Part 2- One Year in Trump’s America: A Rabbi, Activist & New-ish Mom Reflects
Things are never as simple as you want them to be, I realized. Today, right now, we need to fight with everything we have to make this broken world better for all Americans, especially those far more vulnerable than you.
By November my husband and I had long since decided to move back home to Southern California and raise our son closer to family in Los Angeles. Our decision had been influenced by my diagnosis of postpartum depression following his birth; we’d seen early on just how profoundly we would need the support of our families.
Earlier that fall we spoke publicly about our experience, turning our pain into activism. It was a new language for us, but we saw how powerful our voices could be. Navigating the politics of perinatal mood disorders, paid leave and the paradox of new parenthood – namely the message that welcoming a newborn ‘should be’ the happiest time in one’s life, though in reality it can be one of the hardest periods you will ever live through – became a new purpose; an act of social justice as important as climate change, homelessness and immigrant rights. I felt passionately – and still do – that there is nothing in this world more common than having a child and nothing as politically, economically or socially fraught.
In the days and weeks immediately following the election, I went silent. I told myself there were far greater problems in the world now – and honestly, who would want to listen to some white woman, some privileged rabbi with good health insurance prattle on about her mental health?
And then came the Women’s March.
Something shifted the day after the inauguration; I felt it, and I’m sure many of you did, too. It was the beginning of a collective uprising; a roaring battle cry for sanity, compassion and equality. The resistance – remember the first time we felt it, heard it, watched it spill out onto the National Mall in Washington and far beyond? Women and their partners, the gender non-conforming, children took to the streets in cities and towns around the world. Together we shared one powerful, unanimous message: resist – and watch us rise.
Many congregants texted or emailed that day with uplifting messages – “Rabbi, I have hope again!” “After today, I know I’m not alone.” “Proud to wear my Pussy Hat! Grab this!” and, “These United States feel united once more.” Enveloped in their energy and hope, moved by their optimism, I realized how inspired I was by those I was responsible for inspiring.
And the beat went on; as a country, we moved into a new era of politics, decency and truth. Once we finally got there – once that interminable waiting period between election and inauguration ended – something shifted even further. I’ve heard many describe it like this: when he finally took office, when I saw it with my own eyes, I chose to focus on how much work we have ahead of us. There’s no time to dawdle. We must act now. For if not now, when?
For many, the anticipatory anxiety of November, December and early January paved a path toward a sort of radical alertness. Suddenly we were fiercely glued to news alerts and urgent actions, ready to rally for our Muslim neighbors at a moment’s notice. New or lesser-known groups like Indivisible and She Should Run joined a cultural lexicon alongside ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Women and men across the country began leaning into conversations we might have dismissed months prior. Here we were, Indivisible with Liberty and Justice for All, awake to these progressive causes that needed us now more than ever.
As for me, post-inauguration I felt the hardness around my heart start to melt away; in its place, a new, fierce determination took root.
One weekend in late January I was scheduled to participate in a clergy panel addressing our faith’s approach to “Welcoming the Stranger.” It was the same weekend as the signing of the first Executive Order; airports and lives around the globe had been thrown into chaos. We gathered together that Sunday night in the basement of a Coptic Orthodox Church, nine representatives of nine different faiths. The room was packed to the gills with a diverse collection of human beings: the concerned and the curious, the empathetic and the determined. Tell us what your faith teaches about those from outside the boundaries of your community entering into your community – the question could not have been more pertinent or powerful. Each one of us, still struggling to wrap our heads around the news of the weekend, responded with grace, openness and truth. Though our words were different, we communicated the same message: This is not who we are. This Executive Order does not represent our beliefs. We must work together as human beings to amplify love, kindness and empathy. There were tears, applause, “Amens!” and offers to carpool to an airport protest immediately following the event.
That night, each one of us who found our way to the basement of that church was bound together by a sacred thread. The event lives on in my memory as a beacon of hope; a touching example of the possibility and potential of those who are different from one another coming together for a higher purpose. That night we committed, together, to something that transcended religion or ritual: human kindness.
As the months went on, I found myself continuing to shift, learn, pivot and grow – even in the smallest of ways. I found myself listening with greater openness to those with whom I disagreed, even politically. Though painful, I would not let their words break me. I reached out further beyond the boundaries that had once defined my existence to those whose life experiences were radically different from my own. I spoke up with more clarity and conviction. I learned, grew, rallied, laughed and created with a diverse cadre of human beings. While I wish the circumstances that brought us to one another had been different, today I can look back with profound gratitude for the ways they’ve helped me grow.
Of all the individuals who came into my life this past year, two women of faith have made the most profound impact. These women – Aneelah Afzali of MAPS-AMEN and Chitra Hanstad of World Relief Seattle – are truly doing God’s work; one educates scores of individuals, schools and congregations on Muslim practice, custom and belief while the other leads a non-profit resettling refugees in greater Seattle on a shoestring budget. The two of them opened my eyes and my heart in immeasurable ways. Their grace, humor and determination nurtured within me new perceptions of stigma and hatred, suffering, compassion and above all – love. My work, my rabbinate, is stronger because of them.
Finally, this past year I came to understand myself as a woman, a feminist, a mother, daughter and wife all in a different light. In hindsight, I don’t think I ever fully understood feminism until – in all seriousness – the 2016 election season. To be fair, it was the same time period of time during which I became a mother; a radical redefinition of my entire identity. Once our son entered the world, everything – and I mean everything – looked, felt, was different. On a parallel plane, watching Hillary Clinton step into the role of Democratic Nominee for President of the United States – that all looked, felt, was different, too. It was an entirely new playing field for long-held notions of power, strength, ambition and vulnerability. Conversations about who women are, what they do, who they can be – these were happening in real time and on the public stage. So much of it was inspiring; so much of it was heartbreaking.
I wish nearly every day that the outcome of the election had been different; that today we could live in The World as It Should Be. But that was not meant to be, a reality so many of us have struggled to come to terms with over the past year. However, I know that I am just one of literally millions of women and girls (and boys and men) around the world in whom a new fire was kindled nearly one year ago: a fire of passion, ambition and purpose. A fire of direction, leadership, power and equality. And I know that we have only just begun to envision what our collective flames will ignite in the years ahead.
On November 8th 2017, I will say Kaddish. I will stand in the sanctuary of my new congregation and recite those hallowed words quietly, privately, with intention and love. In doing so, I will honor the memory of what once was. I will acknowledge the grief and the sense of loss so many of us have struggled with these past twelve months. I will remember. I will likely cry. And I will give thanks for all the ways this year has challenged me to rise to my highest potential.
For centuries, Jewish tradition has taught our people to persevere in spite of overwhelming odds. We’ve faced persecution, annihilation, expulsion and genocide, and yet even Kaddish, our prayer of memory, never once speaks of death. We keep living – moving forward even in the face of insurmountable challenges.
This year has thrown a whole lot at us – the good and the ugly, the painful and the tragic, the empowering and the devastating. I won’t sugarcoat it: there are days I feel paralyzed with anxiety over where we’re headed and who will lead us there. There are days when so many of us feel disheartened and exhausted. But on November 8th, let us not ignore or push those feelings away. On November 8th let us acknowledge and honor where we are and how far we’ve come. And then, with fire in our souls and determination in our hearts, let us recommit to fighting for The World as It Should Be, roll up our sleeves, and continue onward.
This is the second in a two-part story.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen lives with her husband and son in Los Angeles, CA. She is the Rabbi of Congregational Music at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura and proudly supports Maternal Mental Health Now, a local nonprofit focused on education and advocacy around perinatal mood disorders. She is currently studying for her yoga teaching certification and plans to fuse her love of Jewish spirituality with a passion for yoga practice. Follow her on Instagram @mrsjfroco