By Susan LaTempa
Earlier this year, at the White House, Rabbi Barbara Zacky—a Liberty Hill supporter, volunteer, OUT Fund Giving Circle member and Donor Advised account holder—was waiting with a delegation of lesbian leaders for an informal session with First Lady Michelle Obama. Rabbi Zacky felt she needed a bit of protocol guidance.
“I asked a White House staffer how the First Lady should be greeted,” remembers Barbara, “and the staffer said, ‘Well, she likes hugs,’ and I thought, ‘I like hugs!’” And so she greeted Mrs. Obama with a hug.
Those of us who’ve met Barbara at a Liberty Hill event aren’t surprised to learn that she met the famously warm Michelle Obama with openness. And equally characteristic was the point that the rabbi chose to make during their discussion, which was for the most part focused on specifically lesbian issues. Rabbi Zacky reminded the group that economic justice is a lesbian issue, because “Without economic security, we can’t be our authentic selves.”
“Clearly I was there as a lesbian rabbi,” she says, “It’s really important for me to show there’s an ethical/spiritual component to my being. I told the group that to me, economic security is the most important.
“My dad, as a business owner, would come home from work and say how grateful he was to be able to provide for his employees, so they could be able to take care of their families, have a roof over their heads, food on their tables and have medical coverage. I took from that if a person doesn’t have economic security you can’t be your own self. You can’t speak the truth.
“How can people have a voice where they might not have food on their table? Some people might choose to speak out— you think about the people in the fast food industry today, they might get fired. They’re taking those risks!”
Barbara’s authority and confidence as a speaker at a White House roundtable didn’t come to her early in life. In fact, she was ordained as a rabbi just five years ago, in 2009, by the Academy for Jewish Religion/California. In high school in the 60s, she remembers, “I had learning challenges so I didn’t have the confidence intellectually to speak out.”
Rabbinical school was not her first foray into post-graduate studies. After earning her BA in Physical Education and Health she began working in management at a racketball manufacturing firm at which time she continued her education and earned her MBA in 1980 from National University in San Diego. She had the opportunity to continue working in management at other manufacturing firms in northern California for many years.
As a rabbi, Barbara says her main focus is pastoral care, “working with people and their families and their loved ones when someone is going through challenges. It may be physical challenges, it may be end of life, it may be spiritual challenges.” And, as she mentioned at the White House gathering, she recently “had the honor” of officiating at her first same-sex wedding.
Her involvement with Liberty Hill dates to her time in rabbinical school.
“I have to say that Darrell Tucci was so influential in helping me find my voice and connecting me to events and organizations to give to. [Darrell is Liberty Hill’s former Director of Development, now Chief Development Officer at Desert Aids Project in Palm Springs.] I have always been philanthropic, predominately with LGBT organizations. But he helped me narrow it down so I would make more of an impact.”
As a donor-inspired organization, Liberty Hill frequently engages its supporters as thought partners, and Barbara has been a participant at a number of forums. “I went to the retreat in Santa Barbara,” she says, in reference to a 2012 retreat where speakers included Deepak Bhargava and Dr. Frank Gilliam. “It was awesome.” She has also attended Advisory Council briefings and house parties.
“I love hearing people speak. I was at an event at [Liberty Hill Board member] Wendy Chang’s house where people who were with organizations getting gifts from Liberty Hill talked about the difference it makes. A young man was talking about the changes made in the law about truancy tickets. I was so blown away to hear about that specific change.”
As a volunteer, Barbara has worked on the review committee evaluating the Bertha Wolf Rosenthal Foundation Fund for Community Service Stipend applications. The experience is rewarding and thought provoking, she says. And she has been a member of the OUT Fund Giving Circle, a giving circle whose members focus on LGBT organizations, for two years. Through the giving circle process, which invites members to participate in reviewing applicants and circulates updates from recipients of grants, she has learned about grantmaking firsthand.
“The bottom line about Liberty Hill for me is that it makes me think about my values. I look at my values, some of my priorities. I think out of the box and I want to make a difference and I’m introduced to opportunities to do that outside my own sphere. Everything that Liberty Hill touches is so profound globally. My involvement has just opened my consciousness greater that I could ever imagine and my confidence has grown because I’m learning so much, through others and through my own experience.”
Barbara has recently become a member of the Founders Council of the Williams Institute, the UCLA Law think tank that researches sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy,
“Coming out of rabbinical school and learning though Liberty Hill means I can now present the maturity of that thought to the Williams Institute. I’ve been supporting them for years, but now I’m actually stepping in to having a voice.
“That’s where I’m going with my philanthropy. It’s not just monetary. The monetary work is critical. But I’ve discovered my voice is critical too.
“My pastoral work and my social justice work are connected in that myself as a human being really cares to hear other people’s stories. Pastoral work is about hearing the stories and not having an agenda. It’s important to hear what people need. And we do that Liberty Hill: We listen to what the communities need. And it’s teamwork. I grew up playing sports and began competing in various sports while in college. You have to work together and have a strategy and I think that it’s all the same. It’s about seeing the individual and working together.”
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