Familiar faces: A TBR Oral History with Julie Hoffman

Julie Hoffman is a longtime member of Beth Shalom Synagogue. Her parents, Paula and Harvey, were major leaders in the Baton Rouge community, and Julie has carried on in their footsteps. She’s served in various leadership roles at the synagogue over the years and, along with her husband, Ara Rubyan, has continued the annual Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival that her parents started in 2007. After beginning to attend Leader’s Luncheons in 2016, Julie felt immediately familiar with the TBR community and began working with Edgar Cage to bring her synagogue on as an institutional member. As a TBR leader, her organizing efforts have been focused primarily on the Criminal Justice Action Team. Looking back on the lives of grandparents who fled Europe during the Holocaust, Julie cares deeply about fighting prejudice and upholding the civil rights of persecuted groups.

                                                     Photo by Lily Brooks

My grandfather left Germany in 1933 because he was running away from home. My grandmother was just supposed to be on a summer trip, but at the end of the summer her parents said, "don't come back."

Almost all of my grandparents were immigrants who came to this country for a better life, and for freedom. Patriotism has taken on different meanings now, but for my grandparents, it was to get away from Cossacks and Nazis.

My mother's parents were more Americanized, because her father came here from Poland as a baby. And her mother was actually the one grandparent I had who was born in this country, though her parents were from the Romania/Bessarabia/Ukraine area. They settled in New Orleans, which is where my mother grew up.

My paternal grandfather was from Germany, and my paternal grandmother was from Lithuania. Both of them left their respective home countries before the Holocaust. My grandfather left Germany in 1933 because he was running away from home, my grandmother was just supposed to be on a summer trip, but at the end of the summer her parents said, don't come back. It was too dangerous. They ended up in Palestine at the same time, and that's where they met. Later, they came to this country via Cuba to Houston, and that's where they stayed.

 

My Lithuanian grandmother would get very upset talking about the past and about the Holocaust, because she lost so much of her family there. She was one of five siblings, she had one brother in this country, but all of the rest of her family died in the Holocaust. So, that has been a very important part of my background. I remember doing a family tree project in high school and getting a little emotional, because we don't have any family heirlooms and only limited genealogy information. That’s one reason I'm involved in Together Baton Rouge, and involved in justice things in general, especially when it comes to civil rights. Anti-Semitism has been around for so long, it's just like, Oh, that again!? *Laughs* It's just not a surprise, and especially with white supremacy being so enmeshed with certain religious and political perspectives.

Both my parents were big readers, big learners, and also very involved in the synagogue, extremely involved in the Jewish community here. They were real leaders, in the Jewish community. Me? Not so much. They were both involved with the Jewish Federation. It was a lot of fundraising, and both of my parents were heads of that. My father was the president of the synagogue, both parents were on the board, my mother was president of sisterhood at some point. I mean, as I'm saying this, I'm realizing I'm on the board now, I was president of sisterhood, I ran the religious school, I advised the youth group, so I guess I've done some stuff, too.

I was very involved in the Jewish community when I was a young person, my Jewish identity was very strong… our synagogue saw to it. I went to religious school, my father taught at religious school, I had a Bat Mitzvah, and that was important to me. That was a big deal, learning Hebrew, and learning my Torah portion. And my parents had a Seder every year to which they always invited a lot of people, for Passover. We celebrated all the holidays, and we had Shabbat dinners every Friday night, where the family would be together and play games. The big deal about our Shabbat dinners when I was growing up was No TV, couldn't watch TV on Friday nights. So I never saw Dallas

I also went to Jewish summer camp every summer, in Mississippi, there's a sleepaway camp near Jackson. And in high school I went on a six-week program in the summer, to Israel, with other youth-groupers. So, I got a very strong Jewish identity growing up in Baton Rouge.

I was born in Houston but moved to Baton Rouge when I was five. I was here from age five until the end of high school. I went to public elementary school here, semi-private junior high (that was a terrible two years), and then public high school. I feel like I hit the sweet spot *laughs* of the desegregation order, because my schools were desegregated. This was a little before white flight out of the public schools. Of course I'm coming from the white privilege perspective of everything was fine. But it was a public elementary school, there were black kids and white kids, and it was great. I mean this was 1970s; in '71 I was in first grade. When I met Pastor Wesley, I learned that his son, Lee Wesley Jr., was the same Lee Wesley Jr. from my first-grade class. Actually, Lee Wesley Jr.'s mother took me and Lee to McDonald's after school one day, so that was my first date *laughs* I moved away for college and beyond, and by the time I moved back to Baton Rouge, most of the public schools were black, and most of the private schools were white, and the new private schools that had come up were much more segregated. I walked to elementary school, and I was friends with kids in the neighborhood. Although, I will say, my neighborhood was white, and there was a black neighborhood that abutted my neighborhood, but it wasn't a mixed neighborhood, so- *sighs*

I've always been a very strong feminist. Starting from when I was a kid and memorized the record Free To Be You and Me, it was all about how boys and girls should be able to do the same things, we're all the same and no one's any different. I was the student body president in 6th grade, and we had something called patrol boys, who wore little orange belts and would help the crossing guard at school and who also wandered around at recess to make sure no one was misbehaving. But there were no patrol girls, which I felt was unfair, so I got that rule changed so that we could have patrol girls. I don't know that any of the girls wanted to do it, but I did *Laughs* —until I did it, and it was really boring, but still, that's not the point! It’s the principle of the thing. But I've always been aware... my grandfather from Germany was very boy-focused, and more interested in my brother and my male cousin and just didn't think much of girls, which I think annoyed me. So maybe that’s where it comes from. I'm not sure. 

Growing up I was really interested in books and reading. I was always a big reader, and I loved music. I played piano and guitar. And then I got into drama when I was in high school—I went to Baton Rouge High—and I loved plays and theater (shout out to drama teacher and TBR member Sylvia Martinez!), so anything in the arts is something I was always interested in as a spectator or participant. I did some community theater later on as well. I wouldn’t mind getting back to that. It’s also influenced some of my current voiceover work, which I really enjoy.

The professor, William Chafe, wrote a book called Civilities and Civil Rights. I still have it somewhere. It was about how people in the South get very uptight when you're rude, and that manners are more important than rights in many ways.

After high school, I went to Duke University, where I majored in English and Russian. I had two really great classes at Duke that were a big part of my political awakening. One was a history class with Professor Larry Goodwin. It was called The Insurgent South, and it was all about the various social justice movements from the South. The whole class was interesting, and we ended up taking over the class at the end, we sort of rose up and took over. I wrote a really good paper for him. Just about my own liberation from my need for perfectionism in my studies. It was like I wrote myself into a paper, which I never would have done as an English major, and it's all because I'm liberated—I don't know, I was young *laughs*

The other class was about civil rights and the professor, William Chafe, wrote a book called Civilities and Civil Rights. I still have it somewhere. It was about how people in the South get very uptight when you're rude, and that manners are more important than rights in many ways. How you do things is more important than what you do, and that is what made it so difficult—and makes it so difficult—to overcome injustice. It's the “Karen” thing, or the white privilege thing, where it's like, you're making me upset, don't make someone upset. Everything has to be done a certain way and to go out of that norm is to be disrespectful to tradition, so it becomes a matter of respect versus rights, and the white people considered the respect to be more important than the rights. It was an interesting class.

Through my Russian major, I ended up on a six-week trip to the Soviet Union, which is probably one of the best trips I've ever taken. In 1985, that was during the Gorbachev period. It was just a great trip. We were four weeks in what was then Leningrad, and we were supposed to stay with our group all the time, and our hotel was sort of outside the city. They had these bridges, and at some point the bridges went up and you had to be back in your hotel. But we snuck out all the time and met all these Russian people. Russian people could tell immediately that we were American—our shoes, our clothes, people would come up to you. Some people we're trying to sell us stuff off the black market, because everything was black market there, but a lot of people were just friendly. We met some lovely Jewish people who invited us to their house for a Shabbat dinner, and we felt terrible because they brought out all this food and we knew they didn't have any money. We met these musicians from a rock band, and I started dating the drummer, so I would sneak out and then not come back to the hotel before the bridges went up. It was just one of those crazy times where we were young, and stupid, and rule-breaking. I mean, the Leningrad part was the best part, we also spent a week in Moscow, we spent a day in Yalta and Kiev, and one day in Yerevan, Armenia. The only reason that's even interesting is that my husband now, Ara, is of Armenian descent and he's like, you've been to Armenia!? I've never been to Armenia!"

After college, I moved to New York for a few years, and I never joined a synagogue there, but then I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and I was involved in the Jewish Community Center there, which was basically like the Y in some ways, but they also had programs and theater. I also started taking a class with a rabbi in town on Talmud, on interpretations of Jewish law, that I loved. Religion takes different shapes as you go through life. Now, Ara and I run a Jewish film festival every year, down at the Manship Theater (except this year it was virtual and online). My parents started that, as well. We show four films at the Manship Theater. We also show a Holocaust-related film for students all over East Baton Rouge Parish. We have a speaker who's a Holocaust survivor. The last few years it's been online, and this year because of Covid it was on Zoom. But it’s just to give kids these days a taste of Holocaust education and a connection with the past so that they learn the importance of treating everyone as a human being and not being hateful. 

I had some aptitude testing as a youngster and was told to be careful not to become a “jack of all trades, master of none,” which is exactly what I’ve done. I’ve worked in publishing, non-profit organizations and, most recently, in radio… I guess I bore easily. 

After leaving Baton Rouge to go to college I did not come back until I was newly married. So, a lot of my adult life was spent outside of Baton Rouge and I wasn't really intending to come back, but my first husband got a job here (actually working with my father). So, we came back here as newlyweds, had two wonderful sons, and got divorced when the boys were about four and two.

Growing up here and then having kids and raising them here was interesting because I thought it would be pretty much the same as growing up here, and I think I tried to repeat that in certain ways, have my kids have the same kind of upbringing that I had. But since I got divorced, that made it very different. They, too, were really involved in the synagogue: both had bar mitzvahs, went to camp and Israel, one was in youth group. But they didn't go to neighborhood schools, so there was a carpool element, which was a pain. 

Right around the time my husband and I got divorced was when my older son, Jonah, was ready to start school. They were at the Rayner Center for pre-school. I applied to a magnet school and Runnels, which was a non-religious private school, because we had friends at the synagogue who were there. I went to visit the school, and it was small and sweet, and I was a wreck because I was a single mom at the timeso I chose Runnels. I look back on that now—because I'm a public school type person—and I sometimes wish my kids had gone to public school. But Jonah, as it turned out, was dyslexic, and I think that going to this small school meant that he got diagnosed earlier than he would've in public school with larger classes. I did a lot of remediation with him and he's good now, he really is. He's pursuing a PhD in physics at Washington University in St. Louis, so it all worked out. My other son is also in graduate school at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He got the social action gene and may end up doing some type of non-profit work!

My kids did go to public high school—they switched to Baton Rouge High in high school, which was good… and hard. When I was at Baton Rouge High, it was fun, I don't remember doing any homework, I just remember being in plays, and (whispers) drinking beer. Then my kids went and studied all the time; it was a lot harder.

My career path has been fairly circuitous. I had some aptitude testing as a youngster and was told to be careful not to become a “jack of all trades, master of none,” which is exactly what I’ve done. I’ve worked in publishing, non-profit organizations and, most recently, in radio. I’ve been lucky to be able to work part-time and flexibly so that I could spend more time with my kids and can do the other stuff that’s important to me. I guess I bore easily. 

When I think about my synagogue, I think about how much time is spent in the social hall putting out chairs and picking up chairs. It's like one small thing, but when I got to Together Baton Rouge meetings, we were doing the same thing. It was like, Oh, this is familiar…you're making a space for people to come together, and sit down together, and talk about things that are important. And it felt very familiar, very safe, very comfortable.

I was always politically aware, but not locally politically aware. I was never interested in or involved in local politics until Together Baton Rouge. All around the same time, after my kids were out of the house, I got involved in clinic escorting for the abortion clinic in town, I got involved in Together Baton Rouge, and I got involved in Progressive Social Network. Those were all ways to be involved in social action. I had done clinic escorting before, in Louisville. I was a member of the National Organization for Women when I was there. 

I can't remember exactly how I found out about Together Baton Rouge, but I know I went to a couple of the lunch meetings and really enjoyed them. And then I met Edgar Cage. I feel like I took to Edgar right away. But I would also say I took to almost everyone in Together Baton Rouge right away. There is something about the people. I felt right away, from going to the lunch meetings, that these were my kind of people: people who care about the community, who're doers. It's being a part of something that's appealing to me. It's appealing to Jews, certainly, because community is everything, you can't even pray by yourself, you have to have ten people to say prayers. So, I think the people there just felt familiar. I don't know, part of that probably is church people. You would go to the other congregations and they would all have the classrooms with the little bulletin boards with bible stories, and the stacks of chairs that have to be put down, and taken back up, and put back down, and taken back up. When I think about my synagogue, I think about how much time is spent in the social hall putting out chairs and picking up chairs. It's one small thing, but when I go to Together Baton Rouge meetings, we were doing the same thing. It was like, Oh, this is familiar. You’re making a space for people to come together, and sit down together, and talk about things that are important. And that's where it felt very familiar, very safe, very comfortable. It's not one of those things where something is assigned, or this is the person in charge. Everybody just pitches in.

Edgar is the one who helped me bring the synagogue into Together Baton Rouge. I think I was ripe for the picking *Laughs* I was definitely interested. So, we met, and then we went to the board at our synagogue and made some kind of presentation.

Together Baton Rouge creates power by bringing people together. Because you can do some things as an individual, you can do some charitable things, give sandwiches to the homeless, or whatever, but you cannot make real, meaningful change without confronting the people in power, and the only way to confront the people in power is to organize a group of people. Either that or have a whole lot of money. And people power is better, because then you're doing for everybody, and you're all coming together to do it.

Being a part of Together Baton Rouge has made my life richer. The more people you have in your life, the richer your life is. And this past year could have been really, really lonely without these Together Baton Rouge meetings. I'm always fired up after meetings—I'm always exhausted, too. It's like the pre-meeting, the meeting, the post-meeting. The meeting to talk about the meeting, the meeting to talk after the meeting and evaluate the meeting—but, they're also, for the most part, not boring meetings. It's not the kind of meeting where you sit there and go, Oh my god when is this gonna be over. It's participatory, and thoughtful, and I just enjoy it. So, what has Together Baton Rouge done for my life? It's added another dimension, a lot more connection.

I was always interested in the criminal justice stuff, right upfront, because it's a civil rights issue. Even though the others were all important issues, they felt less immediate, whereas criminal justice is right up my alley, because it has to do with civil rights and how people are treated, and with social justice or injustice, as the case may be. I don't have a personal story—a lot of people are connected because of personal stories—but I think that's the case with other members of our synagogue. I don't know that these issues are always going be personal as much as just what's right and wrong. What's ethical and what's moral, so.

At one point we hosted a presentation, and I thought that was pretty cool because we had a whole roomful of people from other churches come to our synagogue, and Edgar and Helen Frink (who did the video Why Louisiana Stays Poor) gave the presentation, and people asked all kinds of questions and had interesting discussions and got to know each other. 

 After the shooting in Pittsburgh a couple of years ago, Broderick Bagert, who was the lead organizer at the time, called and asked, what can we do as Together Baton Rouge? They ended up helping us with the turnout for a service in honor of the victims. There were close to six hundred people at our synagogue a few days after that shooting, for a service talking about how horrible that was. Pastor Smith from Shiloh Baptist Church spoke, and the mayor spoke, and the police chief spoke. It was just a beautiful thing to see all of these people from Together Baton Rouge coming in to show their support. There were not enough seats. People were standing up along the walls, in the doorway, it was really something. It was special. 

I've learned so much more about Baton Rouge, about this community—the whole community, not just my little section of it, which is tiny. It was much smaller when I had kids, and when I was a kid. And now, I'm an adult, and I see that things aren't always as they seem from your one little point of view.

One challenge of Together Baton Rouge is being open enough to include new people but at the same time making forward progress. It's hard when someone comes in and asks a question that's already been answered, or they don't know what has happened before. So, I do think there is some starting and stopping, or refiguring, instead of just chugging along. A little bit more continuity would be good. But isn't that the case though, where everybody’s outraged over something, and then:

We must do something about this! 

And someone says, we already did something about this!

Well, we forgot, and so we're gonna start all over.

Well, you don't know what we already did.

It’s always going to be like that, and we have to be open to making those adjustments.

I've learned an enormous amount about criminal justice through Together Baton Rouge, but also just about local government. I had never been to a Metro Council Meeting before Together Baton Rouge, and didn't really care, y'know? But now I see how important it is. How it's the stuff at the local level that, if you don't pay attention, you're in for a world of hurt later on. And so many people start in local politics then work their way up. The few times I went to the Metro Council, it was because they called people to show up at those meetings. And boy did that make a difference. Having a room full of citizens who would get up and speak was a huge eye-opener, because it was just regular people.

So, I would say that I’ve learned a lot about local politics and local issues. I've learned so much more about Baton Rouge, about this community—the whole community, not just my little section of it, which is very tiny. It was much smaller when I had kids, and when I was a kid. And now, I'm an adult and I see that things aren't always as they seem from your one little point of view. Before TBR, I'd really never spent any time in North Baton Rouge, except maybe going to the Zoo, or the airport. And just going to churches in North Baton Rouge, driving around neighborhoods I've never seen, didn't know anything about, and seeing how segregated it is. I knew it, but I hadn't seen it the same way.

There's always going to be a little bit of tension between what we can get accomplished and what we should work on anyway because it's the right thing to do. And we might not win, but we can't just ignore it because we wouldn't win. So that's tough, too. I mean, you don't want to lose all the time, because people don't want to feel like losers just hitting their heads against the wall. But I think that with the kind of stuff that we do, there are going to be losses. But, it's important to say where you stand, to make a statement, even if you know you're going to lose. It’s equally important to celebrate the wins!

I’ve met a lot of people through my work with Together Baton Rouge. I’ve become friends with Betsy and Jennifer, and I’ve gotten to know and work with many others—Edgar, Khalid, Abel, Janet, Press, Rose—I can’t think of them all! And really—I know it's on Zoom right now, and it's like a big Brady Bunch—but every time I see all those faces from the criminal justice team it's like, Hey! How ya doin! It's so good to see these familiar faces. So, I don't know if it’s always about one-on-one relationships, it's more just like everybody altogether.

Showing 2 reactions

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  • Rick Moreland
    commented 2021-09-12 15:01:27 -0500
    I love these TBR oral histories!
  • Phillip Norman
    published this page in News 2021-09-10 17:12:48 -0500

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