Embracing the Mensch Within
In 1984, I was appointed the Regional Director of the American Jewish Congress in Washington, D.C. At 28, I was the youngest person ever to have been appointed to this position. I was young and energetic and with my spanking new Masters in Social Work (MSW), I was ready to take the world by storm.
I began by meeting with colleagues to get acquainted and position myself as a partner in the field of what was then called human rights work (now we'd call it community relations or civil rights). So I started my series of get togethers with the guys−and yes, they were all guys. Not only was I by far the youngest person in the group, but I was the only woman as well. I took a deep breath and readied to charm.
One of my first lunches had such an impact that I've never forgotten it. I figured I'd start out with my Jewish colleagues, so met with a rabbi who was the regional director of the American Jewish Committee. I asked him how he got in to the work and when did he realize he wanted to become a rabbi.
He gave me an overview of his early days and basically said that one journey became another and he became a rabbi. It was a story that I hear often, that happenstance often dictates our next step. I did think it was a little odd in that becoming a rabbi is kind of a big cosmic religious step, but just stored it away for the future.
He then asked how I came to be where I was. I remember telling him how even as a little girl injustice always disturbed me greatly and that I knew that when I grew up I wanted to be in a position where I could make a difference.. Becoming a community organizer was the best way I knew how to do that.
He stopped and sort of stared at me. "Tracy, you do not want me leaving this table thinking that you are as naive as you sound right now."
"Oh, of course not," I fumbled thinking frantically how do I get out of this one, "I mean what I meant was...ummm, well .. " Now I'm generally pretty good thinking on my feet, but I was stumped. I couldn't come up with a cool answer or one that would have him taking me more seriously. Good grief, this was my first lunch and already I'd shot myself in the foot.
I sighed, embraced the Pollyanna that is me, and said "Gee, I guess you are going to have to. That is why I became a community social worker and it is at the essence of who I am. I'm not brilliant, nor do I have illusions that I will cure cancer, but I do hope that the world will be a little better off for me having been in it."
I've replayed the conversation over and over in my mind through the years and I wouldn't change a thing. I've embraced the Pollyanna within me. And I wish that for all of you. When we reflect on our lives during this High Holy Day season I hope one of the questions you ask is "Where is my Mensch?" "How can I make a difference today and into the future?"
I wish you and the Mensch within you, a wonderful year, a year of joy and happiness and a year of remembering that the Mensch within is your Legacy.
L'Shana Tova tikatevu-
Bobbe Banks Salkowitz
9/24/2014 05:42:12 am
As your mother I'm so proud of the little girl that was and emerging as the mensch you are now: always fighting for injustice, raising your steel hand in the velvet glove that has such purpose in life and passion in every area. I always was and still am blessed to be your mother!
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Tracy Salkowitz is the CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, a Community Social Worker, Devoted Mom and obsessive crafter.