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The artistry, ancestry, and activism of Danielle Yablonka

Danielle Yablonka stands at the Auschwitz-Birken concentration camp in Poland wearing a shirt she spraypainted with a yellow star and says “pride”. | Photo Courtesy of Danielle Yablonka
Danielle Yablonka stands at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland wearing a shirt she spray-painted with a yellow star which reads “pride”. | Photo Courtesy of Danielle Yablonka

It’s a muggy Monday morning in Miami when Danielle Yablonka greets me with equal parts enthusiasm and calm, a tone that underscores the multitudes roaring within the activist-model-artist-of-all-trades I would soon seek to unveil. What I quickly discovered was the open-book enigma, the reflective-yet-powerfully-present ponderer, the pain that informs the paintings, and the all-at-once breathtakingly motivated serenity that powers her every move.

“I’m the most confident I’ve ever been in my Jewish identity, my Israeli pride, my Zionism,” she reveals to me, a moving statement that certainly supports the unabashed “Model, Artist, Activist, Zionist” moniker proudly on her social media bio.

Danielle is radically herself, boasting an aura that both inspires and frightens. She is raw to her very core, composed and unafraid. Was I, the interviewer, poised for a moment of self-exploration and discovery guided by Danielle, the interviewee?

“My Jewish star feels like my shield,” she explains as we discuss her travels around the world and the exciting experiences modeling and being an emerging Jewish leader has afforded her.

Danielle Yablonka stands at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland during the March of the Living on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). | Photo Courtesy of Danielle Yablonka

From a sponsorship her senior year in high school to visit AIPAC to her work with Maccabee Task Force, StandWithUs, and volunteering at Hillel events on campus, the 22-year-old granddaughter of Holocaust survivors is brimming with motivation and reverence for her ancestors: “I fully believe that it is my duty, my responsibility, and it’s my mission to carry on the testimonies, carry on my family history—and not just my family, but all the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust and experienced antisemitism throughout history, and even today.”

Then, once more, the powerfully-passionate activist roars with uniform confidence and eloquence, pausing every few words as she reveals the pain, pride, power, and philosophy deep within her, the spirit of her ancestors reaching through her and grabbing my undivided attention.

“If someone dared to come up to me and tried to tell me that being a Jew is not okay,” she pauses once more, preparing the next half of her statement as her ancestors’ palpable spirit booms from within her, “something I dreamed of doing in self-empowerment is to wear my star in a place that my grandparents could never wear it in Europe, and when I went to Poland on the March of the Living in 2019, I did just that.” 

A moment of silence washes over us both as we reflect on the soul-stirring sentiment.

Her views are informed, in part, by her worldliness; experiences where the star around her neck might as well have been a Scarlet Letter amid environments where misplaced and uneducated activism run rampant. She boasts remarkable (though unsurprising) success as a senior at Florida Atlantic University, where she is majoring in Communication with a minor in Jewish Studies. 

“To learn about all the times the Jews were exiled throughout history, it’s really different when I read it and study it and write papers on it,” she explains, “and I feel that it is my duty as a modern-day jew and human being in a world that’s so full of hate and antisemitism, and celebrities speaking out in the nastiest [way] in such darkness, it is my mission to be the light and be a voice for my ancestors.  

Photo of painting by Danielle Yablonka. | Photo via Danielle Yablonka website

“I will never, ever be ashamed of who I am and I will never, ever forget my past and where I come from. I will never forget the hard path that my ancestors had to fight to stay alive and keep their Judaism. It’s a vow I made to myself and to my family, and I will carry their testimonies on like books on my head.”

Like books on my head repeats in my mind, thrusting me back to the remarkable, devastatingly painful, though brilliantly resilient paintings she is so adept at making. The phrase, of course, inspired one of her most poignant works, a solemn self-portrait with books stacked upon her head, reaching upwards into an infinite sky like the countless stories of her ancestors.

We turn our attention toward her school experiences. In high school, she started a Jewish Student Union and on multicultural day, a group of boys asked if they could help as she drew the flag of Israel. Their intentions initially concealed, she discovered that they drew a swastika over the flag. At the time, she admits, she didn’t know how to speak up for herself. 

Danielle Yablonka speaks at a meeting in Boca Raton, FL., where she met with more than 50 Holocaust survivors, promising that she will never forget. | Photo Courtesy of Danielle Yablonka

Another pivotal moment at the intersection of her activism and education experiences occurred during a Jewish summer program, when she befriended a student from Slovakia who revealed the mockery and hatred she received at home, where, for safety reasons, “she couldn’t openly be Jewish.” After hearing stories of her new friend’s experiences, Danielle cried, angry at the blatant antisemitism that exists to this day. “This girl is my age, sitting in the room next to me, she fought so hard to be here, and it’s not like she could go home and share her experiences with all her friends. She has to hide her identity. I think about it every single day.”

A far cry, to be sure, from her current experience at FAU, where she is free to be her most authentic self and participate in activities and be around people from all backgrounds that resonate with her: “I feel so safe and loved in this space. I feel so supported and loved as a Jew on my campus. Seems like an anomaly these days.”

The academic success she now enjoys, and the self-love and pride that flows through her and leaps out at you after every word, weren’t always as effortless as her humble calm implies.

“I never thought I would be on the dean’s list, a straight-A student. I have dyslexia, I have severe ADHD, and I never thought that I would get to be in the same room that a politician is standing in,” she says as she confides that the emotion of these memories comes rushing back. “I proved myself wrong in a sense; I didn’t believe in myself academically, I never thought I would be good enough to go to a university and get straight-As. I’m applying for my master’s program. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t do something, because I freaking did it; I’m doing it.”

Danielle Yablonka speaks about her Jewish pride collection at Miami Fashion Week 2019, where her senior high school fashion show showcase took place. | Photo Courtesy of Danielle Yablonka

As a successful model and influencer, she was shamed by another influencer whose misogyny belied his intent to help her grow her platform. Upon further reflection and guidance from those with healthier intentions, she realized that she can post artistically revealing photos from a photoshoot and be a leading voice among Jewish activists who commands respect.

With an ethos that “education is the road to peace”—a phrase she repeated multiple times during our conversation—the emotions once more rushed in as she reflected on the advice she would give to her younger self.

“I went through a really hard time growing up, I was always so mad, ‘why can’t I be as smart as everyone else,’ and ‘why do I always fail,’ and ‘why do I have to take medication; what’s wrong with me that I can’t be normal and be happy?’”

Pause. One more brief moment of silence before the composure and resilience pours out like a can of paint in one of her sketchbooks filled with flowers and self-affirming notes.

“I would tell myself, ‘it’s going to be OK.’” She recalls going through one of her old sketchbooks recently where she found a page from three years ago to the day, when she was at a low point, but she wrote, “God’s got me,” under a sketch of flowers, “…and even though I feel really lost right now, everything is going to be ok.” Then, a reclamation of past pains as she triumphantly looks to the future: “For all those times I was so low, I doubted myself, or I felt lost and alone… I’m going to take those challenges and turn them into my greatest successes.”

To learn more about Danielle Yablonka, visit danielleyablonka.com. To contact Jamie Evan Bichelman, you can do so here.

About the Author
Jamie Bichelman has experience as an Applied Behavior Analyst with a straight-A graduate education at Harvard's Extension School and currently in New York University's graduate mental health counseling program. Jamie is a proud Jewish man and vegan and has been a lifelong disability rights advocate.
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