Debby Mazon
Chair, American Affairs Advocacy, Hadassah

My Jewish Identity and How I Found ‘Me’

Image courtesy of Hadassah.
Image courtesy of Hadassah.
(Pictured:) The author (center) with fellow Hadassah Northern New Jersey members Leslie Felner (left) and Geri Lipschitz (right at Hadassah Day on The Hill 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of the author.
The author’s photo on the occasion of being named President, B’nai B’rith Girls (BBG). Photo courtesy of the author.

Jewish Identity. It’s personal, prideful, celebratory and challenging. Jews are such a diverse people. Yet there are bonds that tie us all together–our history, common experiences, sense of family. From my earliest memories of family sitting around the Shabbat table, blessing the challah or looking for the afikomen during the Passover seder, being Jewish has been central to my developing identity.

As a girl, I went to Sunday school, but I never had the full Hebrew school experience, with classes two afternoons a week in addition to Sunday school. It seemed to me that only boys did that. Still, when my older brother, Ken, went to Hebrew School three days a week but I did not, I found myself wondering, “Why not me?” Yet I never said anything to my parents.

As a young teen, with two of my closest friends I joined the Paramus-River Dell Chapter of B’nai B’rith Girls (BBG). At those meetings, I learned so much about Jewish history, what I had in common with other teens throughout the state and the miracle of Israel, the country that turned deserts into a land of milk and honey.

I became president of the Paramus-River Dell Chapter and later went on to be the program chair of BBG’s Garden State Region. I learned how to lead—to listen, mediate and set an example for others.

Every year, we would go to a region institute in the Catskills and stay in bungalows. We learned Hebrew and Israeli songs and dances, as well as sensitivity exercises to raise our awareness about the challenges faced by people of varied cultures and abilities. BBG gave me confidence and solidified my Jewish identity.

In high school, my sophomore English teacher, Mr. Boyce asked me to be editor in chief of the yearbook. I was incredulous he chose me over many other qualified students. When I asked why he chose me, he pointed out my leadership skills and dedication to whatever I put my mind to. Little did I realize those skills I was learning in BBG would open new opportunities for me.

Then I went on to Rutgers University’s Douglass College, where I encountered a few out of state students who told me they had never met a Jew. One day in the library, a girl asked me if I had long hair to cover my horns. At the time, I did not know what she was talking about. It might have been my first encounter with antisemitism.

After graduating college, I married my soulmate, Richie, and we moved to Hasbrouck Heights, NJ. I applied for a high school teaching job in a nearby town. I sailed through the interview with the principal and the head of the English department who warned me that my last my interview, with the superintendent, would be challenging because he conducted “unusual” interviews, and I should “try to stay calm.” If I could get past him, I would get the job.

Well, the interview certainly was unusual. The superintendent asked me provocative questions, such as, “What would you do if a student was physically inappropriate with you?” The last question he asked was about the gold chain that I had tucked inside my shirt. He wanted to know if the chain led to a religious medallion. He said he was interested in them. I respectfully answered that it should not be part of the interview. Guess who did not get that job? It was the last time I evaded a question about my Jewishness.

Later that year, my sister-in-law invited me to my first Hadassah meeting at her young women’s group, Bat Sheva of Hackensack. When I got there, I put down my coat and started to walk around the room reading all the information displayed on easels. I learned about the Hadassah Medical Organization and its two hospitals in Israel, Youth Aliyah, Young Judaea and Hadassah’s many educational projects. I was so impressed with how diverse Hadassah was!

Susan Finkle, then president of the Bat Sheva Chapter, came over, introduced herself and brought me to meet the membership chair, who wrote down my contact information and interests. Later, Susan reached out to me to be on her program committee. Programming was a job I loved doing in BBG. I happily said yes, and chapter one of my Hadassah involvement began.

As I attended more Hadassah meetings, I found the women to be smart, savvy and self-assured. I looked forward to study groups and other gatherings. The more I learned, the more I wanted to do. I never had a plan or concrete ambition to rise through the ranks of Hadassah leadership. I just accepted jobs as they were offered. The various positions I have held have put me in front of audiences as a speaker, panel moderator, leadership trainer and, eventually, president of the Northern NJ Region.

With each role, I developed more confidence, both personally and professionally. I realized that with the opportunity to be the face and voice of Hadassah, I had the power to influence people–to help them understand why Hadassah is unique and worthy of their time and effort.

I have been fortunate to have marvelous mentors, who helped me identify where I could be most impactful and who encouraged me to take on leadership roles that I never thought I could. That is how Hadassah empowers us. We get the chance to do things we don’t do in our professional lives and these lead to personal growth for many of us. I have also had the opportunity to mentor women in various stages of their Hadassah careers, to follow the model of mentorship I was shown, but with my own spin.

A wonderful bonus of my Hadassah life has been the lifelong friendships I’ve made along the way. To this day, Susan Finkle remains one of my closest friends and confidants.

Today, with many diverse portfolios in the rearview mirror, I work with Hadassah volunteers and staff to support Hadassah’s advocacy issues. We encourage women to stand up and speak out at the local, regional and national level in support of Hadassah issues that demand our attention. I am gratified to be in a position to help make our voices heard. Now, more than ever, these efforts are essential, and I feel great pride in how impactful Hadassah is in advocating for the health and well-being of women everywhere.

About the Author
Debra Mazon is Chair of American Affairs Advocacy for Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc. (HWZOA) and a member of the Hadassah Writers' Circle. Debra has been an active leader in Hadassah for many years holding varied positions including having been the Coordinator and Vice Coordinator of the Education and Advocacy Division. Her professional training was as a Speech/Drama/English teacher for which she was employed on the K-12 levels. Later in her teaching career, she received her Masters as a Media Specialist. Currently, Debra is the director of Human Resources for a medical sales company founded by her husband Richard. She and Richard have two grown sons who work in the company and four grandchildren, two boys and two girls. She is an exercise enthusiast and taught aerobic and step classes for many years and encourages others to work out for physical and mental health benefits. She lives in Emerson, NJ and is a past president of Hadassah Northern New Jersey Region.
Related Topics
Related Posts