It was the first day of school at Columbus Torah Academy. First grader Talya Gillman walked there with her father. Approaching the door, they saw a young girl, alone and frozen with fear.
Young Talya watched her father pause, bend down to meet the frightened girl eye to eye, and offer comfort, assurance and strength.
“It makes me emotional to this day,” Gillman said, noting that the girl was a new immigrant from Ukraine. “Seeing my dad validate and interact with her with such kindness shaped me then, even though I didn’t yet have language for what he was doing, which was activating care.
“It turned something on in my little head about being aware of the circumstances with which we each walk through the world and the importance of showing up for others. Even though I didn’t know it then, it was a Jewish moment. Our values are all about cultivating that sort of intentionality and awareness.”
Now, fast forward to 2009. Gillman, a year out of college, is in Mumbai, India as a World Partners Fellow of the American Jewish World Service.
There, she is volunteering with Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust, an NGO providing care and support to street-based drug users. Just a few months in, an accident on a commuter train leaves her with a traumatic brain injury. She’s in the hospital in a medically induced coma.
In a flash, she is transformed from an agent of chesed to a receiver of loving kindness. There, far from home and family, it is given freely – from the shoe shiners on the train platform who took her to the hospital, to a caring group of her Indian colleagues.
She recovers fully. But the whole episode is a learning moment for her – just like that early one in Columbus – advancing an evolving view of Jewish values and their relationship to self and community.
“It disrupted ideas I carried about the roles of helper and recipient,” Gillman said. “It deepened my notions of what social justice work is and requires. It demanded that I reevaluate assumptions about who and what is valuable in this world. It taught me about how deep humanity and heroism can be obscured by circumstantial exteriors, like poverty or addiction or lack of education … but that the reality is we’re living in a web of interdependence that stays together only by our willingness and abilities to ‘activate our care’ for the other.
“How many Jewish texts had I been exposed to that planted seeds for my being able to see these lessons in real life? The accident crystalized a desire to more conscientiously appreciate and honor others.”
It is a constant process for Gillman. Every day brings new experiences, new exposures, new challenges, new relationships, and new opportunity to view it all through a Jewish prism.
“I try to take these experiences and process them through my Jewishness,” she said. “That is why Jewish education is so important. It gives us a language and a structure to understand ourselves and our encounters with others.”
It was in 2014 that Gillman received The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize for exemplifying promise, vision and impact as an emerging Jewish educator. In her case, one committed to the practice, enrichment and transmission of her passion for social justice and the Jewish values that drive it.
By that point, she had returned from Mumbai and moved on from a four-year run at Repair the World. There, she trained Jewish professionals and young adults to facilitate high-quality Jewish service learning opportunities with their communities.
But through this work, and as measured against her own experiences, she detected a void in some respects. Lacking was purposeful character development.
“We as social justice educators should focus on cultivating internal, interpersonal and communal capacities within ourselves and our participants … self-awareness, humility, patience, kindness, generosity. Our individual and collective abilities to live these kinds of traits are essential to tikkun olam.
“We have to engage in this internal work to ensure that we can do our external community work responsibly. Bypassing reflection – examining the ways we’re conceiving of and showing up in our tikkun olam efforts – inhibits the potential for deepened relationships and, in turn, real impact. Fortunately for us, Judaism is made up of frameworks and vocabularies to help us develop these qualities and skills.”
She works now at Jewish Family Service (JFS) in Seattle, as Education Coordinator. JFS is a social service organization modeling how Jewish values can drive and motivate. For Gillman, it’s like a lab, where she can work together with colleagues to move the needle in the way she described.
Together, she and her colleagues engage with JFS stakeholders – employees, donors, volunteers, clients, partners and community leaders –to design creative educational programs addressing the internal and external examinations she considers so crucial.
Take refugee resettlement as an example. It’s a major area of activity for JFS. Gillman uses Jewish text, literature, poetry, and other mediums to enhance community members’ understanding of refugee experiences and how JFS approaches resettlement in all its myriad complexities, and invites participants to consider how they relate.
And, she envisioned JFS’s Exploring Dignity program, which gives colleagues and volunteers a platform to discuss the concept, self reflect, and infuse intentionality into their work with clients and each other in new ways.
“She consistently both raises and deepens the level of discourse here, and our programs, connections and impact are better and stronger and more meaningful as a result,” said Beth Huppin, Director of JFS’s Project Kavod and 2010 Covenant Award recipient.
Upstander as educator, Gillman applies passion for social justice to nearly all areas of her life. So even beyond JFS, she is developing her voice as a leader in the Jewish response to other paramount issues, including racism.
In 2016, she formed Jews Undoing Institutionalized Racism with a group of young Seattleites. It’s a growing, multi-racial collective using Jewish experiences, traditions and teachings to understand and deconstruct racism within individuals, communities and organizations. She teaches workshops and leads conversations with Jewish groups and synagogues in the Seattle area.
“I’ve seen more curiosity and willingness to talk about racial issues within traditional Jewish community spaces,” said Gillman, who earned a master’s degree in Transformational Leadership from Seattle University in 2017. “But a challenge is developing the knowledge, tools and self-regulating abilities to talk about the most difficult aspects of this.
“Looking inward and locating ourselves in this landscape of racism can be hard for Jews because we have lived the experiences of being outsiders and being oppressed. Asking ourselves how we also benefit from and perhaps even contribute to systems of inequality is a tall but necessary order if we identify with this mandate of tikkun olam.”
She has used some of her Pomegranate Prize resources to become more equipped and effective in facilitating this work. In Philadelphia, she took part in a conference exploring the intersection of anti-Semitism and racism. In Atlanta last fall, she attended the Facing Race conference, one of the most prominent gatherings for activists and educators dedicated to racial justice issues.
In the summer of 2017, toward the end of her three-year Pomegranate Prize program, she was at The Pardes Institute in Israel, immersing herself in Jewish texts and perspectives to bring back to the Jewish spaces where she teaches.
For Gillman, the Pomegranate Prize itself, as well as the exposures and connections that come with it, are changing the way she identifies as an educator. That, she said, is a most welcome takeaway.
“Much of what I do takes relational form – facilitating by ‘learning alongside.’ But when I became connected to the Foundation, I wanted to grow into and more deeply embody the role of Jewish educator. I see Judaism as a platform for thinking about, exploring and grappling with living meaningfully, responsibly, intentionally and respectfully in this world. It is a huge honor.”
By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation