Jewish American Heritage Month Local Hero Virginia Gordon is a Lifelong Activist
Jewish American Heritage Month 2015 Honoree
Throughout her life, Virginia Gordon’s passion for activism has been front and center. She remembers how her grandmother Sadye was deeply involved in Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and served as an organizer for Youth Aliya, an organization that was founded during World War II to bring Jewish children out of Germany and relocate them to England and Palestine.
“I probably was meant to be an activist,” says the Boston native, who today is an Affiliated Scholar at the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition at University of California, San Diego. “My grandparents were deeply committed to Israel, and my grandmother was very proud of her organizing background. She would often discuss it over holiday meals. My parents weren’t activists but they’re socially conscious and they have good values. They were also very organized, and I think a lot of my community organizing talents stem from my family’s ability to organize.”
Today, this 2015 Jewish American Heritage Month Local Hero is being honored for her lifelong activism and for her recent work with J Street, a pro-Israel organization which has a goal of promoting peace in the Middle East. Gordon says growing up in the '60s also shaped her progressive stance and activism.
“In the early '60s, when there was extensive media coverage on poverty in Appalachia, I remember seeing these photographs of Appalachian families,” she says. “President Lyndon B. Johnson had declared war on poverty and I remember having this feeling, at 12 years old, of wanting to deal with issues like this and address social justice.”
By the time Gordon was in high school, attending Boston’s private Winsor School for girls, the Vietnam anti-war movement was in full swing.
“My parents were centrists and there would be screaming arguments at the dinner table,” she remembers. “Usually, I was the one doing the screaming. I started to get involved in anti-war activity. The day after the Kent State University shootings, in 1970, my school held a Moratorium in protest of the war. A bunch of us got together to plan the speakers for the day. I ended up calling John Kerry at midnight to ask him to come out and speak at the school. He hadn’t yet started his career in politics and was working for an organization called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He spoke that day, and little did we know who he’d become.”
Gordon attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she studied Public Health. As part of her education, she did a study abroad program in Mexico.
“I wanted to learn Spanish so I could work in Latino communities,” she says. “Right after college, I received a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) internship and got involved in community organizing, working in a Puerto Rican neighborhood.”
Gordon has only been to Israel once, but remembers the visit well.
“My parents took us to Israel in 1967, right after the Six Day War,” she recalls. “So I have that memory of being there right after the war. My mom and dad picked up a shell from the desert and I still have it. Because of my ongoing concern for bringing peace and justice and democracy to the world, the shell serves as a reminder of the ongoing conflict.”
Her interest in the Middle East didn’t really take hold, though, until 1982.
“At the time, many Jews did not want to get involved in Middle East issues, especially the Israeli-Palestinian matter,” Gordon says. “It was considered a danger zone, and people who did get involved were often attacked from the right or left, from the Jewish establishment. I felt a lot of friction in the community and in my family. So I thought, this is really difficult to do this work. I can’t do it as an individual. I really need to be part of the organization. There were a number of organizations that were forming then, but none of them felt right to me. I didn’t really feel like I fit into any of them. I sort of abandoned my work until three years ago, when one of the people I worked with in the 1980s, Martin Bunzl, moved to San Diego and suggested we create a chapter of J Street.”
In 2011, she and Bunzl became co-founders of the San Diego chapter of J Street. Today the group has 1,500 members and as the outreach coordinator, Gordon recognizes there’s still much work she needs to do.
“We don’t all have to agree,” she admits. “But we have to be able to talk. We have to be able to have a discussion. I will be doing this as long as it takes, because there’s a large number of people we still need to reach.”
While some might find the goal of peace in the Middle East to be daunting, Gordon remains steadfast in its pursuit.
“People ask me, ‘Why do I do organizing work around the Middle East, when it’s just a hopeless situation?’" Gordon says. "But, I’m an optimist. I really believe if you talk to people and you get them to be able to understand all the issues and deal with their feelings on it, as well as learn about the issues, we’re going to get to a better place.”