Jewish Tucsonans expand social activism away from home

Lonnie Kleiman
Lonnie Kleiman
Molly Rothschild
Molly Rothschild

Both Lonnie Kleinman and Molly Rothschild grew up immersed in Tucson’s Jewish community. But like many college graduates in their 20s, each felt compelled to broaden her life experience by leaving home, working with Jewish nonprofits in other parts of the country.

Kleinman, 23, who attended Tucson Hebrew Academy and Catalina Foothills High School, is a community engagement fellow at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Jewish Southern Life, based in Jackson, Miss. Armed with a religious studies degree from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., she works with Sunday schools to teach lessons related to social justice and activism in 13 Southern states.

“I mostly work with adults to help them participate in long-term, sustainable service that matters,” she says. “I partner with congregations to learn  about service through a Jewish lens,” specifically in Shreveport, La.; Humble, Texas; and Tallahassee, Fla. In Jackson, she’s involved in a peer mediation project known as T.A.P., or Talk about the Problems, which was named by student participants at Jackson’s Blackburn Middle School. Only students are in the room during the mediations, says Kleinman. Last month, she witnessed a judge handing out certificates to the mediators who completed the training. “It was so sweet,” she says.

Following her college graduation in 2012, she attended the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies co-ed yeshiva in Jerusalem for a year. “I had written my senior thesis in college on Holocaust education and thought I wanted to pursue that,” says Kleinman, who’s also interested in psychology. Although she considered becoming a rabbi, “I wanted to learn more about religion in America. When I told my grandma I was moving to the South for two years, she said, ‘Oh yeah, we have family in Biloxi, Miss.’ I never heard about that before.”

Growing up in Tucson, “I was pretty active at [Congregation] Anshei Israel. I was very active in USY as social action chair and president for a year each in high school. When I learned a lot more about civil rights,” notes Kleinman, “I started to wrestle with these issues, especially coming to the South as a western white Jew and on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer,” when nearly 1,000 mostly white volunteers headed south to help in the civil rights movement.

In June she attended the “5oth Anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer Project,” a conference at Jackson’s Tugaloo College, along with many Jewish veterans of the civil rights movement.

“It was really an incredible experience,” says Kleinman. Some of the veterans said that in the ’60s, “they weren’t driven consciously by Jewish morals and traditions [to join the movement]. Others said, ‘I participated because my synagogue supported me.’”

Kleinman has wondered, “Is the South where I belong? I don’t want to approach service where I assume I know what’s best for the community and [tell them] how to deal with their issues. It’s crucial to dig deeper, to give service partners a voice, and to acknowledge their strengths and what I have learned from them. The partnership should be mutual. That’s the approach I take.

“I come by this social action experience genetically and religiously,” she says. Her mother, Amie Kleinman, was a journalist in Tucson during the Vietnam War, and her father, Neil Kleinman, taught U.S. history in Albany, N.Y., in his younger days. In addition to her parents, affirms Kleinman, “Jewish texts and history have been really formative for me.”

Molly Rothschild and Lutheran Volunteer Corps colleague Torrance Winder
Molly Rothschild and Lutheran Volunteer Corps colleague Torrance Winder

You could easily say that Molly Rothschild, 22, also comes by her commitment to social action genetically and religiously. She’s the daughter of Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and Karen Spiegel, a physical therapist who works with children who have disabilities.

Rothschild, who graduated from Tucson High Magnet School and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is currently a one-year program associate for Avodah Jewish Service Corps in Washington, D.C.

“From when I was around 12 or 13, my dad instilled in me a sense of social action by taking me to Temple Emanu-El, where he was in charge of Operation Deep Freeze,” says Rothschild. “That was my understanding of how Judaism should work. There were always kids at Operation Deep Freeze and I would form relationships with them. Later, I had a little more understanding of the structures that kept people in poverty.

“I recognized that these kids weren’t that different from me. We ran around and played [at Temple] but they needed a place to stay. My parents always encouraged that interest. They emphasized that I was privileged. They wanted me to be aware of that,” she says, “of the opportunities I was born into.”

In D.C., Rothschild runs an afterschool program with various clubs at the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School in Anacostia, a low-income section of the city where “85 percent of the neighborhood is on food stamps. The school is super high-performing,” she says. “One hundred percent of the graduates attend college.”

Named after the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, the school is law-oriented with a curriculum that offers a law day once a month, notes Rothschild. “Lawyers teach critical thinking skills to students who don’t necessarily become lawyers.” They learn how to negotiate, advocate against discrimination and for individual rights.

Rothschild works as part of a team of two Avodah members and two colleagues in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. “I find myself constantly turning to what I’ve learned from the Avodah curriculum of anti-racism training,” she says. Her goal is to attend graduate school for a J.D. degree and a master’s in public policy. Meanwhile, Rothschild says she has more tools to fight against injustice and poverty. And through Avodah, “I’ve connected with so many other Jews and Jewish organizations” such as Jews United for Justice. “I’ve learned so much about injustice and the history of race.”