Five Women who Shake the World

The women you’ll meet on the following pages have taken roads less travelled by; they’ve followed their instincts along paths that lead to real social change. They have three things in common: they’ve each sacrificed power, status an money to do what they believe in; they are sure of their choices; they bring others to their causes.

Rescuing AIDS Babies

Stefanie Held, 44, founded and is the former executive director of a Dallas home for children with AIDS and children whose parents have AIDS. Bryan’s House is the only facility in the United States that provides total care (daycare, respite and residential) for infected AIDS children. It also supports the children’s families with food, clothing and social service referrals.

Since its inception in 1988, Bryan’s House (named after a baby who died of AIDS) has served 130 children. For the first six months of its operation, Held’s own retiree parents served as live-in houseparents, while Held continued her work purchasing and renovating the facility and raising the nearly two million dollars that the project required.

“Getting Bryan’s House off the ground took three years of solo, 100% total involvement,” says Held. “It dominated every minute of every day. Liza Stern, one of the rabbis at our Temple, was a crucial support to me. When I thought I was nuts, she was always there, telling me I could do it.”

Held, who describes herself as “five-foot-one, full of chutzpah and very social” is confident and exuberant. With no college degree, Held says, “I never let the lack of credentials stand in my way. If there’s a need, I try to zoom in and fill it.”

Between 20 and 25 children come to Bryan’s House daily for respite and daycare, and several children live at the home. Owned and managed by a not-for-profit organization that Held founded, the House has a $350,000 annual budget and supports an executive director, an administrative staff of six, and eleven childcare workers in a facility open around the clock.

“Fewer and fewer children are getting AIDS from blood transfusions,” explains Held. “AIDS is now a family disease.” Families without private health insurance can become devastated financially, and Bryan’s House “commits to getting these families to the point where they’re able to function again.”

Bryan’s House is only the most recent of Held’s social service projects. Several years ago, when she thought the rabbis in her 8,000-mem-ber synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, needed help serving hospital patients, Held trained 100 volunteers to visit patients three times weekly. Next, she developed a bereavement program, which provided families in mourning with meals, transportation and childcare. Finally, Held founded Hineini [“I’m Here”], a 24-hour hotline for anyone needing help of any kind.

After she had completed a six-month chaplaincy program at a Dallas hospital, Emanu-El offered Held a paying job as director of pastoral services, and her AIDS work evolved from there.

“An interfaith support group for women with AIDS started at Emanu-El. There were two women with AIDS in the group (one was the late Bryan’s mother), four children (two with AIDS), the group leader and me. I was just there because I was interested in learning about the disease. But I started to feel how shunned and isolated these AIDS victims were.”

Held began helping one of the women care for her children, eventually bringing the kids into her house and synagogue office because “the mother had no other options. One day the woman said to me, ‘It’s not dying that’s really getting to me, it’s who will take care of my children?’ I said to her, I promise you your kids will be taken care of.’ Soon more kids came along, and I realized I had to do more than take care of them myself.”

Held started asking everyone for money, writing grant proposals and accompanying her husband, an attorney, on business trips just so she could investigate whether AIDS services for women and children existed in other cities.

At home Held’s husband Maurice helped write grant proposals while Kim and Josh, the Helds’ children (now 23 and 19), put in countless hours babysitting for the AIDS children who moved in with them.

“Before Bryan’s House we were just an ordinary family,” says Held. “Now my children recognize the value of reaching out and helping. Not just feeling bad—but actually doing something that will make a difference.”

Growing up in a Reform Jewish family in Brookline, Massachusetts, Held says her childhood revolved around the Jewish community center. After marriage, she and Maurice moved, with two small children, to Dallas.

New to Texas and still in her twenties, Held became seriously ill. “My lungs just stopped working and I was hospitalized for over a year,” she explains. “After that I spent another year housebound on portable oxygen tanks and intravenous tubes. We had very little support because we didn’t know anybody yet in Dallas. During those years I thought, ‘This is the rest of my life’.” Slowly, Held’s good health returned. “I gained a lot of empathy through those scary years,” she reflects.

Held realizes that creating Bryan’s House has given her new clout and authority. “I can walk into most institutions in Dallas now and be recognized and listened to.” Currently, Held is working with Annette Strauss, Dallas’ Jewish mayor, on developing a drug rehabilitation program for teenagers. And on the back burner is a plan to strengthen an adults-with-AIDS housing program.

Ironically, says Held, “Though I started out motivated by my love of children, in working so hard to create Bryan’s House I had very little time to spend with the kids.

“What I liked best was not getting the building built or seeing two million dollars come in. It was,” she sums up,”teaching a six year old with AIDS to walk, rolling out the play dough, giving lots of hugs.”

Ministering to the Old

Six years ago, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, then 28 years old and fresh out of both social work school and seminary, became the first rabbi at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, a congregation of 1,100 residents, mostly women, almost all over the age of 80.

“Is this something you’ve actually chosen to do?,” new acquaintances routinely ask, presuming, as Friedman says, that “poor me—I must have gotten stuck with this job.”

But, says Friedman, “I’m passionate about my work. There’s something remarkable about the power of Judaism to transform the lives ofold people. And my congregants here are precious resources, alive with near-lost melodies, recipes, the real bubbeh meisehs. One resident, from a small village in Russia, tells me stories about her mother the firzogerin [a female prayer-leader for a synagogue’s women’s section who prays as a surrogate for illiterate women]. And just yesterday a man told me that every year on the seventh day of Passover, when we read the Torah account of the Jews’ crossing the Red Sea, his Chassidic grandfather in Poland would go with his friends to a special room where they would tip over a full barrel of borscht—which is red, of course, as in ‘Red’ Sea—and they would sing and dance in the borscht until one in the morning. Tell me,” she says triumphantly. “Where else in the world are you going to be exposed to this great stuff?”

Friedman never has to cajole her congregants into participation. “Even if ritual observance has not been part of their lives for 60 years,” she says, “it once was. They have a reservoir of experience on which to draw. They are no strangers to deriving pleasure and value from Jewish life.”

She gives the example of Yetta [not her real name], an Alzheimer’s sufferer. “You place yetta in a Shabbos service and all of a sudden this woman who seems so completely disconnected from everything around her is now utterly present, and she knows it’s Shabbos and she’s touched. The place that is still whole in her is touched.”

But how does a rabbi implement religious services for a population that includes the ill, frail and not fully ambulatory? On Fridays, a volunteer carries a “Shabbos basket” (full of wine, challah rolls and electric candles) to people who are bedbound. Student rabbis hold afternoon services on five different floors. At suppertime, when Friedman chants blessings in the main dining room, her singing is piped through the public address system. Friedman has had pews removed from the sanctuary to provide wheelchair space, and she has helped design large-print, lightweight (for arthritis sufferers) prayerbooks with transliterated Hebrew. (“Many of these women, because they are women, were never taught to read Hebrew,” explains Friedman.)

She also does a lot of what she calls “guerrilla counselling. I make hospital and dining room rounds—it looks like I’m simply shmooz-ing. But I really am finding out about the concerns of people’s lives. So I pass by one woman who tells me, ‘Rabbi, pray for my son. He’s in intensive care.’ Another woman says, ‘You know, Rabbi, if I should get sick, I don’t want them to put me on any of those machines.’ I communicate her wishes to the rest of the care team.”

Friedman is the co-chair and founder of the Center’s medical ethics committee. “What I found is that some people want to die. We’ve worked to transform the Center’s medical decision-making policies so that now residents have the right to make decisions for themselves, to accept or refuse any or all treatments.

“A few days ago I helped the sister of a resident make a decision about a feeding tube for her sibling. The doctor had said, ‘Do you want your sister to die?’ I reframed it: ‘What would Fanny tell us if she was able to express her wishes?’ That was a question the sister could struggle towards answering without guilt.”

Friedman is the middle child in a German-Jewish, Reform family from Denver. At Brandeis, where she was an undergraduate, she helped lead Sabbath services at a nursing home, and she started an “Adopt-a-Grandparent” program.

That Friedman’s own maternal grandmother was an important force in her life is almost a tautology. “My Grammy Anne was loving, fabulous. She had spunk. She began college at the age of 81. She certainly gave me the message that old people are vital and capable of renewal. Often, working here, I think, ‘Grammy would be very proud of me.'”

Still, at a rabbinic convention soon after Friedman was ordained, she had “one of the worst professional experiences of my life. People looked stricken when I told them where I worked…as if something were terribly wrong with me. It really wounded me.” Today, she says, “I’m secure about my choice, certain about the importance of my work and about how well it suits me.”

Friedman hopes that her future includes marriage and family as well as continued writing and teaching on Jewish geriatric issues. “What I’ve learned from old people is that what matters most in the end are the answers to two questions: Who did you love, and how?”

Marketing Jewish-Arab Businesses

Nobody ever forgets meeting me, because in the business world in Israel a woman stands out,” says Sarah Kreimer, director of the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, a not-for-profit organization that she founded in 1988, and the only organization of its kind in Israel. Kreimer’s organization is a shining model for successful Israeli-Arab cooperation.

Based in Tel Aviv, the 100-member organization creates opportunities for Jewish and Arab businesspeople to work together and provides start-up capital for new, Jewish-Arab business ventures and Arab businesses that contribute to the development of the local Arab economy. “The country needs to maximize its economic development,” says Kreimer. “Also, Jews and Arabs really have no choice. We have to find ways to live together that benefit both sides.” Kreimer speaks fluent Hebrew and conversational Arabic, and her thinking, she says, “runs more to human connections than to profits and losses.”

Prominent Jewish and Arab businessmen, including a former Governor of the Bank of Israel (the chair) and a leading Arab industrialist, sit on the Center’s 12-member Board of Directors. Last year, 200 business people attended the Center’s conference “Meeting the Challenges of the 90’s through Economic Cooperation,” five new Jewish-Arab business ventures got underway, and Kreimer secured $400,000 to create a revolving loan fund for approximately ten new business ventures and expansions. Working alongside Kreimer are two staff members, an Arab doing outreach work and a Jew, an economist, managing the loan fund. Ten active members regularly volunteer to lead seminars and give entrepreneurial advice.

“Our businesses include everything from cement block manufacturing to olive oil production,” says Kreimer, 36, in a telephone interview from the Jerusalem hotel where she and her Sabra husband, Shuki (a high school math and physics teacher) and their 2-week-old, Shai Benjamin, were living until the Persian Gulf War ended and they could return to their house in Bat Yam. “One recent business is a joint venture between a kibbutz industry and an Arab entrepreneur to manufacture a new line of socks.”

A constant stream of challenges—the Persian Gulf War, pressure to hire Russian Jews, the wobbly Israeli economy — make Arab-Jewish connections difficult. “I’m stubborn,” Kreimer says, “and I have a tremendous belief that this cooperati ve economic path is the right direction for Israel. I fee] what you might call a mission to be able to use my training in this way.”

A tall, unpretentious Yale graduate who majored in Russian studies and who spends her spare time hiking and writing poetry, Kreimer’s manner is quiet and open but determined. With a Master’s degree and community organizing experience in Providence, Kreimer comes well-trained to the job.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, she was interested both in Jewish life (as president of her temple youth group) and in community organizing. A high school urban planning course and an internship with the Pittsburgh Department of Urban Planning were important early career determinants. In 1980, Kreimer volunteered to do community development work in a poor Israeli neighborhood as part of UJA’s Project Renewal. The following year she joined Interns for Peace (an organization that fosters understanding between Israeli Arabs and Jews through community work), spending two years in Tamra, an Arab village in the Galilee. “I decided I wanted to work in the field of Jewish-Arab relations. Just being in Israel felt meaningful to me. I like the closeness and immediacy of life here.”

Kreimer believes that the underemployment of capable Arabs perpetuates the large gap between the Arab and Jewish standards of living, and that Arab underemployment is a waste of Israel’s main resource—people. Unlike the segregated schools and residential neighborhoods in Israel, “there are many successful examples of Jews and Arabs working together, not as equals, but at least there’s positive contact. That’s a start. Many Arabs are on the threshold of a lot of development. I’m convinced that an organization like the Center can make a difference.”

These days, most of Kreimer’s 60-hour, six-day work week is spent on the phone. This morning, she has “tried to finalize arrangements for El Al to serve baklava produced by an Arab in Nazareth,” and she’s started plans with some Arab and Jewish medical professionals to establish a collaborative medical center in the Galilee.

The hardest part of the job is “the constant sense of not knowing whether we’re doing well or poorly. Having no yardstick makes things hard.” Still, Kreimer imagines that the Center can eventually become a major investment company and the nucleus for a Middle-Eastern Development Corporation.

Her current plans? Mostly a three-month maternity leave.

Singing to Save Yiddishkeit

Judaism is a hard nut to crack,” says Adrienne Cooper, 44, feminist Yiddish singer, co-founder of the immensely successful Yiddish folk arts adult camp (called Klezcamp), and leader of the all-female klezmer band, Vilde Khaye (“Wild Thing”). “People with Jewish literacy skills— like davening or studying Talmud—can crack that nut. But others can’t. I’m committed to broadening the definition of Jewish literacy to include artistic, expressive endeavors. There are places to go to learn Talmud, but how many places are there to learn Jewish artistic vocabulary? Teaching songs is a way that I help spread Jewish emotional literacy.”

Cooper, who has also been the assistant director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and was a founding member of The Joseph Papp Yiddish Theater, adds, “When I teach, I notice who is in front of me—old, young, gay, straight —and then I give the students full access to use the song for themselves. In the early 20th century, it may have been thought that “Alle bride?’ (“All brothers”) was a nice labor-movement song about unity that included everybody. But one day on the lawn some students of mine added the verse, ‘We’re all sisters, just like Rachel, Ruth and Esther.'”

“People sing Yiddish folksongs at anti-racist marches in England; at Gay Pride marches they sing ‘Vakht oyf’ (“Wake up”)These songs give people a way to express themselves as Jews.

Cooper’s interpretations of songs challenge her students in many ways—intellectually, politically, ethically and emotionally. When she sings “A meydl in di yorn”(“A woman of some years”), in which the singer asks her boyfriend why he’s abandoning her for another woman, Cooper changes the last line to read, “You should have four years of hell,” instead of the standard, “Your sweetheart should have four years of hell.”

She further explains. “Usually people sing this song sorrowfully. The woman is abandoned, appears to be helpless, calls herself a ‘girl’. But she’s also trying to get some control over her experience, and the lyrics have her interrogating the guy. I violate the folk tradition—I inflect songs psychologically so that there’s really a person in the song. I see the pride that’s in here, the rage underneath. I make songs true to Jewish women as I know them. Plus,” she adds, “I’m a Jewish woman myself. I sing songs that Jewish women have been singing for maybe 200 years. I’ve picked up the thread of my own culture. These are my songs, sung by my mothers—literally and figuratively.”

“As a 44-year-old, divorced Jewish woman with a 12-year-old daughter, who comes from a family that has high emotion, a great sense of humor and irony, and a fairly high level of domestic anger and intensity—all of this comes with me on to the stage: I don’t check it at the door.”

Indeed, Cooper is what her students (mostly other professional singers) call a “singer’s singer.” Though she’s a natural soprano, she sings mezzo for its “gutsier” sound. “I think of singing as speaking,” she explains. “I tend not to sing high keys and not to sing prettified, because I’m trying to make people hear the words and the direct emotion behind the words. I want people to get close to the material—it has to reflect us—but I also want them to understand the historical moment in which the song was created.”

Henry Sapoznik, YIVO’s director of song archives, says, “Adrienne wears a song like a Danskin. She really knows Yiddish—the culture, the context of where the song fits. She has the balance of both empathy and great musical skills—the ability to produce a beautiful tone, to know her pitching, how to phrase. She knows her body, how to shape notes. She’s centered and never loses her train of thought. The audience always gets this shockingly honest reading of the song. She’s a spectacular teacher, full of sympathy, full of great good will. It’s really scary how powerfully she feels the song.”

Cooper’s background includes not only a Yiddish-speaking childhood in Oakland, California (her mother was a Hebrew school teacher and professional opera and Yiddish singer), but university training at Berkeley, Hebrew U., the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem (where she was trained classically in chamber opera, European art songs and German leider) and the University of Chicago where her unfinished doctoral dissertation was on “Yiddish Poets in New York.” After a summer language program at YIVO, she says she, “Suddenly saw Yiddish as a potential professional field. I walked into this little world at YIVO where strolling around the building were still Eastern European Holocaust poets, composers, real-life heroes, Resistance fighters. I saw a whole, displaced world.”

“For a long time,” she continues, “I wanted to clean up Jewish experience, to create a more high-minded version of Jewish culture. But then, at some point as I got older, it struck me differently. I suddenly wanted to claim and integrate all of it. Now, there is no ego involvement for me when I perform, no presenting of myself for approval. Rather, there is something that has to come through me to the audience.”

Currently, her “day job,” as she calls it, is as the program director at the Chinatown History Museum in New York. (“I’m interested in institutions that teach and represent a community’s culture,” she explains. “There are parallel issues here to YIVO that I love.”) In the fall, her third recording, “Holocaust Lullabies and Children’s Songs,” will be released by the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Nights, her all-female, five-member klezmer band continues to act like “vilde khayes.”

Smuggling Refugees

Jacky Turchick is a 48-year-old potter, art teacher, sometimes school or recreation center artist-in-residence, and mother of four children aged 10 to 25, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, 100 miles from the Mexican border. Since 1982, the focal point of her life has been helping Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees find safety in the United States. Not only has she stuffed envelopes and delivered clothing, but she has repeatedly risked going to jail. Illegally—often twice a week for over six years —she transported refugees from the Mexican border to “sanctuary” in a temple, church or private home.

Although the 1980 Refugee Act stated that people in danger of persecution would not be returned to their country, our government “didn’t live up to the Act at all,” says Turchick. “Less than 1% of Guatemalans and 2% of Salvadorans were being granted refugee status.”

“In the beginning,” ‘says Turchick of her early involvement in transporting refugees, “we didn’t know we were going to be a sanctuary ‘movement.’ We were just these people who knew about these other people who needed help.”

Turchick was always on call. She would drop everything to leave Tucson at daybreak for a “trip” to the border. Runs could take up to 24 hours because the vast and unmarked rural borders made it hard to spot refugees. Scarier than imagining jail for herself was the fear that the refugees would get caught, “because being sent back to their countries meant almost certain death. There is this incredible feeling of joy when you first see a huddled group walking towards you across a border,” Turchik says. “So far, they’ve made it.”

Over time Turchick began to make the rest of her life revolve around her clandestine involvements. “I never told a soul about my sanctuary work, but slowly my jobs became those that could be stopped whenever I was needed. I did pottery on my own, repaired dolls, and pretty much stopped teaching,” she explains. Her phone was tapped, so her family developed a “code.” And even though her current work with refugees is legal, she (like her fellow border workers) remains cautious during news interviews and refuses to be photographed.

The question is, of course, why did Jacky Turchick risk jail, cripple her professional life, and disrupt her family’s existence to be on call for strangers? Turchick recalls her temple’s 1983 “freedom seder,” when she first volunteered to drive refugees.

“I remember wavering for a long, long time. I was thinking that any excuse I gave anyone could have given during World War II. How many people don’t have family…? Everyone has an income that they need….Finally I handed the baby to Ted and my arm just shot up in the air.”

Turchick admits that her role strained her relationship with her partner of sixteen years, Ted Warmbrand, who is a musician and concert producer. “It was often nerve-wracking for the kids, too,” she adds. “They never knew when I’d be gone or when I’d reappear. Ted was always there, of course, but then he’d always say, ‘But why you, why does it have to be you?’ There’ve been family struggles for all of us who have chosen to be really involved in sanctuary.”

Growing up in Minneapolis, the third of nine children in a Conservative Jewish family, Turchick said her parents “always told us that the reason they had so many children was to make up for the Holocaust. I identified with this very literally,” she says. “I always felt like I was actually a replacement. It gave me a sense of the preciousness of my life.”

Always an activist, Turchick and her then-husband, a rabbinical student, moved to New York and enrolled their children in an integrated Harlem school where she taught claywork. Divorced in 1974, she moved to Tucson because of her asthma, and with Warmbrand became active in the anti-nuclear movement, successfully leading a fight to close a dangerous tritium plant.

Since 1990, when Mexican laws virtually stopped the flow of refugees and border runs were no longer useful, Turchick has found a fresh focus for her volunteer activities. One day she brought a few shirts and blankets to homeless refugees living in an orange grove near Phoenix. Before long she was bringing truck-loads of shirts and blankets, and soon she was working 25 to 40 hours a week on her new project—setting up “Clinica Caminante,” a health clinic for the more than 10,000 refugees who pass through the orange grove each year.

“We’re excited about this new work,” says Turchick, “though it’s hard for me because I’m a real hands-on person and this work is mostly what I hate—fundraising and letter-writing. But a need exists, and after I’d visited the orange grove once, I couldn’t say no.” Presently Clinica Caminante has a house and grant money, and the next step is to enlist a nurse-practitioner.

After many years of working “underground,” Turchick decided, in 1989, to acknowledge her role publicly for the first time by attending a regional Reform Judaism convention honoring sanctuary workers. “The sanctuary movement has given me a real sense of being part of history, of even thinking of God working in history. One thing we should be learning from the Torah is that we are on our own Biblical journeys. Thinking this way has made me put a different value on what I do in life, and figures like Harriet Tubman have given me models of hope. People need to know that we don’t just stand by while injustice happens.

” Most recently Turchick spent some time teaching claywork to children with special needs. “It was a joy,” she says, “so I wanted to see how it would feel to do more work with these kids.” She took a job as a special education pre-school aide, prompting her to return to college this summer for her first college degree, in special education.

“The biggest change in me as a result of being involved in sanctuary is that it’s made me a happy person,” she says simply. “It’s a gift to have work that brings you so deep into humanity, so deep into something wonderful.”

Maria Stieglitz is a freelance writer based in Sea Cliff, New York.