Meet Liz, Jewish Advocate of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / July 19, 2023

Meet Liz! After a stint on the West Coast, Liz returned to her hometown DC in 2020, where she works as an antiracist and antibias educator, public speaker, author, and Instagram powerhouse, all while simultaneously teaching 6th grade! We had the chance to chat in late June about returning home, creating inclusive and welcoming communities by “lengthening the table,” her upcoming series of children’s books, and a whole lot more!

Liz sits in a yellow gown.

Samuel: Hi, Liz! Thanks so much for hopping on Zoom with me this afternoon. You grew up in the DMV, but you also spent time in St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Oakland. What brought you back?

Liz: I was born in Korea and adopted to DC when I was six months old. Even though I was in California for a decade, I always had one foot in California and one foot in DC. I always looked forward to coming home, and DC has always felt like home. To be totally honest, I had a total meltdown in 2020 – and I think a lot of other people did, too – around where I was living, what I was doing, and changes I wanted to make. 

I came back at the heights of the Black Lives Matter protests and was just like: I can’t go back to California. I want to be here. So when I went back to LA, I told my landlord I was leaving, packed up all my stuff, and drove a minivan across the country with my two best friends. 

Samuel: What was it like to return and recreate a home here?

Liz in a suit and tie next to the river at sunset. Liz: It’s been a journey, but it’s been really great since I’ve been back. There are a lot of other people in the same position that I was in; a lot of folks were trying to make new connections or reforge old connections, so I was certainly not alone. Because I spent my formative early adult years in California, the majority of my community has been out there, too. My whole queer community was very much California-based. 

Coming back to DC, I have a handful of friends from growing up, but I’ve had to completely rediscover and reforge my Jewish community, Asian-American community, queer community. My family, being Jewish and involved in our congregation, made certain things easier but…I love my parents, I just don’t want to only hang out with them and their friends in their 60s and 70s. Getting in contact with organizations like GatherDC have definitely helped me feel like I have my own independent life here, not just depending on who my family knows. 

Samuel: Can you speak to the intersectionality of being Jewish and queer and Asian-American in DC?

Liz: A lot of people have heard the term intersectionality, but a lot of people’s understanding is just that people are multifaceted and hold a lot of different identities at the same time. That’s a part of [intersectionality], but we have to also be really aware of how identities intersect, and how they influence the way we experience power and privilege in our communities and society. A big challenge for me – being Asian, being Jewish, being queer – is feeling like I had to compartmentalize myself. I’m at a place in my life where I don’t have the patience or time. If you want me to talk about one of [those pieces of my identity], I’m going to be talking about all of them. I’m all of me, all at the same time. 

Working to push mainstream Jewish spaces to be more supportive of Jews of color, conversations can be really challenging for folks who haven’t been pushed to examine how they are or aren’t showing up for people with shared or different identity markers. Our communities are constantly evolving and shifting, and it’s only going to continue to become more diverse. I think people need to get on board. 

Liz is standing in the outdoor hallway of Gyeongbokgung Palace decorated with traditional minhwa paintings. She is wearing a blue, pink, and purple hanbok with her hair pulled to the side in a braid. Samuel: In your experience as an antibias and antiracist educator, what works to actually effect change now, rather than waiting for it to happen over time? 

Liz: Actually making face-to-face connections is really important. It seems kind of obvious, but hearing a story or connecting with someone in person is very different than how you might connect with a stranger on social media or through an organization where you don’t see the faces attached to it. I was thrilled to speak at Adas Israel to give a sermon in May for the intersection of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month. 

I got to share my story and talk about both my experience within the Jewish community in terms of racism and colorism, and also the challenges of being a visible person of color who is also Jewish, working in DEI and antiracism communities where there is, unfortunately, a lot of antisemitism.

I feel like there is this really challenging push and pull when you are a Jewish person of color and also queer, of wanting to support the communities you belong to internally, and wanting to educate people outside those communities as well. It’s exhausting.

Samuel: What was your relationship with Judaism growing up, and how has that changed over time?

Liz: It’s very different. I have always loved being Jewish, and it’s never a thing I disliked or wanted to change about myself. But, up until after I was bat mitzvahed, we belonged to a Reform congregation that was very white-presenting; I stuck out quite a lot. One of my first big challenges was, during my confirmation trip, being told that I wasn’t a “real Jew” by a rabbi. That really brought to a head all these feelings of being tired of proving to people that I belong here.

Going away to college, moving to California, being on my own so far away really helped because I had this space to cultivate my own relationship with Judaism that was separate from my family. Like, come High Holy Days, I’m not going to synagogue unless I want to go to synagogue; no one’s going to remind me. I had to figure it out on my own. 

I see more diversity in Jewish spaces in DC now but, for a while, it felt like the diversity of Jews in California had far surpassed what I’d grown up with. It was amazing to go to synagogue and see people who looked like me. I joined Jews of Color in Southern California, and doing Torah study with a group of Black and brown Jews was such a different experience than I ever had in Hebrew school growing up.

Liz atop a hill with the sun in the background.

Samuel: How has your Judaism informed the antiracist and antibias work you do? 

Liz: It’s funny, I think people assume Teach and Transform is an enormous organization but…it’s just me with a social media page and a website. Tikkun olam is a value that’s pushed me and stayed with me my entire life – I literally have it tattooed across the back of my neck. Tzedakah was something that my parents were really explicit and intentional about teaching and practicing at home. 

One of the most influential things that my family taught me, based on Jewish values, is the importance of good deeds done without wanting recognition or credit. Our behavior does often change when we know people are looking; I want to ensure the work I do wouldn’t change depending on who is or isn’t looking. If Instagram was shut down tomorrow, that wouldn’t change what I’m doing or who I’m doing it with. Nothing lasts forever. You have to dig deep roots and form connections and do work that is going to live beyond the current times we’re in.

Liz takes a selfie in a mirror. Samuel: In a recent Instagram post, you talked about “lengthening the table” instead of “scrambling for seats.” Specifically thinking about Jewish community, what does it look like to “lengthen the table?”

Liz: I worry about recreating the social hierarchies and structures that push certain communities to create our own spaces in the first place. Antisemitism, for example, pushed Jewish communities to form our own spaces and organizations. But then within those, we still become gatekeepers of wanting to keep certain people in and certain people out. Or, the same people are in the room, the same people are given the microphone time and time again. 

Instead of saying that we have a finite number of seats, why not build a longer table? Why not bring as many people along with us as possible? We need to recognize our awareness gaps. If you hold an enormous, fancy event in Manhattan, that [decision] prices a lot of people out, even if they really deserve to be there. 

So, how can we try to shift the nature of our events and be mindful of who we’re including? How can we make sure we’re getting new voices and faces, passing the mic instead of holding it only for ourselves?

Samuel: You’re releasing a series of children’s books. What has that process been like? 

Liz: The first one, Come and Join Us, comes out September 5th. The concept is that we’re dismantling the hierarchy of religious culture and tradition. What are holidays that happen all year long, for different people? 

I’m really happy – I have Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur in there, and even in retrospect I’m like: People know of those, why didn’t I write about Tu BiShvat? People love trees! There’s a native Hawaiian holiday, an indigenous holiday of the Lumbee Tribe…I really wanted to get at holidays that people don’t typically think about or include when we talk about celebrations. 

Liz in a white dress in front of a brick wall of murals.

Samuel: What are you feeling proud about right now? 

Liz: Honestly, I am really proud that this Pride month I didn’t attend a single parade or party. Often I feel there is external FOMO and pressure to go out and celebrate in a particular way, but I was very happy with sticking to what I wanted to do: connecting one-on-one with friends or celebrating in small groups. Just, I don’t know, relishing being alive in the body that I’m in. That, in and of itself, is an act of resistance and resilience. 

Samuel: What’s the greatest piece of art you’ve encountered recently? 

Liz: Yellowface by R.F. Kuang.

Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner. Who would they be?

Liz: Anthony Bourdain would be one. I hear about him a lot because my husband [Editor’s note: Liz and her husband bonded over shared volunteer work with World Central Kitchen and met for the first time over coffee at Kramer Books in DuPont Circle. “Purely professionally,” Liz says, “but when I moved back to DC we were just kind of inseparable, and now we’re married.”] talks about him a lot, and I think [Bourdain’s] is a voice that the hospitality industry really misses.

Then, Yuri Kochiyama, the activist, who did so much for Asian-Black solidarity. I would love to be able to learn from her. 

And it’s so cheesy, but…Michelle Obama. She’s amazing, and she seems like she has so many measured, brilliant perspectives and seems so fun at the same time.  

Samuel: Okay, last one. Finish the sentence for me. When Jews of the DMV gather…

Liz: Text me!

Liz holding a fish!

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