Who The Folk?! Deb Moses

Everyone’s story is unique to them, and Deb Moses is no different. Deb grew up in the Twin Cities, but the journey of her parents helped shape her and the social justice life she lives. Learn about her journey – in and out of the Jewish community – in this week’s Who The Folk?!

Did you grow up in the Twin Cities?

I did. But what’s even stranger is that I’m a first-generation American on my mom’s side and second on my dad’s.

What are their backgrounds

My mom was a survivor of the Holocaust. She was in Vienna and grew up in Vienna, and left to join the French resistance while her family didn’t believe it was happening. I guess I kind of take after her in some ways. She joined the French resistance, left her family, and her parents, my aunt and about 60 of our relatives were deported and killed. My dad grew up in Chicago. He was the first generation in his family. His family was from Poland and Russia. They met in New York City, which makes it even stranger that we ended up here. The very quickly fell in love, then my dad came to Duluth to be the director of the Jewish Community Center there. My mother, having grown up in Vienna and then having gone to Lyon, Paris and New York City was not going to live in Duluth so that didn’t last long and they came to Minneapolis.

After several cosmopolitan cities, I’d imagine that didn’t take well.

Duluth was not going to work for her at all.

Did you grow up in a particularly Jewish household since he worked for the JCC?

I grew up in an interesting Jewish household. When they moved to Minneapolis, he first ran a group home in North Minneapolis, and then left there to go work for JFCS as a social worker. But my dad, in fact, was communist, so he wasn’t religious. But my mother had become more and more religious after the war. She was in charge of that part, so I grew up going to Beth El. My dad was atheist. He was very culturally Jewish and social-justice Jewish, but not religiously Jewish.

What’s it like to grow up in a Conservative-Communist household? Was that unusual?

I don’t know. I think Beth El was where her friends were, really. Growing up in Europe, she was progressive. She had to find faith somewhere after going through that whole experience. Because she also joined the French resistance, she had such a strong social justice background that it didn’t occur to her that they were doing the same thing, like going to protests and fighting for what’s right. My mom was also really involved in social justice issues. When she got here, she got involved in a couple things: Women Against Military Madness, and the American Indian Movement. She felt that was the most similar to her life experience. It was weird, but dad’s family was the only family – extended Jewish family – I had. We celebrated every holiday. Had seders in Chicago. Celebrated Hanukkah. It never seemed that strange.

Are you still very active in the social justice scene?

I am. I really am. I always have been; I’ve always been involved in politics and social justice. My work has always been in an urban environment. For a long time, I was just doing what I did in the non-Jewish community. I was head start director at Ramsey. Now I’m the chief operating officer for an African-American, Christian treatment program that I helped start about 20 years ago. I never went there to work until two years ago. A lot of my work has been in the African American community. I have three African-American children and two African-American ex-husbands – one of whom passed away last week. I felt like I was doing as much as I could within communities of color. The indigenous, black, Latino communities. All of a sudden my kids grew up and Black Lives Matter came into play, and I started better understanding where I fit in as an ally and just where my place should be. I realized I had a lot I could teach or give, hopefully, to the Jewish community. About four years ago, I started moving more of my personal work into the Jewish community. That’s been my evolution, my kids are all adults – and they’re amazing adults – so you figure out what the next steps are. I share the Tzedek committee at Mount Zion. I have been really active there in that. We’ve been doing a lot of work in immigration justice. We have really good involvement. That’s a lot of what I’ve been doing and making that a stronger part of our synagogue. Rabbi Spilker, who is very social-justice oriented, is a good moral compass for me.

Being Jewish but also having the ties to the African American community, was there always a draw to communities of color for you?

My parents always had diverse friends, and when you grow up like that you’re in the city, you learn that you make your friends with people who have the same interest as you, not that are the same color as you. I think, and it’s hard to explain, but if kids aren’t exposed to it, they just don’t do it; they gravitate to the same people as them. Our friends were other social justice people who came from every background. It was very diverse. The other thing that happened was my dad did a really bad thing when he worked at JFCS and got fired. When that happened, the Jewish community never really reached out on any level. But what I always felt was when I went to my black friends’ houses for dinner, the only thing they cared about was how I acted, was I polite, if I cleaned up. If I went to Jewish family’s houses, it often felt like they really cared about who my parents were and how much money they had. I was more comfortable in black families’ homes growing up, and so I felt like that was kind of what I wanted to have – a house like that that was accepting – when I grew up.

How hard a lesson is that to have taught your own kids?

I think it just was who we were. Anyone could come. There was always food for dinner. It was hard for them to be in the Jewish community, too. My daughter talks about it more eloquently, but they never felt really a part of the Jewish community. But they felt a part of the bigger community, and our friends that were Jewish were social justice people. Vic Rosenthal is one of my best friends. It wasn’t the mainstream Jewish community.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Passover. Because of the whole social justice part of it. I think it’s always a reinvigorating time of year to re-up on commitments to making a change, making the world better, ensuring the strangers in our land are being taken care of. I think it’s meant to be a universal lesson from God that our work is never done, and we were once not free, and we need to make sure everyone’s free. I do like the tradition of it, too.

Favorite Jewish food?

So many. Any full dinner my grandma used to make. She used to make homemade gefilte fish and I really loved that. But all the K’s: Kinishes, kreplach, kugel and kanedel.

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