Activism and family values are in Rabbi Susan Silverman’s DNA. Raised in a secular Jewish home in New Hampshire by parents committed to liberal politics, she is active on behalf of asylum seekers in Israel, advocates for liberal Judaism and is founding director of Second Nurture, which promotes adoption by creating support networks for children and their adoptive families. She has lived in Israel for 10 years with her husband, activist Yosef Abramowitz, whose work includes bringing solar energy to developing nations, and their five children, including two adopted sons from Ethiopia.
Silverman will be the guest speaker at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Women’s Philanthropy Connections brunch on March 5, at 10 a.m. at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. The event, dubbed “Let’s get PURSE-onal,” will include a designer purse silent auction benefiting the Sister Jose Women’s Center. Silverman will present “Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World,” reflecting the title of her 2016 book.
“The book is about living in a broken world and imperfectly moving toward healing when and where we can, within ourselves, within our families and as families — meaning the ways in which our family, as an entity, can itself bring healing,” says Silverman. “The need for healing feels more urgent than ever now, with the new inauguration and every aspect of the healing we pieced together in the broad realms of the environment and human dignity feel[ing] very much at risk.”
In 1998, Silverman and her husband co-wrote “Jewish Family and Life: Traditions, Holidays and Values for today’s Parents and Children.”
“We were approached to write a Jewish family how-to type book,” she says, “and jumped at the opportunity to present a liberal, open-hearted, meaningful Judaism that represented lots of different kinds of Jewish families; that had room for lots of different practice and ways of engaging the world Jewishly.”
Family, caring and helping others have been integral to Silverman’s life from childhood. “My dad had a business and always hired teenagers from the foster care system, mentored them, made sure they had what they needed for school, et cetera. He taught Holocaust education at our local synagogue, and told us, ‘If you want to know what you would have done if you were a German, ask yourself what you are doing for vulnerable people today.’ That made a huge impact on me.”
Her mother founded a small theater company, and was active in George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, working as his photographer on the road. “We housed a ton of volunteers from around the country,” Silverman recalls. “She was outspoken for the ERA and abortion rights.”
The family included Silverman’s three sisters, actress and writer Laura, writer Jodyne, and actor, writer and comedian Sarah Silverman, as well as two foster children. Though her sisters followed more secular paths, “They are sort of instinctively Jewish,” she says. “You can see in a lot of Sarah’s work that being Jewish is, as she says, ‘oozing from her pores.’”
On her website, rabbisusansilverman.com, Silverman describes herself as “Rabbi, author, activist and mom,” and each role is deeply interwoven into the fabric of her life. But first and foremost she’s a mom — to Aliza, 23, who served in intelligence in the IDF and is a musician and actress; Hallel, 21, who recently completed her IDF service as an army spokesperson and is active on issues of liberal Judaism and fair trade; Adar, 18, a high school student involved in Model U.N.; Zamir, 15, who’s a serious runner; and Ashira, 13, a fair trade chocolate activist who attends an art school majoring in theater.
“It’s funny,” says Silverman. “People have often commented that I have the perfect family. … It is the family I have always dreamed of; but we have had our struggles, really hard times, and I share those openly because to appear perfect does not help anyone. My, and our, failings and flailings are very much part of the story — and if we can’t share that we promote loneliness.”
As humans, we may or may not create our own destinies, she says, but “we can all struggle in certain directions. My guiding principle is tzelem elohim — that everyone is made in God’s image.”
Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.