Partners Working for Change

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Emanuelle Sippy, 16, is a junior at the Liberal Arts Academy at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, KY. Her mother, Shana Sippy, is a professor of religion at Centre College.

What makes you most afraid and what makes you most hopeful in thinking about the future?

Emanuelle: My hopes and fears are inextricably connected. I worry about our world, where change is so incremental, but I also wonder if our conception of a revolution to combat systemic inequity is too narrow, especially regarding schools. The language of destroying the system doesn’t get us anywhere. A revolution could be a recognition of educator and student needs as mutual interests; a reckoning with the ways in which our schools are still segregated 65 years after Brown v. the Board of Education; a cultural shift around sexual harassment; a learning environment predicated upon critical thinking rather than memorization and regurgitation. The intergenerational intention, action and collective reckoning that we’re a part of in this moment makes me hopeful.

Shana: I had hoped we would give your generation a brighter future but, instead, it feels like we have bequeathed you a world that needs fixing. Obviously, we have to be your partners in working to change things. The climate crisis, racism, fascism, white supremacy and misogyny all continue to plague us, and, in many ways, they seem to be getting worse. There clearly needs to be a radical shift if we are going to make change, and that is where my hope comes in. You and your peers are so inspiring. Nothing seems too great for you to take on—whether it is the teach-ins and rallies you plan, the bills you work on in the Kentucky Legislature or your work on education inequity. You and your brother are my greatest hope.

What is something you wish you could have told me, but never had the chance? Is there a question I never asked you that you wish I had?

Emanuelle: I wish I asked you more about my great-grandmothers. I think about your Bubbe’s rolling pin, which you use when we make hamantaschen, and the recipes—plum torte and matzah balls—that we make for holidays. But I would like to know more. I also wish I knew more about your Grandma Sati, who was not Jewish, and what her life was like growing up in Sindh, in what is today Pakistan.

Shana: There are so many things I would love to tell you about your maternal great-grandmothers. You don’t remember, but Grandma Bea—my Bubbe—met you. And I was pregnant with you when Grandma Sati, my other grandmother, died. They both lived into their 90s. I think the memory I most want to share is about shopping at Loehmann’s with Grandma Bea and my mom—whom you call Nani—in New Jersey. Suffice it to say, I got quite an education seeing all these women, of all different shapes and sizes, including my grandmother, undress in the big dressing room. At the age of 7, it felt a little traumatic, but I learned so much from it. It gave me a healthy sense of how varied women’s bodies could be.

As far as Grandma Sati, she was a fabulous woman. You’ve seen the pictures—she seems like a traditional Hindu widow. She wore white from the time my grandfather died at the age of 45 until her death more than 45 years later. But she wasn’t so traditional. She loved my mom, they always stayed close. She came from India for my bat mitzvah and was so proud of all I had learned. She loved chocolate, too, even though she was pre-diabetic. She was mischievous and would sneak her favorite sweets into her room because she felt like life was just too short not to have a few simple pleasures.

Partners Working for Change by Emanuelle & Shana - Photo by Hanna Taieb
Shana and Emanuelle with the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem. Photo by Hanna Taieb.

How have Jewish communities provided you with comfort and how have they challenged you?

Shana: Universally, I would say that Jewish communities—from Berkeley, Calif., to ones in New York, Minneapolis and Lexington—have reliably been places where I have found friendship, connected with people from different generations and backgrounds. They have also been places of tsuris. I have seen and felt that acutely, not only as a Reform rabbi’s wife, but also as an activist, a student and a professor of comparative religion and women and gender studies. It seems as though the divides are only getting greater today. I see the ways in which issues of politics and class are dividing Jews, especially along generational lines.

To me, the biggest challenge today involves how we talk and think about contentious issues. We have historically been strong advocates of free speech. There is a new kind of anti-intellectualism that is rearing its head in the Jewish community, largely born out of real fears, especially anti-Semitism. But when I hear Jewish community leaders and educators calling to silence people who might be critical of Israel, refusing to engage in dialogue with those who profess different views than they do, I recoil. Engagement and study with others, especially those with whom you may disagree, is the best way to learn.

I recently had the most powerful teaching experience of my life taking 30 Centre College students on a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories with an Islamic Studies colleague. We heard and saw things that I never would have seen had I stayed in a safe and carefully curated Jewish bubble, and it makes me a better Jew and a better person.

Emanuelle: There is so much valid fear about anti-Semitism, but the fear sometimes seems to supersede enacting Jewish values like welcoming the stranger, loving our neighbors and tikkun olam. Our fear, our anger, our despair should push us to open more doors, be even more cognizant of others. I’m thinking about how Jews of color often feel, how friends who see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differently, have taught me so much. I’m thinking about the fact that progressive Jews, and particularly progressive Jewish women, have limited rights in Israel, like we experienced at the Kotel when we joined the Women of the Wall last summer. But as defeated as I felt in that moment—when state-sponsored sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and sexism were leveled at us by women who recite the same prayers that we do, who enact the same rituals as us, but who embody the antithesis of our Jewish values—I’d never been so proud of being a progressive Jew. And I still am.

This article was originally published as part of a series in Hadassah Magazine, May/June 2020. You can read about the collaboration and all six conversations here.
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