

They give us inspiration and strength to strive for tzedek, justice, and to make the world a better place. Like the matriarchs who came before them, they have laid down a challenge for all us to live up to.  

Discovering My Literary Hero 
Julie Oxenhandler - Schusterman REALITY participant 

I spent many hours of my childhood in bookstores and libraries. Books were then and still are one of my favorite escapes from reality. I dreamed of eating Turkish Delight in Narnia, singing with the flowers in Wonderland and dancing with the Wild Things.

I dreamed a lot when I read. I loved that at any moment I could close my eyes and float into another space – oh how I longed for a Phantom Tollbooth of my own!

There are stories I know by heart and dog-eared copies of books I have owned for most of my life, read and reread time after time. I look longingly at these books – they truly are treasures.

As a child, however, I knew very little about the authors behind the stories I relished so dearly. Sometimes authors I thought were men were actually women and stories I thought were magical were actually religious.

As a little girl I can’t remember, ever, reading a story about a young girl who lived in America and who was also Jewish – sure I was given The Diary of Anne Frank and Number the Stars – undisputedly powerful tales, but where was I in popular American literature?

As I moved from a city with a large Jewish population, to one where I was the only Jewish student in my school – I realized how important it was for me to have this part of my identity validated.

I never did find an author who was writing stories about a girl just like me; however, I did find Judy Blume.

For those of you who have read her delicious tales, you know there is something special about each character she crafts, each twist and obstacle she imagines. Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing is still one of my favorite books. It is one that I share with my students and hope to share with my own children one day.

I didn’t know when I first discovered her work that Judy Blume was Jewish, but knowing now is truly inspirational.

She writes books that know no bounds – gender, age, class, race – it doesn’t matter. Kids relate to her characters in a way that only a truly gifted writer can accomplish.

Maybe I will never have the opportunity to write a book – let alone get it published, but knowing that there are Jewish women who have cemented their place as staples in the American literary scene gives me hope, and frankly courage, to tell the stories that I never got to read as a child.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.

Ready to dive into a year of service? Apply now for the Repair Fellowship!