Rabbi Stephanie Kolin finds her strength in superheroes, from Moses to the X-Men

On a brisk December evening, Rabbi Stephanie Kolin stepped up to a microphone to address some 50 immigrants and advocates from a cross-section of civil rights organizations, including Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. They’d come together to celebrate at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center near MacArthur Park after three years working side by side, petitioning lawmakers to support the Trust Act. 

The new California law, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, will curtail deportations of undocumented immigrants throughout the state. Kolin, 35, a rising leader of the Reform movement, came to the event as part of Reform CA, one of the newest Trust Act coalition members; since last spring, she had been working tirelessly with more than 125 Reform rabbis from across California to build Jewish support for the measure and to help push the bill through the state government.

“Many in this room have been working for years … to make sure that today’s aspiring Americans can breathe the breath of dignity and fairness, and experience freedom from the fear that comes when one is treated as the enemy in one’s own home,” Kolin said, as a translator repeated her words in Spanish.

“There’s a phrase we say that I want us to be able to share,” she continued, spreading her arms. And despite the language differences in the room, despite vast cultural differences, her message came through, and the entire audience joined her in chanting the Hebrew words: “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.” Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened by one another. 

“May our communities continue to join together to address the vast issues of our broken society,” said Kolin, whose voice and enthusiasm filled the room, “to build the power that it takes to make real change, and to strengthen one another to do what is right and good in our world.” 

A rabbi by training, Kolin’s passion is community organizing, and she has blended her twin callings as co-director of Just Congregations, the community-organizing program of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). There, she has taken the role of lead organizer of Reform CA, a statewide campaign for political change (see accompanying story). More than 250 Reform congregations across the United States are now engaged in community organizing, along with other kinds of social justice work, fueling a growing demand for organizers and rabbis fluent in the language of organizing within mainstream Jewish institutions. Since relocating to the West Coast in 2010, Kolin has dedicated her energy to the pursuit of tikkun olam, compassion and connection in both the Jewish and public sphere. In 2013, she was named to Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s “Rabbis to Watch” list for her work. 

“What I’m called to is the fundamental tools of organizing — story sharing, systemic change, collaborating with others, interfaith work, moving the world toward greater justice and compassion,” she said. “You know you have the right job when it doesn’t feel like you’re working.” 

[Related: Jewish values at heart of immigration reform]

Kolin’s enthusiasm is always apparent; even though she maintains an almost dizzying schedule of meetings, conferences and responsibilities around the state and country, she approaches each task with humor and zest.

“She’s a rock star,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ. “She is gifted in everything that a rabbi of the 21st century needs to be gifted in: She’s really smart, she’s a phenomenal communicator, and she has the ability to galvanize people around things that really matter. And she’s got a great sense of humor — she’s the kind of person you love hanging around with.”

Those social skills come in handy, because much of Kolin’s job entails spending time with a lot of people in a lot of places. She divides her time between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, with a constant string of conferences from San Diego to Chicago sprinkled into the mix. (She mentioned in an interview that she doesn’t like to fly, but when she does, she wears Superman socks outfitted with tiny red capes.)

Kolin and her older brother, Ben, grew up at East End Temple in Manhattan, N.Y., a Reform synagogue where their parents helped found the religious school. The siblings always sat in the front row for Friday night Shabbat services.

Kolin clearly remembers the day she first considered becoming a rabbi. It was Purim, and Kolin, then in seventh grade, was “goofing off” on the bimah with her rabbi. At one point, the rabbi, Deborah Hirsch, turned to Kolin and motioned to her chair on the bimah. “Do you want to sit there?” Hirsch asked.

“Why?” Kolin inquired.

“I just have a feeling,” the rabbi answered.

“That was the first moment that my eyes were shifted to this possible path, and they never moved from that path,” Kolin said.

In high school, she immersed herself in the Reform youth group North American Federation of Temple Youth, where she got her first taste for leadership. But her social justice muscle was still developing. “I was never a very political person,” she said. “I grew up with incredible values, and was always deeply affected by suffering. But I didn’t know there were ways to enact change. I just knew people were hurting, and as Jews it was our job to address that somehow.”

It was while double-majoring in sociology and Near Eastern Judaic studies at Brandeis University that Kolin found structure for her natural empathy. In a class she took with sociologist Maury Stein, students engaged in weekly meditation in pairs. The experience was “incredibly transformative,” she said, and altered her view of what it meant to relate to others. “It taught me a new way to listen, to look at people, to express my own story and to understand that if we are to be present with each other’s pain, maybe we can create a different kind of world.” 

Kolin went straight from college to rabbinical school; there was no question it would be her next step. While attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, she volunteered as coordinator of the campus soup kitchen. Every Monday night, she would listen to the guests’ personal narratives of powerlessness and hardship. “The more I heard the stories, the more hopeless things felt,” she said, until a colleague introduced her to someone she thought might offer solace: a community organizer. 

Jeannie Appleman worked with Interfaith Funders, a grant-making network that supports congregation-based community organizing, and she sent Kolin to a 10-day summer training course with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the first and largest community-organizing network in the country, founded by Saul Alinsky, in Chicago. There, Kolin saw how the conversations that had troubled her could be harnessed as more than fleeting exchanges; they became the basis of community organizing, which she soon recognized as her calling. 

“These things that I thought were just values, it turns out that they were also tools,” she said. “That’s when I learned that the awakening experience I’d had in college was something to not only feel and notice, but also act on.”

That fall, when she returned to rabbinical school, she knew she wanted to find a way to share the lessons that had inspired her. So she worked with Appleman and a fellow student — Rabbi Noah Farkas, now at Valley Beth Shalom — to create a course in community organizing and leadership at HUC-JIR. (At the New York campus, the course is taught today by Kolin’s personal mentor, Meir Lakein, director of organizing at the nonprofit JOIN for Justice. In Los Angeles, Kolin herself co-teaches the class with members of OneLA-IAF, a nonprofit community-organizing group.)

After her ordination in 2006, Kolin worked for four years as a congregational rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, a large Reform synagogue. Among her roles was participating on the strategy team of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which helped with campaigns on issues of health care and public education; there, she witnessed the clout of community organizing firsthand. In 2010, she clinched the opportunity to apply her skills full time: The URJ hired her to establish the West Coast office of Just Congregations in Los Angeles. 

Kolin captured attention almost immediately: She was named to The Jewish Daily Forward’s Sisterhood 50: America’s Influential Women Rabbis in 2010, and that same year, she was honored as a Woman of Valor by Jewish Funds for Justice (now Bend the Arc).

“[Kolin] has played an important role in putting social justice on the Jewish communal agenda,” said Gabrielle Birkner, the writer who edited the Sisterhood 50 list and the “Rabbis to Watch” list last year. “Through her community organizing work, she has been instrumental in making a case rooted in Jewish values for improving education and health care access, for same-sex marriage legislation and for reforming immigration policy, among other progressive causes.”

Locally, Kolin works with congregations including Leo Baeck Temple, Stephen S. Wise Temple and Temple Isaiah to help them institute social justice campaigns. She also spends time planning next steps with the rabbis and lay leaders of the Reform CA leadership team, which is “some of the most fun work that I get to do,” she said. “These are my friends, but they are my rabbis, too. There is so much joy in working with this team and learning from them.”

Kolin also mentors four rabbinical interns from HUC-JIR — a mentor, she believes, is a crucial guide who can “push and challenge you, teach you, coach you, think with you, and ask you the hardest questions” — and she serves as fundraiser to grow the Just Congregations program. She and fiancée Jocelyn Berger, Los Angeles program officer of American Jewish World Service, are planning their  wedding for next Sukkot. 

From left: Rabbi Stephanie Kolin and her fiancée, Jocelyn Berger, Los Angeles program officer of American Jewish World Service. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Stephanie Kolin

Kolin often finds inspiration in the story of Moses standing at the shore of the Red Sea, the waters yet unparted, waiting to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses first tells his followers to wait and watch while God protects them from the approaching Egyptian army. But God speaks up: “Why are you talking to me? Tell the people to go forward.”

It’s a world Kolin craves — one “where we work in partnership with God, and it’s up to us to take each other’s hands, take a step into the sea, and forge our way toward redemption,” she said. “It sounds highfalutin, but it’s really gritty in the everyday practicing of it.”

Kolin also draws strength from returning to the tales of some of her most cherished role models: Superman, Spider-Man and the rest of the superhero pantheon. 

“When I started doing community organizing, I actually transferred a lot of my loyalty to the X-Men,” she admitted — a troupe of mutants born with supernatural powers, often ostracized, who band together to fight for justice. 

She doesn’t view these stories as mere comic book capers. Instead, she sees in their narratives fundamental human questions — specifically Jewish ones: How should we respond to discrimination in the world? How can we direct our talents for the greater good? Can we use oppression as fuel for positive change?

“Superhero stories paint a picture of a world that’s broken, like ours in many ways,” Kolin said, and their protagonists show us how to respond. “They say, ‘Not only can this change, but I’m going to change it, and I have a responsibility to change it.’ ”

At the heart of her efforts is sharing with others how they can help themselves. “What I really care about is making sure that the power is in the hands of the people,” she said. “People often ask, ‘What is the main issue you care about?’ I care about building the mechanism to make change. What I want is to build a base of communities and people who can take action on the issues that matter most to us and our neighbors. All of these issues are so intertwined with each other. It’s the systemic problems that we have to address, that are related to race, class, privilege — all of the structures that we live inside of. I think we are on a really good path — and it’s going to take a lot of work, but I feel optimistic.”

Adds good friend Rabbi Dara Frimmer of Temple Isaiah, who has known Kolin since they were classmates in rabbinical school: “Stephanie has a really incredible gift to preach and teach the Jewish tradition of justice — to inspire almost everyone she meets to want to do this work with her.” 

To sustain that contagious zeal, Kolin looks to her superheroes. 

“We could make the world a better place when we work together,” she said. “Alone, we’re vulnerable, but together, we’re the X-Men.”

An X-Man takes aim at Nazi war criminals

From the demented geneticist known as Mr. Sinister to the evil giant Juggernaut, the X-Men have battled some pretty wild foes over the years. But in an upcoming five-issue mini-series called “The First X-Men,” one member of the Marvel superhero team will take on some villains seen more in the real world than in the world of comic books: Nazi war criminals.

“The First X-Men,” which will debut in August, marks the return of one of the most famous and beloved artists in the heroes’ 60-year history, Neal Adams.

During his tenure as artist on Marvel’s X-Men comic book in 1969-1970, Adams’s ultra-realistic artistic style and innovative composition stunned the comic book world. Those issues are still widely regarded by comic fans and professionals alike as the high point in the history of the X-Men.

The Holocaust unexpectedly appeared in the biography of the X-Men’s arch-nemesis, Magneto, in a five-issue Marvel miniseries in 2008, called “Magneto: Testament.” The writers showed how Magneto discovered his powers as a result of his experiences as a child prisoner in Auschwitz.

Also included in that “Testament” miniseries was Adams’s graphic depiction of the real-life plight of Mrs. Dina Babbitt and her family, in their battle for the return of portraits that she painted while a prisoner in Auschwitz, and which is being held by the Auschwitz Museum in Poland. 

Mrs. Babbitt was forced to create the paintings by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” under pain of death and to spare her mother’s life. “The return of this artwork is an ongoing campaign for all involved, and worthy of a major media campaign,” Adams tells JNS.org. “The history of the abuse of the state over the individual dies slowly, and is always out there, to again rear its ugly head.”

The Magneto-Nazis theme was also included in the most recent X-Men movie, “X-Men: First Class” (2011). Now it returns to the comic books in the upcoming Adams miniseries.

The new series, coauthored with Christos Gage, will be a prequel, focusing on the activities of an earlier set of X-Men, led by one very special member of the current X-Men, who team up to undertake an unusual mission. Also reluctantly on the team is the young Magneto, who at that time had not yet emerged as a villain, and was instead devoting himself to hunting down Nazi war criminals.

“The Nazi war criminal angle is not the focus of the story, but it figures into the plot in some interesting ways,” says Adams, careful not to give away too much before the release of the comics.

Adams has more than a passing interest in the Holocaust. Raised on a U.S. military base in postwar Germany, Adams learned about the Nazi genocide close up and at an early age. “In school, they showed us some pretty harrowing stuff—newsreel footage of what the Allied troops found when they liberated the camps, severely emaciated prisoners, huge piles of dead bodies,” he recalls. “It was very hard for a 9-year-old to take. I came home from school and wouldn’t speak to anyone for a full week.”

Coincidentally, Adams’s own mother-in-law, Ruth Susser, was also a Holocaust-era artist who used her artwork to save lives. Ruth fled Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940 and eventually made her way to the relative safety of Tangiers, Morocco. While waiting for permission to immigrate to the United States, she helped the Polish Embassy in Tangiers design counterfeit documents to help other Jews escape Poland.

Adams is the artist on a series of animated shorts about Americans who spoke out against the Holocaust, created with Disney Educational Productions and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. The first five episodes of the series are available online at TheySpokeOut.com. The next five will include an installment about U.S. policy concerning war criminals, both during the Holocaust and in response to the recent Darfur genocide.

The issue of Nazi war criminals has surfaced in comic books on occasion over the years. Adams points to a 1955 comic strip called “Master Race,” drawn by Bernie Krigstein and published by EC Comics, which featured a confrontation between a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi war criminal. “Both the story and artwork were groundbreaking, and ‘Master Race’ remains one of the most influential comic strips of all time,” Adams says.

He hopes that the upcoming “First X-Men” series will help keep the issue of war criminals in the public eye. “Sadly, the problem of war criminals evading justice is a major problem in today’s world,” Adams notes. He says he was heartened by the outpouring of public interest in the recent YouTube video “Kony 2012,” which documents atrocities committed by Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan terrorists known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The video has been viewed more than 91 million times since its release in March.

At the same time, Adams is disappointed by the apparent lack of interest in capturing Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for sponsoring the Darfur genocide, yet remains a free man.

“If we had a genocide survivor with powers like Magneto, bringing Kony and Bashir to justice wouldn’t be a problem,” Adams remarks. “But this is the real world, which means we need real people to care, and to pressure their governments to take action to capture these mass murderers. Perhaps ‘The First X-Men’ will help get more people to start thinking about that.”

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”

X-FRIENDS: Mutant Rabbis

Video courtesy of JTA.

Is the story of the mighty X-Men battle between Prof. X and Magneto really a battle between the Rabbis Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and the late Meir Kahane?
JTA’s Editor-in-Chied Ami Eden draws parallels between the two fascinating stories, and finds interesting results that involve the Jewish world, the Holocaust and the fictional mutants.

Just a nice Jewish director: Public and private images of Brett Ratner clash in swirl of contradicti

I’ve been cornered downstairs in the gold lamé disco basement at Brett Ratner’s house and he’s hitting on me.

His insistence suggests he’s accustomed to getting his way with this, and I’m trying not to think about the surroundings — a wealthy bachelor’s lavish playpen, which quite conspicuously insinuates sex.

“Can we go on a date?” Ratner asks, drawing closer. “My mom loves you.”

He doesn’t seem to care that I’m a journalist on assignment or that when he offered to give me a tour of his Benedict Canyon manse, I was thrilled to explore the architecture: a Tudor-style estate designed by Hoover Dam architect Gordon Kaufman.

I push him away and tell him I’m seeing someone, but he insists that shouldn’t matter since I’m not yet married.

“I really want to pursue you,” he says in his soft, almost effeminate voice. “When are we going out? I like you. Are you gonna make me wait? Don’t make me wait.”

Not like he made me wait. I first met Ratner at American Jewish University back in March, when he was presenting a lucky screenwriter with the $10,000 Bruce Geller screenwriting prize. He ordered me a cocktail and gave me his phone number. I texted him a few weeks later, asking for an interview. “Do I get a date with that?” he replied. When he guest-edited the summer edition of Heeb Magazine, appropriately titled, “The Notorious Issue” (and, also appropriately, featuring the “first-ever Jewish swimsuit calendar” with Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli), I texted again — to no avail.

I had just about given up when, lunching with a few friends, I saw him pacing through the M Café parking lot, talking on his cell phone. He seemed less intimidating, wearing baggy jeans that left half his behind exposed. Choosing not to interrupt his conversation (which he later told me was with Oliver Stone), I sent him one last message, hijacking his favorite mantra as a final plea: “Don’t take no for an answer.” He has often told the story of how in high school he wrangled his way onto Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” set, then into NYU film school and ultimately, Hollywood.

“OK!!” he wrote back. “Be at my house at 7 p.m.” and gave me his address.

Ratner is hardly unusual as a successful Hollywood director with a bad-boy reputation. At just 39, his eight feature films — including the popular “Rush Hour” franchise, starring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan; “X-Men: The Last Stand,” a Marvel Comics adaptation; and “Red Dragon,” adapted from Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter series — have grossed more than $1 billion and earned their director a $7.5 million-per-picture paycheck. Despite the fact that this feat places him in the company of only a handful of directors who’ve reached this milestone before the age of 40, it’s the slimmer side of Ratner’s renown. To the director’s dismay, he is probably more famous for his jet-setting lifestyle: bacchanalian parties, beautiful girlfriends and power-player comrades. To the press, Ratner is fond of complaining that he is the most misunderstood director in Hollywood.

Ratner is the first to admit his public image trumps his talent profile. “I think I’m probably the most misunderstood person,” he told me when we sat down to talk at his house one night last August. “I don’t drink; I don’t do drugs. Do I like to have fun? Yeah. Do I like to enjoy myself, enjoy my life? Yeah. But I’m not a decadent person. I’m not into dark stuff. I’m just a nice Jewish kid from Miami Beach who loves movies and pretty girls.”

Ratner may think of himself as a nice Jewish boy, but in gossip rags he is routinely depicted as a devil-may-care narcissist with proclivities toward womanizing and decadent behavior. In the mainstream press, his work as a filmmaker is often assailed, criticism that he has categorically dismissed. “Critics are snobs,” he told The Miami Herald in August 2007. “People like [Roman Polanski] know that it’s easier to make a pretentious art movie than a movie that makes f—ing $500 million.”

Despite his grievance with the press, Ratner praises Scott Foundas of LA Weekly as “the only journalist who got me” for his profile that said, “Brett Ratner is a talented filmmaker who deserves to be taken seriously,” suggesting that the ruthless criticism he’s engendered may come because people are jealous of Ratner “enjoying his life too much.”

If Ratner comes off as arrogant, it’s probably because at a young age, he has amassed all the glory Hollywood can bestow — wealth, fame, powerful friends. Still, he is denied the artistic legitimacy that would justify his meteoric rise to the upper echelons of Hollywood. It must hurt that when people hear about the company he keeps — Warren Beatty, Robert Evans, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola — the typical reaction is, “Why him?”

Before I met him, I had heard all of this. But I also knew about his Judaism — surely the least scintillating part of Ratner’s persona but perhaps the most accessible. Understanding Ratner as a yeshiva-educated, high-school-in-Israel alum, who is also the youngest member of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Board of Trustees, led me to believe there might be more to Brett Ratner than could fit his narrow Hollywood image. Could he be a playboy party animal who secretly craves monogamy? Does he enjoy making blockbusters — or does he dream of directing the next “Schindler’s List”? Is he a self-important megalomaniac or a hard-working artist who is living his childhood dream?

More importantly, does Ratner himself know?

“I always knew I was gonna be making films because it was the only thing I was thinking about 24 hours a day,” he says. “My dream was not to be in Hollywood. My dream was to make movies.”