Member Spotlight: Debbie and Zoe Mukamal
When asked about her favorite part of Beth Am, Zoe Mukamal stood up and declared in one breath, “ZIMRIYAH [the children’s choir led by Cantor Shpall], learning Hebrew and helping other people.” Then she had to take another breath, because her list was long. Zoe, an 8-year-old 3rd grader who attends Ohlone Elementary School, loves swimming, helping other people and just about everything she does at Beth Am, came to Beth Am with her mom, Debbie Mukamal, when she was four. They joined because they were looking for community after relocating from Brooklyn. Debbie recalls taking a parenting class with Rabbi Marder shortly after arriving. “It was a great on-ramp to meeting a smaller group of people in a synagogue with so many members,” Debbie said. Soon the family of two joined Connections, a family learning program.
Debbie grew up in Seal Beach, CA, active in the Conservative movement, and went to UC Berkeley for her undergraduate degree. Then she headed east, including a stint in Washington, D.C. working for Americans for Peace Now, and received her law degree from NYU. For fifteen years she was a proud Brooklynite, specializing professionally in policy research and development focused on building a fairer, smarter and more just criminal justice system. In Brooklyn, she started a chavurah and also became an active member of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan. She was also a dedicated triathlete, even braving the Hudson River once for a swim. Debbie and Zoe moved to the Bay Area when Debbie accepted a position as Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School in 2010.
The Mukamals’ participation in their Connections family learning group, aka “the Chaggers” (pronounced like “challah” or “Chanukah”), is their anchor at Beth Am. Chaggers has become their core friendship group, and they spend time with members outside of the program, going hiking and camping, and playing in a regular Mah Jongg game. The Chaggers learn, celebrate holidays and volunteer together. Debbie and Zoe also volunteer with Yad l’Yad, a Beth Am program in which volunteers regularly visit homebound members. The relationship they have developed with their Yad l’Yad partner has been meaningful for all of them. “She is nearly 100 years old. Her life stories teach us so much,” Debbie said.
Debbie has become a leader at Beth Am. With Rabbi Miriam Philips, she co-chairs the Family Learning Task Force. Beth Am's new family learning program, Shabbat Together, is the product of that work, and opens in the fall to kindergarten families. In December, Debbie co-led a “Beth Am Reads” program with Rabbi Jon Prosnit about the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. That program sparked a new project, a collaboration of the Library Committee and Beth Am teens under the leadership of Maddy Winard: “The Beth Am Books to Prisoners Pipeline.” The Pipeline donates unused books from Beth Am’s library to prison libraries throughout California.
In addition to Yad l’Yad, Debbie and Zoe regularly participate in many of Beth Am's volunteering opportunities. On Easter Sunday, they joined Beth Am members to serve breakfast to clients of LifeMoves, an organization that provides housing and services to homeless people. That was really fun, Zoe reported, even though they served cereal but couldn’t eat it because it was Passover. (Zoe made a matzah and tater tot sandwich. She impressed Rabbi Jon with her creativity, but she doesn’t recommend the sandwich.)
When asked about the most meaningful thing each does at Beth Am, Debbie and Zoe gave similar replies. Debbie said, "The intergenerational interactions," pointing to the volunteer activities she and Zoe have enjoyed, including Yad l'Yad and cooking for the ill and elderly with Chicken Soupers. When asked the same question, Zoe answered, “ZIMRIYAH , because I get to sing to other people who are older.” “Beth Am is our second home,” said Debbie. “No it isn’t,” corrected Zoe. “First we lived in Brooklyn, now we live in California and Beth Am is our third home.”