The following is a guest post by Jenny Katz, the Volunteer Coordinator at Civic Works, an organization whose mission is to strengthen Baltimore communities through education, skills development, and community service.
Katz was born and raised on Kibbutz Gezer in Israel, moving at age 10 to central New Jersey. She graduated from Rutgers University in 2011 with a B.S. in Animal Agriculture and a minor in Jewish Studies. She worked on several dairy goat farms before settling in Baltimore in 2012. In 2015 Katz participated in JUFJ’s Jeremiah Fellowship, a Jewish social justice program for professionals. She lives in Hampden.
When I was starting my first grown-up job, trying to make the world a better place, I was supervising people. And I was bad at it. I was angry. I took things personally. I had a complicated boss who was a much older man. Mostly, I was young.
I’m still young; but I am a little bit older. In fact, I think the solution to being a young professional woman is to just get older. But in the meantime, there are a few tools you can use to try to make your work better and more meaningful, all while having the unfortunate task of being young.
Being a woman in charge of a crew of mostly men, in vacant lot landscaping no less, was not easy. It still isn’t. To try and survive the job, I taught myself the usual stuff about buddhism, and patience, and compassion. I read a lot of books about those topics. I still do.
But most of all, I asked women for advice. I didn’t intend to do this. It was kind of a last-ditch effort. I was having a really hard time with one of my crew members, a young black woman who had grown up in foster care and spent the previous year incarcerated. I’m white and from an upper-middle-class background. We did not see eye-to-eye, and had a hard time communicating. Her opinions and moods were sometimes explosive, but she was capable of surprising gentleness in the midst of one of her storms. I couldn’t keep up with her and felt constantly unbalanced. She could see right through me in a way that few people in my life had ever done. That woman will one day be in a position of great power, I’m sure of it. But in the meantime, I was stumped and suffering from my inability to respond to her.
A coworker suggested that I speak to my boss’ wife, who is a pastor of a large Lutheran church and a mother of several grown children. Growing up Jewish, I had never really spoken one-on-one with a pastor. But I had always admired this pastor’s calmness, beauty, poise, and the way she seemed to focus deeply on you when you spoke. So I thought this was a good idea. I reached out to her and asked if she’d meet me for coffee. I was nervous. She said yes.
Looking back, I realize what a blessing this was. She was a busy woman, in charge of an entire congregation and a homeless women’s shelter, but she made time to sit and talk to me. Maybe she could see something of her younger self in me, or maybe she wanted to help another woman out. Maybe she took pity on me. I’m not sure.
Over coffee, the pastor helped me try to understand the background of my crew member’s life that I had struggled to comprehend. She explained that it was possible that the young woman had grown up receiving love in a different way than I had. It was possible that the woman had grown up with relationships that looked quite different than mine, that may have been unhealthy relationships, for that is sometimes the experience of children in the foster care system in our cities. I was young and sheltered; I really didn’t know. The pastor sat with me and encouraged me to practice love, love, love in the face of this young woman’s fear, anger, and pain. It helped.
Practicing love, love, love, the young woman and I began to find ways to speak to one another with mutual compassion.
But a few months later, I was still struggling at work. Someone suggested that I seek out a professional mentor. I didn’t fully understand what this meant, but I thought I would try it. A lengthy search of the vast network of helpful Jewish agencies led me, finally, to my mentor, a young Jewish woman.
This woman had been a community organizer for years, helping an aging white Jewish community and an incoming black community to learn to coexist and to become better neighbors to one another. She had recently begun a new stint as the director of the fledgling Baltimore chapter of a Jewish social justice group. She and I spoke over the phone, then we met for dinner. We talked about our lives, what we were working on, and we discussed the setup of a mentorship relationship. From then on, we met once a month.
This community organizer taught me, more than anything else, about fierce strength and about standing up for myself. I often felt like she filled a motherly role, even though she is only a handful of years older than me. She stood up for me when I didn’t even know that there was a moment in which I should be standing up for myself. She got angry on my behalf; she asked questions I never thought to; she was wary of men in my workplace who might subtly sabotage me. As a child learns so much more from copying and watching than from being told, so I learned to watch my mentor, to emulate her, in order to learn what was right. She was older, she was Jewish, she was beautiful, she was self-assured and smart.
Recently I befriended a young woman through an interfaith fellowship. We’d met a few times before in passing but never spent time together. She grew up in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, which according to her is a non-dogmatic non-deistic communal humanistic religion. She, like me, is hovering right around 30, trying to make sense of being an adult woman.
Recently we were riding bikes side by side on a warm summer night. She said she never felt more powerful and more in touch with her body than when she was riding a bike with a group of women. Another night, I ran into her at a bar while I was trying to avoid my ex-boyfriend who was also at the bar. I found her strength, calmness, and self-assurance, no doubt fostered throughout years of UU youth groups, to be a balm for me in my anxiety and stress.
If you’re a young woman looking to make her mark on the world, and to make this a more loving, just place, seek out these women of faith. Actively look for them. What should you look for? Don’t necessarily look for a trained educator. No, look for raw strength and passion. Look for those women who have spent time in a spiritual faith community, for often religion is tied to deep learning, reflection, self-examination. These women will be the ones who will tell you about their journeys, how they practiced their love, and the lessons they learned. If you start to look, you’ll see them in your daily life. Ask one of them for coffee - even if you’re nervous.
The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race and community. At this pivotal moment in our city’s history, indeed our nation’s history, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies highlights the continued importance of bringing diverse religious perspectives to address civic and social challenges. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about justice, and injustice, in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions. The long-term goal of the Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative is to create a model of interreligious learning and dialogue around differences that demonstrates how a robust commitment to religious pluralism can shape public life.