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Rabbi Debra Kolodny: Spiritual Badass

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Born in Far Rockaway in New York City, Rabbi Debra (D’vorah) Kolodny (they/them) is a veteran of social justice movements, bringing a spiritual perspective and an activist’s passion to racial and economic justice, women’s, environmental, peace, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA+) causes since 1981.

Rabbi Debra serves as the spiritual leader of Portland’s UnShul here in Oregon, and as executive director of Portland United Against Hate (PUAH), a coalition of more than 80 community organizations, neighborhood groups, agencies, and local governments working together to support those targeted by hate.

Rabbi Debra Kolodny
Downtown protesting

On May 29 after the murder of George Floyd, they started going into the streets. Rabbi Debra said they were thrilled with the discipline of the demonstrators and felt very safe with the other protesters in the streets, speaking out for Black Lives Matter and against police brutality. (We spoke before the presence of federal agents and the escalation against the protesters.)

After living in Washington DC for 26 years, they came here to Portland to be a rabbi. Although Rabbi Debra loves the rainforest feel, the intensity and passion of political engagement, and many amazing people here, Portland is also hard for them. They found it much more comfortable to live in DC and NY with their large and empowered Black and Latinx populations. The systemic racism in Oregon—the history of anti-Blackness in Oregon, founding as white state, and the fact we have the smallest Black population in any major city in the country—has created an unbelievably difficult environment to do anti-racist work.

In addition to the systemic structural racism embedded in our constitution and laws, there’s been a flourishing of white nationalist groups in Oregon. That’s been a rude awakening.

“I don’t feel safe here as a queer person,” they said. “I don’t feel safe here as a Jewish person.”
Back of Rabbi Debra
Rabbi Debra's Jerusalem kippah

After giving an interview on KATU about the flashing of a white power or “OK” sign by an Oregon State trooper, Rabbi Debra got three pieces of virulent hate mail after they said it is not okay for the police to police themselves. “This place is rough,” they said.

Raised in a totally secular household, Rabbi Debra had a mystical experience as a teenager on a trip to Israel. They felt the presence of God and knew their parents were wrong; there really was a God. Putting that experience aside for a while, they pursued work as a civil rights lawyer and joined the labor movement. Debra had a long journey to their call to become a rabbi, exploring Quakerism, Paganism, Taosim, and other “isms.” As they said, “I was a wandering Jew.”

After joining a havurah, a lay-led community, in their mid-30s, within a few weeks they had another deep experience and felt called to become a rabbi. That led to many more years of study of Hebrew and the Torah and the Talmud.

Rabbi Debra at a protest
Rabbi Debra’s form of being Jewish is “highly politicized, mystical, radical, and in the streets.”

They have discovered that most Jews don’t come to Portland to be Jewish...most of the Jews here are secular. They founded the Portland UnShul to serve the “spiritual but not religious” Jews in Portland. In the beginning they would go into the woods, pray, and have a Torah hike to discuss the week’s Torah questions.

Everyone loved that until the rain came, so then they shifted indoors. Other offerings were a Havdalah, a dance davening (prayer) service with high-intensity dance Shul tunes, and a singing group for women. Then the unshul became more like a shul-shul, but with the radical investment of hitting the streets to protest when called to do so.

Rabbi Debra is one of thousands of radically progressive faith leaders around the country, doing grassroots work. On Juneteenth, they joined 13 other clergy who went to the Justice Center in Portland to be witness. These radical faith leaders have a yearning for the public messaging to lift up the voices that are prophetic and truthful.

They chose the pronouns of they/them a few years ago after using she/they for a few years. But their experience as nonbinary goes back to as early as 1978, when they strongly identified as an androgynous person who looked femme. Now Rabbi Debra feels evenly balanced between feminine and masculine a bisexual, these pronouns feel more malleable, flexible, and porous.

Rabbi Debra marching with clergy on Juneteenth
Rabbi Debra marching with clergy on Juneteenth

I asked Rabbi Debra what simple tips they could give people to “interrupt hate in public spaces.” They said that in a public situation, the best thing to do is get out of there so you won’t provoke or escalate. The class they teach is about how to ally with people who are targeted and how to sensitively attune yourself to what’s happening, move from cluelessness to awareness, and empower the target (check in with the person—let them know you’re not okay with what’s happening).

First they do a grounding of what’s happening in this city and state and why; study their inhibitions and how to overcome those; talk about specific strategies and words to use; understand the neurobiology of trauma; do awareness and skill building; and then practice what they have learned. Rabbi Debra has trained over 1,400 people so far in these important skills.

Discussing how can faith communities can move beyond inclusivity, Rabbi Debra said that “inclusive” is the lowest threshold.

The goal should be lifting up and celebrating LBGTQIA+ people. We need to move from a disability model (for example, thinking people can’t help it because they were born that way) into empowerment and celebration.

They also believe we need a queering of our religious texts. In Genesis, Adam was neither male nor female. The person created in the image of God is nonbinary or intersex. This is not 20th century radical feminist theology; it was encoded in the Talmud in the 200s or 300s. So if we view Genesis this way, people who are nonbinary are the ones actually made in the image of God.

Wearing transgender pride flags
Wearing transgender pride flags

When I asked Rabbi Debra what mistakes they have made, they responded:

“If white people are not making mistakes, we are not doing our work.”

They work very hard to be up with antiracism analysis and language, but part of why white people make mistakes is that the rate of anti-racism understanding, awareness, and insight move so quickly. Rabbi Debra gave the example of the 4th of July, which they know is problematic because of slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples. But they’ll be in one community with middle-aged Black clergy talking about their 4th of July barbecues, and next they’ll hear younger folks railing about the racism of the holiday. To learn more about this issue, read "What to the African-American is the Fourth of July?"

Rabbi Debra doesn’t want to hurt anybody or be a jerk, and they take their allyship really seriously. When they have said the wrong things and hurt people at times, they have done whatever they could do to atone and make amends. “I have never made the same mistake twice,” they said.

Rabbi Debra speaking at a protest with others

The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale has become their bible. It helps lay out in neutral academic terms that the expansion of police responsibility and encroachment into Black people’s lives is everything about policy. You can read more about this book on NPR’s Code Switch, and you can buy it from a Black-owned independent bookstore here.

We discussed grit and resilience. Rabbi Debra cautioned that “Resilience is used in contexts that are spiritual bypassing, meaning let’s focus on the good stuff and not on the hard stuff.” They elaborated,

“Resilience and grit go together. Resilience and empowerment go together, and risk taking and resilience. We’re going to do things that we’re not going to bounce back from. If we go out on the streets to the justice center and there’s tear gas and pepper balls...if we see media, medics, and the ACLU attacked by the police, and our own body is assaulted by bodies of war, we cannot expect to bounce back the next day. We will be traumatized.”

We need to consider what it takes to be able to care for ourselves while being in the fight? Rabbi Debra advises that when we “tap into the stories of our ancestors’ resilience instead of ancestors' trauma, we begin to recode our epigenetic code. How do we do all these things and accept without judgment that when we enter into the fray, we need to recover. It’s finding the balance, and not judging other people for the way that they enter into the fight. As white people, we need to show the f*ck up. We need to expose ourselves to greater risks.”

“This is not a time for unity. This is a time for truth telling. This is a time to say NO to state-sponsored abuse and genocide...and it’s a time for righteous anger and for being relentless.”

As a trained mediator, Rabbi Debra says, “You cannot come to a table with your oppressor who has all the munitions and weapons. There needs to be a dismantling of power before you can have conversations around unity.”

As I'm finalizing this article on Thursday morning, I am thinking of last night's protest in downtown Portland and our mayor, Ted Wheeler, who came to listen to protesters and got tear gassed. Now he's decrying the use of tear gas and saying he has no control over Portland Police, even though he is the police commissioner. Am I glad he showed up? Yes. But "you cannot come to a table with your oppressor who has all the munitions and weapons. There needs to be a dismantling of power before you can have conversations around unity." Handing the Portland Police Bureau to Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty would be an excellent first step toward dismantling of power.

Rabbi Debra with their wife
Rabbi Debra with their wife

Rabbi Debra enjoys playing Bananagrams with their wife, spending time with their dog, cycling, dancing and swimming. They are inspired by their own ancestors, like Grandpa Jack, who left Czarist Russia at 14 on foot, walked across eastern and western Europe, boarded a boat and sailed to Mexico, walked across Mexico and stayed for several years. Then he crossed the then-unwalled border between Mexico and US and was here as undocumented immigrant for decades. Rabbi Debra feels they owe a debt of gratitude to him and his journey, a journey he took so that his children and grandchildren would be safe.

Connect to Rabbi Debra by email at; on their website; or on the PUAH Facebook page or website. (Check it out and sign up for the newsletter!)

Listen to my interview with them here.

Next I will be airing a series on "Three Men of Color, Redefining Fatherhood." First I interview Ruben Garcia, who worked in a migrant labor camp in North Plains, Oregon, for several years. He lived in a two-room shack with his mom and nine brothers and sisters. Experiencing racism, bullying, and xenophobia, and the lack of positive adult role models, Ruben transcended his family patterns of alcoholism, shame, and abuse to raise children of his own. He became the supportive, wonderful father he never had and learned to mentor other children who had experienced childhood trauma.

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