Janet V. Green told her Jewish journey at a Friday night service at Ohef Sholom Temple last year. She agreed to share her remarks with Jewish News.
I am honored to have been asked to speak with you tonight. I am particularly pleased that the person who introduced and “brought” me to Norfolk is here with me, my wonderful husband and Chief Judge for the Norfolk Juvenile and Domestic Courts, Bill Williams. Bill and I are relatively new members of Ohef Sholom, but we are quite familiar with the temple, as we have been neighbors, literally living next door on Colonial since 2002.
I have been asked to speak on my professional and volunteer commitment to improving the lives of others, a core Jewish value. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, yet, I am particularly moved to speak about my Jewish background as tonight I will say the Kaddish for my Mom whose yarzheit was Monday—and she would be bursting with pride. She was always bursting with pride over almost everything her five kids did, yet when it centered on Judaism, she and my Dad truly kvelled!
I am 50-several-years-old, and since I was given 15 minutes to speak, I better get started.
I was born the third of three girls to a great Jewish family in New York (both parents from Brooklyn). Our family moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan and shortly thereafter my two brothers were born. I was a typical kid in our small Conservative Shul; girls didn’t play a big role back in the 1960’s, and while I was a Bat Mitzvah and went through Confirmation, I felt my parents and grandparents worked hard to assimilate and not “flaunt” our Judaism outside of synagogue. For instance, I intensely disliked that the High Holidays always seemed to fall during the beginning of school and as a practicing Jew, I had to take days off for the New Year and Yom Kippur. I always felt that was announcing my Judaism to my classmates and that was a very uncomfortable feeling for me. So, it was only natural I thought, to lose touch with what little personal connection and relationship I had to Judaism.
I attended Michigan State University, a place that seemingly had even a smaller Jewish population (because I never sought it out), and obtained my degree in social work. After working for a Michigan Congressman after graduation, I moved to Washington, DC where I met not only lots of Jews, I met lots of Jews in very prominent positions who were very open and proud of their Jewish heritage. I found a roommate on a bulletin board (remember, these were the days before the Internet) who was from Beachwood, Ohio and was so “outwardly” Jewish, I was in awe. She remains one of my dearest friends. And, while this new “open” Jewishness was so unique and wonderful, I really didn’t feel a PART of it. I was watching from the sidelines, I wasn’t playing in the game, yet.
I then moved to Connecticut as campaign manager for a Congressman and was feeling out of sorts around Passover—my favorite holiday and my first when I couldn’t go home. My parents suggested I go to the local synagogue, and so I went to the large shul on the fancy side of town—and felt extremely uncomfortable and vowed to meet Jews somewhere else, but probably not in Danbury, Connecticut! Yet, the very next week, an adorable, cute man wearing a yarmulke walked into our campaign headquarters. That young man was Rabbi Jack Moline, starting his career in Connecticut, before moving to Alexandria, Va. where he served for 30 years as the head rabbi at the conservative shul, Agudas Achim. You also may have heard of Rabbi Jack, when in 2008, he was named by Newsweek magazine as one of the top pulpit rabbis in America (#3 in a list of 25), and in 2010 and 2011 as one of the 50 most influential rabbis in America. (He also is a former director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and now is executive director of Interfaith Alliance.) God works in mysterious and wonderful ways!
Anyway, for different reasons, Rabbi Jack and I were both a little out of water in Danbury, Conn., and became fast friends and it truly was Rabbi Jack who taught me that I could combine my love for helping people with a renewed sense of my Judaism.
Rabbi Jack taught me— and showed me—the core teaching of Judaism is that we strive to be a people who perform acts of chesed, loving acts of kindness and Tikun Olam, healing or repairing the world. Rabbi Jack taught me— and inspired me—to see that the world is sustained by three pillars: Torah study, prayer, and loving acts of kindness. So love, in Judaism, is not abstract. It is primarily not about feelings, but rather takes shape and form by the actions we weave into the fabric of our lives.
Jack urged me to do more and more and I got to know his wife, Ann and young family. So imagine my pleasure when shortly after I moved back to DC in 1984, Jack and Ann moved to Alexandria. We continue our close friendship to this day.
I rose up the ranks of the Democratic Party, moving around a lot and always seeking out synagogues and even more spiritual guidance. One of my most interesting experiences was in 1992, living in Little Rock, Arkansas while working on the Clinton campaign. During the High Holidays, I went to the orthodox shul…. hearing Hebrew with a Southern accent is not something I will ever forget!
After President Bill Clinton was elected, I was proud to be named Special Assistant to the President and Director of WH Operations, tasked with having the White House open at 12 noon on Inauguration Day. Now, this wasn’t just the offices, this is the White House residence, Secret Service, and Executive Office Buildings—the entire White House compound, which comprises 18 acres. So, while President Clinton may have been the first Democrat to occupy the White House in 16 years, he wasn’t the first Democrat to have an office in the WH… it was a Jewish girl born in NY…or better said, a proud Jewish woman…me! I had a small office in the WH to arrange the entire transition before Inauguration Day.
It truly was a nightmare (but that is a different story)! Remember, all these people wanted to immediately start working in their offices (if they could find them) immediately after the Inauguration—names that you know—George Stephanopolous, Dee- Dee Myers, Rahm Emanuel—had to go through my suggested policies just to get into the WH compound and through security. You can imagine that they all wanted to bring their family and show them their offices. I, of course, invited my proud parents to be at the Inauguration and then they came to the White House to see my now, beautiful West Wing office. They were again kvelling, and when Robert Rubin (fresh from Goldman Sachs where his salary was a widely reported to be $26 million the past year) and newly named head of Economic Policy and then Treasury Secretary hugged me and thanked me profusely in front of my parents for helping to get his operations in order, I think my Mom almost busted her blouse with pride!
I have a great photo album that showcases much of my time in Washington and again, my wonderful Mom was struck by the order which I put pictures in that album. After the picture of me at the President’ Desk on Air Force One—our favorite picture, mostly because we both thought I looked thin—are pictures from my first Presidential Motorcade. I was in a lot of motorcades during my years working on campaigns, but my very first Presidential Motorcade was to the Dedication Ceremonies for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 22, 1993. How proud I was that day to be a Jew!
The next pictures I have are from the ceremony for the signing of the Israeli Palestinian Peace Agreement in September 1993. You all remember that famous picture with President Clinton with his arms outstretched with Yitzhak Rabin on one side and Yasir Arafat on the other. Amazing. Again, I was so proud to be a Jew and honored to be there that momentous day!
After we had the Clintons and staff settled into the White House, President Clinton asked me to help work on his signature initiative, AmeriCorps and begin the Corporation for National Service. I jumped at the chance as that meant I got to work even more closely with the new head of AmeriCorps, Eli Segal. Also, working in our offices was Jack Lew, President Obama’s Treasury Secretary and a practicing Orthodox Jew. How incredible that people I was working with expected you to take time off for the Jewish holidays, eat Jewish food during the holidays and celebrated all things Jewish!
After AmeriCorps was up and running, President Clinton asked me to be Deputy CEO and begin to set up the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, working for Debra DeLee, you guessed it, another prominent Jew who has served for the past almost 20 years as CEO of Americans for Peace Now, working towards peace in Israel.
And, after the successful convention and re-election, I was asked to serve as executive director and CEO of the Democratic National Committee, where the chairman was Steven Grossman, another proud Jew. I was pretty sure at the time, and sure today that one of the reasons Steve hired me was because I was Jewish! I had truly come full circle.
All of these mentors were and are so inspirational to me and helped me truly not only to celebrate Judaism, but realize we as Jews do have a bigger responsibility for embracing our proud heritage.
In 1999, three things happened that again changed my life. Mrs. Clinton announced her candidacy for the Senate for New York and asked me to work on her campaign. She is a close friend and confidant to this day. My dear mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and I realized she was right—I had a very unbalanced work/family life. I leaned heavily on Rabbi Jack and Hashem during those trying times and they greatly comforted me. The third thing that happened is that I met Bill Williams at a big Jewish wedding in Washington, DC—and Bill embraced all things Jewish. In fact, the first Jewish holiday we spent together was Yom Kippur—I kept promising him that all the other holidays have great big happy feasts, and this was the only holiday we fasted. Together with Rabbi Jack Moline and Rabbi Arthur Ruberg from Congregation Beth El, Bill studied hard and fully converted to Judaism complete with a bris, mikva and Bet Din and years later became a Bar Mitzvah at Beth El! Bill and I were married right after Sept. 11 by Rabbi Jack Moline in a big Jewish wedding in Washington, DC (beautifully organized, of course, by my mom and my Jewish roommate I spoke about earlier) and then I moved to Norfolk as CEO of Operation Smile.
In 2002, I took the job as executive director of Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg. Habitat is a very “Christian” organization, welcoming people from all religions to work with them, yet I was the first-known Jewish executive director—only to be followed later that year by Ellen Widoff, the ED for South Hampton Roads and a fellow member of Congregation Beth El. I am still with Habitat—everyone knows Habitat— yet they think we give homes away to poor people—and we don’t. We sell homes built by volunteers to qualified, gainfully employed, good credit low-income families who pay a no-interest zero percent mortgage for 20-30 years.
So, that brings me basically to today and tonight. And again, I am so honored to be here with you as a proud new member of Ohef Sholom.
I always remember Rabbi Moline telling me that the Torah begins with the letter bet and concludes with the letter lamed. These two letters, when reversed, spell the word lev, which means “heart.” While the Torah may have 5,845 verses and thousands of words, I always try to remember that its core message is contained in one word: Heart. May we maintain our hearts by continuing to care for others. Just this week I read in As The Temple Turns/The Temple Post about Ohef Sholom’s great Mitzvah Day and the myriad of activities performed by our congregants. Bless you and Mazel Tov!