A Panim el Panim Chat with Jamie and Judith
In the midst of our spring Community Café project I took some time, of course face to face, with Jamie Emhoff and Judith Trachtenberg, longtime leaders of Panim el Panim.
Jamie: I was invited to a house meeting focused on affordable housing in 2007 as part of the Panim el Panim listening campaign and was particularly interested in attending because of my work with the BJ shelter. I was impressed with the meeting’s format and facilitators and decided to attend more meetings. I was an active member of the Affordable Housing team until I switched over to the Marriage Equality Hevra because of a personal commitment to the issue and I was inspired to be more involved.
Judith: Before I was even a member of BJ, I was invited to a Panim voter registration event during the 2005 presidential election. The idea that a synagogue was doing this type of work had me completely hooked and my partner Renie and I joined BJ shortly after. My interest in social justice was embedded in me as a social worker and the daughter of a social justice-oriented Rabbi.
Q: Which Panim el Panim effort have you been most proud to be part of since you have been involved?
Jamie: I am most proud of the Social Justice Shabbaton that Panim hosted last year. The Panim Task Force did all of the planning and executing of the programming and it was really fulfilling to work together as a team to pull off a really successful event.
Judith: I am incredibly proud of the work of the Employers for Justice group in passing the Domestic Workers Bill or Rights in New York State. We worked with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFRJ) and Domestic Workers United (DWU) for 2 years and were an instrumental part of the passage of the legislation last fall.
Q: How do you see Panim el Panim growing and changing in the future?
Jamie: I see us going deeper into certain issues. The exciting part of finishing up our current listening campaign is learning about what issues members really care about and finding new people to be involved. Specifically, I see us addressing the seniors in our community and I would love Panim to be involved in creating some kind of senior resource center when we move into the new building.
Judith: I think we have a lot of room to grow in how to best engage new people. A lot of people in the congregation know the name “Panim” but I’m not sure the name is connected to our process and philosophy, of congregation–based community organizing.
Q: What do you do outside of your volunteer work at BJ?
Jamie: I am a personal fashion consultant for the Worth collection and a busy mother of a teenager and Eddie the wonder dog!
Judith: I’m lucky: I have a lot of interests and I’m a teacher that hasn’t been laid off yet! I am a professor of Social Work at Hunter College and Columbia University and additionally I advise social work students.
Q: What are some of your hobbies/past times/interests?
Jamie: I love high and low culture, for example I am huge fan of the New York City Ballet, and I love pop culture and reality television. I also really enjoy cooking and trying out new recipes.
Judith: I love traveling! If you offered me a ticket, I would be on a plane in the next hour going anywhere. Tibet was my favorite place to travel because it was really amazing to meet people who live their lives in a place where they struggle to maintain autonomy. I also enjoy theater, movies, and photography.
Q: What do you find most rewarding in being a leader in the BJ community?
Jamie: I am part of an extensive support network made up of other interesting and passionate members. I’ve had the opportunity to really get to know and work closely with other people, which helps me feel more connected to BJ as a whole. This is particularly important to me as I was looking for a way to be part of this community separate from my son.
Judith: As a lay leader I have gotten to know so many wonderful people through so many different avenues. Meeting new people opens me to learn new things about myself. I have continued growing despite my age—BJ has made that possible.
Q: As leaders of congregation-based community organizing, you hold many one-to-one relational meetings to get to know people—how are these experiences for you?
Jamie: I don’t do them often enough! I find them to be very interesting and surprising because I always learn things about people that I did not already know. Most times at a relational meeting I’ve gotten tearful with people because we talk about things that are
heartfelt and personal.
Judith: I find them quite wonderful. It’s a way that I’ve met many people in the BJ community as well as within Manhattan Together (a multi-religious, multi-ethnic community organizing network of which BJ is a member). Specifically in the MT context, it’s a way that I’ve gotten to know people that are very different from me. In a world where not all leaders in MT stand behind marriage equality, the more one-on-ones I’ve had the more I’ve been able to overcome many stereotypes and barriers and connect with people who have realized that I am just a person. Relational meetings get beyond politics and focus on a basic human connection that I have found to be critical in my work with Panim.