Jewish women chart a new course.
Jewish women have long been arbiters of social change and consciousness, from such biblical heroines as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah to contemporary role models like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and feminist writer/activist Gloria Steinem.
In recent months, burgeoning social justice movements such as #MeToo, #TimesUp and #Enough have thrust women and the issues that matter to them into the national spotlight and debate.
Jmore salutes the powerful Jewish women in our own midst by focusing on four local women who are making a difference in Baltimore and beyond. All of them share pride in their Jewish heritage and commitments to the tenets of tzedakah (righteousness), gemilut chesed (acts of loving kindness) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
Tracie Guy-Decker: ‘A Torah-loving woman who wears pants’
Tracie Guy-Decker remembers the day her love for Judaism and passion for social justice intersected.
“It was three years ago and I was watching the Freddie Gray riots on television with my daughter, who was 3 at the time,” recalled Guy-Decker, deputy director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. “I was crying and my daughter was asking me why I was crying, and I had this moment of awakening.
“As the unrest was unfolding and the CVS was burning, all I could think about was the fact that this was bad PR for the city,” she said. “I couldn’t believe a man was dead and I was thinking about bad press for Baltimore. At that moment, I knew my priorities were messed up.”
For Guy-Decker, 42, who lives in the city, that’s when the Torah’s message came to her and she realized her calling was to create change.
“The Jewish liturgy asks, ‘Is this the fast I’m looking for?’” Guy-Decker said, alluding to the liturgy recited during Yom Kippur. “People refer to folks as being [awakened] when they try to understand whiteness, privilege and systemic racism. After that, I wasn’t able to go back to being asleep.”
Immediately following the April 2015 protests, Guy-Decker, a fifth-generation Baltimore Hebrew congregant, had a conversation with her rabbi and other members of the congregation trying to process the events that took place. BHC created a reading group, led by Guy-Decker, for congregants to discuss social justice issues. It was from that reading group that Guy-Decker took it a step further, creating her own blog about Judaism and social justice called B’more INCREMENTAL.
“The name of the blog has ‘incremental’ in it as a way for me to remember that the problems and brokenness didn’t happen overnight and won’t be fixed overnight,” she said. “I remember feeling overwhelmed by the brokenness and injustice of the world and my rabbi would remind me I don’t have to fix it all. It’s like the saying in Pirkei Avot 2:21 — ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’ We all want an easy fix, but that’s not how it’s going to work.”
In 2016, BHC founded a social justice committee called BHCJustice. Guy-Decker is chair of the committee, which focuses on immigration, anti-racism and legislative responses. She is also on the Jews United for Justice Leadership Council, where she voluntarily writes fundraising letters and helped raise thousands of dollars for the organization.
“I broke the culture of Jews United for Justice and made a pitch for money at a community meeting,” said Guy-Decker. “Because of the success we’ve had in Baltimore with that kind of fundraising, the Montgomery County and D.C. chapters of the organization are starting to do it, too.”
Born and raised in northwest Baltimore County, Guy-Decker said it wasn’t until her freshman year at Oberlin College, when she took a class in Jewish mysticism, that she really began to fall in love with the religion.
“My own sense of Jewish identity was late blooming,” said Guy-Decker. “I had always felt like I inherited a piece of clothing that was ill fitting, and now I feel like I’ve learned ways to make it fit and feel comfortable. I’m a Torah-loving woman who wears pants.”
She said she feels it’s her responsibility to provide her daughter, now 6, with a Jewish perspective.
“She sees me living a Jewish life,” said Guy-Decker. “We do Shabbat dinner, attend kids’ services and celebrate the holidays. Additionally, I’ve received some awards for my social justice work, and I make sure she is with me when I get those awards. When I look at my accomplishments, I realize I have been an agent of change.”
You can read Guy-Decker’s blog by visiting bmoreincremental.com.
Lindsey Davis: ‘Teaching self-offense’
For six weeks, leadership coach Lindsey Davis spent one evening a week at her alma mater, the Bryn Mawr School, teaching female students what it means to believe in themselves and one another.
“These girls are embarking on new scenarios, both personally and professionally, whether it be managing stress, bouncing back from failure or learning how to identify and communicate with their networks,” said Davis, 36, founder of a new organization called Power Through. “Through a combination of boxing lessons and lectures, the girls are becoming empowered by an elevated level of self-awareness, putting their emotions and values into context. I am floored with how responsive these teenagers have been.”
The seminars at Bryn Mawr, which ran from February through April, are but one of the many workshops Davis runs with Power Through, a collection of empowerment programs that strengthen self-awareness through hands-on education.
“Providing empowerment through tactical skill helps individuals develop their self-awareness,” said Davis, who grew up as a member of Pikesville’s Beth El Congregation and whose family still belongs there. “Learning tactical skills helps with muscle memory, and experiential learning allows individuals to better retain information.”
Davis — a Baltimore native who describes herself as a cultural Jew — is no stranger to leadership education. Since 2001, she has worked closely with local governments, community organizations and educational institutions to set goals and priorities and create powerful content. For the past two years, Davis taught leadership at the Maryland Institute College of Art, which is where she conceived the idea for Power Through.
“It became apparent to me when teaching leadership to these talented graduate students that we needed to go back a few steps,” said Davis, who has a master’s degree in public administration and city planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “While they were incredibly accomplished, most students hadn’t been given the opportunity to reflect on who their networks were, how they learn from those networks and who affects them.”
As a way to change the traditional form of leadership training, Davis created Power Through as a prerequisite-like course.
“Power Through builds on the idea of empowerment, which people need before they can impact others,” said Davis. “A person has to know his or her self before being able to lead others. It’s exciting to rethink a method of training that has been around forever.”
The organization uses different forms of experiential learning to teach empowerment. There are currently five workshop courses available — “Power through Yoga,” “Power through Boxing,” “Power through Design,” “Power through College” and “Power through Photography.”
Davis teaches the empowerment segments of the course while a professional counterpart from the chosen theme teaches the experiential portion. Currently, it is all client-based and Davis tailors the workshops to the specific needs of each client.
“I feel like each individual has a secret weapon,” said Davis. “We all have something we are really good at, and by identifying and tapping into that secret weapon we are able to be strong in situations where we feel like the odds are against us.”
Davis said she’s always loved being a mentor and feels Power Through is exactly what she should be doing at this moment in her life.
“This is about teaching self-offense — providing individuals with the tools to step forward, tell their stories and recognize they have the skills and abilities to thrive in any area.”
To learn more about Power Through, visit powerthroughthat.com.
Rabbi Sarah R. Marion: ‘An Experience of Change’
Whether it’s talking to ninth-grade girls about gun control in the wake of a school shooting or marching with young mothers in support of women’s rights, Rabbi Sarah R. Marion believes it’s her responsibility as a clergy member to “bring the Jewish perspective into what’s going on in the world today.”
“We are in this #MeToo movement, which is exciting and creates a natural link for women to respond and show there is an obvious resurfacing of women’s empowerment going on in society,” said Rabbi Marion, 31, associate rabbi and director of youth engagement at Temple Oheb Shalom. “I see it as my role to bring in the Jewish framework to show the two aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Rabbi Marion credits the Reform movement as her way to help congregants bridge the gap between social justice issues and their faith.
“My interpretation of Judaism is it’s an experience of change,” Rabbi Marion said. “What defines us as Reform Jews is our ability to adapt to the outside world. That’s what separates us from other sects. Reform Judaism, in particular, is built on the notion of prophetic Judaism and the prophets making a difference in the world.”
Through educational programming for congregants of all ages as well as traditional pastoral duties, Rabbi Marion uses her time to embrace all subjects of interest to congregants.
At Oheb, Rabbi Marion — who has a 2½-year-old daughter and is expecting her second child — runs a Tot Shabbat service the first Friday and third Saturday of every month. She also works with a Muslim-Jewish interfaith group with a Rosedale mosque as well as a young sisterhood group whose interests include exploring different ways of engaging with Judaism and growing social justice concerns.
“Temple Oheb Shalom wants to plug into that passion,” said Rabbi Marion. “A lot of the social justice marches we are now seeing take place on Shabbat, so we have tried to figure out what that means for us in the Jewish community. For the Women’s March in January, we had a short Shabbat service at the synagogue before heading to downtown Baltimore to participate in the march.”
Rabbi Marion also wants to provide teenage girls with a voice. She has done so by implementing Moving Traditions’ “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!” program at Oheb Shalom.
“The goal is to build self-esteem and empowerment,” Rabbi Marion said of the national outreach program, which meets monthly at Oheb. “It’s providing them with the tools to face challenging situations in their lives and giving them space to find their own assertiveness and voice.”
A Westchester, N.Y., native, Rabbi Marion grew up in the Reform movement and was the first female in her immediate family to become a bat mitzvah. At 17 she decided to become a rabbi, and in 2016 received her ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s New York campus.
A few months later, Rabbi Marion, her husband and daughter came to Baltimore. “It’s been wonderful living in this close-knit community as a rabbi and a mom,” she said. “Rabbis of my age are seeing ourselves as people in the community versus leaders who you only see in synagogue on Shabbat. That is a powerful image.”
For Rabbi Marion, it’s the support of her temple community that inspires her every day.
“I have so much to learn from the matriarchs in my congregation who have lent a hand and taught me their wisdom,” she said. “There is something powerful about older generations of women supporting younger generations of women. I hope as I continue to support the younger generations, they will grow into strong women who will raise strong daughters and sons and work to help grow the next generation.”
Wendy Miller: ‘Blessed to have this community’
Wendy Miller recognizes the major influence that women have in the Jewish community, both here in Baltimore and nationally.
“I believe women are the heart and the ones who really get things done,” said Miller, chair of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Women’s Campaign. “Women add a different voice around the table. I see that at meetings I go to that are both men and women. There is a lot of power when a group of women gather together. We can make a difference.”
A Beth Tfiloh congregant and Pikesville resident, Miller, 56, has been a champion for women since becoming involved in The Associated 15 years ago.
“You have to get out there and get engaged,” Miller said. “As a Jewish woman, I became more empowered as I grew. I remember the first event I participated in was a gift-wrapping fundraiser when my oldest son was in preschool. As I got more involved and put my foot in the water a little more, I evolved from a gift-wrapping fundraiser to wanting to do more. I have been inspired by many women along the way.”
A nurse by trade and stay-at-home mother by choice, Miller and her family’s Jewish journey started well before her Associated days — when her children were just starting school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.
“I credit Beth Tfiloh as the launching point for our Jewish life as a family,” said Miller, mother of three adult children. “My husband [Dr. Jeffrey Miller] and I both came from Jewish families, but through Beth Tfiloh we learned Jewish concepts along with our children that we weren’t exposed to growing up.”
Miller, who grew up in Randallstown, began meeting people involved in The Associated who were eager to introduce her to the organization. “The most special thing to do is go to an event and see what we do at The Associated,” Miller said.
As time went on, Miller’s involvement within the federation grew. In 2010, she was asked to become the second-ever chair of Chapter II, a group started by The Associated in 2009 for mothers who were already or about to become empty nesters. Chapter II now has an alumni group of approximately 160 women who are active in the community.
“Chairing Chapter II was one of my most significant and rewarding volunteer experiences to date,” Miller said. “I had 20 women who I was engaging to be a part of our community. I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to be Women’s Campaign chair without Chapter II.”
Now, Miller is preparing to take her love of philanthropy to a national level. In June, she will start her two-year term on the fundraising board for the National Women’s Philanthropy for Jewish Federations of North America. Miller said she does it all so future generations can benefit from her actions.
“As Jewish women, we are blessed to have this community where there are such a variety of opportunities to raise Jewish families, be involved in Jewish organizations and help others,” she said. “I do what I do for my grandchildren and everyone else’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I want them all to have the same opportunities, plus more, that our children had.”
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.