Accomplished women talk activism, ‘Hamilton’ at gala

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Honorees at Jewish Women International’s Women to Watch gala are, from left, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, Dr. Jennifer Verbesey, Rachel Braun Scherl, Dana Marlowe, Laura Rebell Gross, Nicky Goren, Andrea Wolf, Catherine Zacks Gildenhorn, Erin Schrode and Dr. Leah Greenspan Hodor. Photo by Michael Kress
Honorees at Jewish Women International’s Women to Watch gala are, from left, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, Dr. Jennifer Verbesey, Rachel Braun Scherl, Dana Marlowe, Laura Rebell Gross, Nicky Goren, Andrea Wolf, Catherine Zacks Gildenhorn, Erin Schrode and Dr. Leah Greenspan Hodor.
Photo by Michael Kress

At 13, Erin Schrode decided to tackle the high rate of melanoma in Marin County, Calif., where she lived. In 2005, she read a study that linked the cancer to chemicals found in everyday cosmetic products.

“I thought I lived a green life,” she told a Washington audience at Jewish Women International’s Dec. 12 Women to Watch gala. “I ate organic food, I carpooled, I grew up in more or less a green bubble in Northern California. But I never stopped to think about my soap, my shampoo, my deodorant, my toothpaste. So that was a perfect moment for me as a young person.”


She founded Turning Green, which advocates for policy change and educates the public on how to live a healthier life. In 11 years, the organization expanded to 2,000 college campuses and 48 countries.

Schrode, now 25, was one of 10 accomplished Jewish women honored at the annual fundraiser at Jewish Women International’s annual Women to Watch event, held Dec. 12 in Washington.

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An entrepreneur and activist, Schrode has had an eventful year. She ran unsuccessfully for California’s District 2 congressional seat. And she went to North Dakota this month to protest against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, during which she was shot by police with a rubber bullet. Schrode was not injured in the incident, which was captured on video.

“The decisions being made today will disproportionately affect us, yet we have no place at that decision-making table,” she said in an interview. “There has never been a woman under 30 elected” (to Congress).


Schrode was the youngest honoree, but she was not the youngest person at event. During the Q-and-A  session with the honorees, a 13-year old girl stepped to the microphone and said that she aspired to be a doctor. Honoree Jennifer Verbesey, a professor of surgery and the director of living donor kidney transplantation at MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute, encouraged her to “be open, excited and enthusiastic about everything.”

The honorees discussed both the joys and obstacles they have faced in their careers. Andrea Wolf, CEO of the Brem Foundation to Defeat Breast Cancer in Washington, said she has found that in her work, which includes going to Capitol Hill to lobby for legislation, the best results have come from communicating with politicians she is not always in sync with.

“Every person is an opportunity to enhance your life,” she said. “I think it’s particularly important in a movement to talk to legislators that you don’t think are going to be your friend.”

With apparent reference to the presidential election, the honorees spoke of “bitterness” and “division” across the country, and said that solidarity among women is more important than ever.

“I think this is a time where we need to reach across the lines in Congress,” said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, an honoree. “This has been a very vitriolic time in our country and we’re at a time when we’re the most vulnerable.”

The honorees turned from today’s politicians to those of the 18th century, as they discussed the cultural impact of the musical “Hamilton.”

“When my own daughters picture Thomas Jefferson, they picture a black man,” said Laura Rebell Gross, of the Young Women’s Leadership Network, in New York. In “Hamilton,” Jefferson is played by Daveed Diggs, a black Jew. “I know it sounds funny but actually it has changed the discourse in an interesting way.”

Wolf also praised the hit musical, telling the audience she was initially worried about exposing her three young daughters to some of “Hamilton’s” strong language. But a question about the musical from Wolf’s 5-year-old eased her mind.

“She said to me, ‘Ima, what’s the difference between a revolution and a revelation?’ And I said, this is OK. We’re going to be OK with the expletives.”

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