Vermont’s youngest state representative, Kesha Ram, who with a Jewish mother and Hindu father was brought up—and remains—both Jewish and Hindu, was the guest speaker at services this past Friday evening at Israel Congregation of Manchester.
Ms. Ram spoke about how “because of persecution” both sides of her family came to the United States —her mother’s family escaping anti-Semitism in Kiev, Ukraine and her father’s side “having to flee” when the area of India where they lived became Pakistan with Hindus not welcome.
“It was a very American story, their coming to this land of opportunity,” said Ms. Ram, 27, at the Vermont synagogue. “It also speaks to global conflicts.” And it informs, she said, “how I look at issues of war and justice.”
His parents gave her “a sense of what it is like to be both Jewish and Hindu.” Her Jewish education started early, at a Jewish pre-school program at the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles.
More recently, she went to Israel under the Birthright program and that was “incredibly life-changing,” she declared. Highlights were spending time in Safed and learning more “about Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism” at its source and visiting and observing the Knesset and seeing “environmental consciousness” there expressed through the art works of Marc Chagall “bringing nature” into the Knesset. The environment has been a major focus for Ms. Ram.
“I had been to India several times” but her 2011 Birthright trip to Israel was the first to the Jewish state and it enabled her to become “more immersed” in Jewish life. “There were all kinds of connections I didn’t make until then,” she said.
Ms. Ram was born in Los Angeles, went to Santa Monica High School and headed east to college—to the University of Vermont in Burlington. She immediately “fell in love” with the school and the city. At the university, she was elected president of the Student Government Association. She graduated magna cum laude with a double major in Natural Resource Planning and Political Science in 2008.
She first ran for a seat in the 150-member Vermont House of Representatives that year and—after knocking “on all of the doors in her district twice,” notes her website—became, at 22, the state’s youngest representative, which she remains.
In an interview before her presentation at Israel Congregation of Manchester, Ms. Ram spoke of the early impact that “a Jewish thinker,” Maurice Sendak, had on her. As a child, she read Sendak’s book Pierre about a little boy who emphatically insists he “doesn’t care” and is eaten by a “lion who says, ‘If you only care, you would be able to live.’ The end of the story is that he gets out of the lion’s stomach—and the moral is to really care.” Ms. Ram says she devotes her life to “caring.”
Indeed, in addition to being state lawmaker, she has been legal director for Women Helping Battered Women in Burlington and she now works for the city of Burlington as public engagement specialist helping people participate in city government. As a state representative, her website (http://www.kesharam.org/?page_id=2) says: “She is a passionate leader for green job creation, affordability of early childhood and higher education, reducing environmental toxins, tribal rights and recognition, accessible health care and affordable housing.”
As she matured, she was drawn to other Jewish thinkers and writers—particularly Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Likewise, she has been a student of the life of Mahatma Gandhi. “As Rabbi Heschel said, ‘No religion is an island. Prayer for each other helps,’” Ms. Ram commented. And she has studied the work of Dr. Martin Luther King.
She speaks of “the contributions of Jews and Hindus to my life.”
A major experience in high school, she related, was participation in a program run by the Anti-Defamation League on fighting prejudice. “It really helped me become a leader,” she recounted, and “helped guide my political career” in providing “a moral compass” for the way “all of God’s children should be treated.” Also, her parents taught her to “speak against injustices.” Her father is a restaurateur in California, her mother a development director at the UCLA School of Medicine.
The “moral imperative of tikkun olam” has been integral to her, she said.
While at the University of Vermont, she was involved with the Chabad House which actively serves Jewish students and faculty on the campus.
Israel Congregation of Manchester in providing its notice of Ms. Ram’s talk said: “Join us this Friday…During services, Kesha Ram, Vermont’s youngest state representative, will speak about her dual identities—she is both Jewish and Hindu.”
It was a very appropriate synagogue for Ms. Ram to make a presentation. Its spiritual leader is Rabbi David Novak. The temple’s website (http://www.israelcongregationvt.org/ourrabbi.html) notes: “His work as rabbi encompasses his belief that to serve God best one needs to serve humanity. Towards that end, Rabbi Novak welcomes being in a congregation that is known as ‘Just Jewish’ blending all the traditions of Jewish practice. Rabbi Novak is comfortable with multiple worship styles, as well as the diversity of our congregation’s backgrounds. His religious practice can be characterized as pluralistic, pulling from the best of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist practices.”
And at the synagogue Friday there was consideration of what Ms. Ram calls “the intersection between Jews and Hindus”—in her person.