Connecting the Dots And Following Passion with Jennifer Levitt

by Jacqueline Bull May 1, 2019


levitt-2Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest recently celebrated its 56th Anniversary. The dinner attracted big names in the community and even had award-winning actress and advocate Laverne Cox as their key speaker. The event was chaired by Jennifer Levitt, past president of the Board of Directors of Jewish Family Services and past chair of the Jewish Women’s Foundation. She is also a former doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at UC San Diego where her started on her path to advocacy and community involvement.

“I developed a passion around social justice more broadly in the course of academic work, but I didn’t really see myself involved in community work until I got involved in Jewish Women’s Foundation,” Jennifer Levitt said.

“When I became involved in Jewish Women’s Foundation, they had just undergone an extensive community survey to pinpoint some of the most pressing needs facing women and girls in the Jewish community and the issue that they landed on… was Jewish single parents and the challenges they faced. That work or that project at the Jewish Women’s Foundation really dovetails with my interest with gender and family and motherhood and how they relate to social justice issues more broadly. That is where I got hooked into community work and learned from some really amazing role models in the Jewish community–women leaders that thought that it was really important that women play a leading role in philanthropy, so that our perspective informed the kind of issues that came to the forefront. So that was a really informative experience for me being involved in Jewish Women’s Foundation. Eventually I went on to chair that organization which was a true honor and then continued to fight for what I believe in, in the context of the Jewish community, and that kind of springboarded me into the secular community.”

Eventually that initiative resulted in the program that is “thriving at the Jewish Family service right now” called Supporting Jewish Single Parents.

The broad array of services that JFS offers spoke to the issues that Jennifer is passionate about.

“Certainly as a board member, it was very gratifying to support the programming surrounding single Jewish mothers and single Jewish parents. Really more broadly so much of the programming at JFS is geared toward women who are single parents and trying to make their lives work and trying to do what’s best for their kids in challenging circumstances,” Jennifer said.

“Even beyond that, these kind of core issues that JFS is organized around–eliminating food insecurity, assisting vulnerable refugees, all the work that they do around economic self sufficiency for the community–all of those issues speak to my heart very directly, so JFS was a good fit for me in that way.”

Listening to Jennifer talk about her passion for helping people and committing to being an active part of the Jewish community, it seems as if she had been doing it her whole life, when actually she found Judaism later in life.

“I, in my past, had been exposed to organized religion and kind of had come to the conclusion that it wasn’t for me, but then I became engaged with reform Judaism through my husband who grew up Jewish. And I came to realize that so many of the values that are important to me are also fundamental values of the Jewish community; it relates to some of the issues we already discussed like justice, equity and compassion, but also this notion that as members of the Jewish community, we are really obligated, we are really responsible for trying to make the world a better place. We are using our privileges–whatever they may be–to enhance the position of the folks who aren’t as fortunate. So when I was exposed to those components of Judaism, you know, I really embraced them and that is why working in the Jewish community has been so rewarding for me: it is a way to put into action those values and ideals. And I’ll also say that I think that premise in Judaism that you know as members of the Jewish community we are really responsible, we are obligated, it is not like an optional thing [laughs]. It’s a mandatory thing. I think that has stirred my passion and my commitment during this particular time when you know certain rights seem to be under attack [which is] particularly important for me, as a Jewish woman, to step up in this moment,” Jennifer said.

“So much of what has motivated me to be active in the Jewish community are these core values of justice, equality, compassion and so those fundamental values that motivated me to become more involved in Planned Parenthood and it became increasingly clear to me and the connections between some of these issues that I had been engaged within the community around economic justice, around gender and racial equality, around compassionate policies towards the immigrant population, I came to understand how all of those things are really intimately related to access to reproductive care.”

For the past 56 years, Planned Parenthood has held a celebratory dinner to come together and the event has grown significantly over the years.

“This year we are expecting about 1500 people which is super exciting,” Jennifer said.

“We have a couple of featured guest speakers. One is Laverne Cox who a lot of people know her work on television, but she has also been a really powerful activist for the rights of transgender folks and educating communities about the importance of transgender people getting access to the kind of healthcare that they need.”

“I think it is absolutely critical that every person no matter who they are, their ability to pay, where they come from, how they identify, who they love, whoever they are, they deserve access to high quality, judgement-free reproductive and sexual health care. We know from study after study that when people gain access to reproductive and sexual health care, they actually are then free or more likely to get a livable wage job, or gain access to education, or engage more actively in their community. That is where I see this intersection between being able to exercise control over your own destiny through reproductive care and then ultimately living a better life providing more opportunities for your children and really making your communities stronger,” Jennifer said.

This event also coincides with Planned Parenthood expanding their health care services to transgender people.

“Through some research that Planned Parenthood has done in the community, it became abundantly clear how underserved the transgender population is in a variety of ways, but particularly as it relates to healthcare. Of course, we have the capacity to offer for instance gender affirming hormone therapy which for many folks in the trans community is truly a lifesaving,” she said.

(Laverne Cox has echoed that statement in the past by saying, “Health care for trans women is a necessity. It is not elective. It is not cosmetic. It is lifesaving.”)

When I asked Jennifer what she was most looking forward to about the event, she answered brightly, “Oh, I just think, you know, being in the room with 1500 Planned Parenthood supporters and so many leaders in the community who make up this coalition of progressive thinkers and activists around, again economic justice, racial and gender equality, rights for the LGBTQ community, to have all those folks in one room is incredibly powerful and inspirational.”


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