The text of Marlene’s address at the March 5, 2016 Gala.
Thank you, Ned Goldberg.
For more than 30 years, I’ve made my home in Baltimore, with my husband Henry Kahn, where we raised our now-grown children, Helene and Eli Kahn, who are all here with me tonight.
However, despite my time away, I’ll always be a New Orleanian at heart, and so it’s wonderful to be here with you tonight.
I thank the Jewish Children’s Regional Service and its gala committee for hosting this celebration and for honoring me. But after a childhood of services and opportunities the JCRS has already given me, this honor is almost an embarrassment of riches. Let me explain.
In 1963, when I was 8 years old, my father died while committed to the State Mental Hospital in Jackson, Louisiana. My mother, who raised my brother Bob and me by herself in the St. Thomas Housing Project, died of cancer when I was 11. My brother and I were orphans and became wards of the State.
As desperate as our family situation may sound, I have always considered myself extremely fortunate. I was supported by a dedicated community of social service agencies and philanthropic individuals who unfailingly demonstrated the true meaning of tzedek –of social justice– and tikkun olam –repairing the world.
For me, the Jewish Children’s Regional Service took the lead – armed with a well-trained professional staff, tireless volunteers, and generous donors, in providing me with life-changing opportunities and stunning role models.
Even before my mother died, the JCRS had reached out to our family. For years we received the benefits of social service counseling and my brother and I frequently attended the JCC for day camp and special programs. When I was a little older, the JCRS provided scholarships for me to enjoy exquisite summers at Camp Barney Medintz. Lest you think of camping as an unnecessary luxury, my camp experiences were sound, therapeutic investments to remedy the toll a distressed family situation can take on a child. Camp gave me confidence to try new things and take on new challenges, such as horseback riding, white water canoeing, and leading Shabbat services. These camp scholarships transformed this timid little girl who had long been terrified of animals and refused to put her head under water. And talk about life skills, summer camp can teach almost any kid how to become a mensch in a month!!
So, too, the JCRS made possible my fabulous education at the Isidore Newman School, which had been founded in 1903 to prepare for life the children who lived at the Jewish Orphans’ Home.
At JCRS’s request, Newman School honored its historical ties to the orphanage, and waived my tuition. I am indebted to Newman for life-long friends – some of whom are here tonight, including Ann and Shaw Thompson – and for a rigorous and wonderful education that well-prepared me for and opened doors to Goucher College and later to George Washington University Law School. And throughout my education, JCRS continued to provide me with the financial aid I needed to bridge the gaps between the scholarships I received from the schools and the real cost of living and learning.
Then there are the role models of public service and philanthropy who have inspired my life – all of whom are linked to the JCRS.
Sanford and Viola Weiss, were the husband and wife team who directed the JCRS for 40 years, including all the years I received services. A brilliant and kind man, Mr. Weiss taught me by example that just because he was blind, it did not mean he couldn’t “see” all that needed to be done to help children and families.
Viola Weiss had the unenviable task of telling me, gently and honestly, that my mother was losing her battle with cancer and would not be coming home from the hospital. I don’t think I will ever forget her courage and compassion.
And how could I not admire and be inspired by the indefatigable and elegant Sarah Stone, who despite her myriad leadership roles in New Orleans’ philanthropy and community activism always found time to show her personal interest in my well-being – which she continued to do to this day.
Or the late Carol Hart, a proud alumnus of the Home and Newman, and a successful lawyer who believed in giving back to his community. Carol volunteered his time to help me and many others through his work at the JCRS, and early on encouraged me to write my book about another successful Home alumnus, Bessie Margolin.
Then there’s my brother, Dr. Robert Trestman. By sending us to camp together in the early years and by supporting him in his youth group leadership activities, the JCRS enabled Bob to be protective of me at camp and encouraged him to stay connected to me when we were separated. Today he’s a psychiatrist who gives back to his community by advancing health care, including mental health care, in the State of Connecticut. And if you think his efforts to spur sibling rivalry have diminished with time – think again. Before I could get my book published, Bob beat me to the punch by publishing – with the prestigious Oxford University Press – the very first textbook on Correctional Psychiatry, for Bob will receive the 2016 Manfred S. Guttmacher Award for his outstanding contributions to the literature of forensic psychiatry by the American Psychiatric Association, its Council on Psychiatry and Law, and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
JCRS was also an integral part of the very wise decision to entrust my foster care to the late Lillian G. Rodos. Along with her daughters Evelyn and Devvie, who are here tonight, Lillian took me in and made me part of their family. Lilly arranged for my bat mitzvah, sewed my clothes until she taught me to do it myself, drove me to college in Baltimore, and gave my then-boyfriend, Henry, a thorough inspection before approving our intentions of marriage. At their first meeting, Henry asked Lilly how and why she agreed to take on the daunting responsibility of raising me when my mother died. She said only, “It needed to be done.” I could not have asked for a finer role model of independence and tzedekah, and it is in her memory that I dedicated my book.
Tomorrow (Sunday, March 6), at 11 am at Newman School, I’ll be launching that book, Fair Labor Lawyer, first biography of Bessie Margolin, a great lawyer and Supreme Court advocate who was raised in New Orleans’s Jewish orphanage with her siblings, Dora and Jack, from 1913-1925. And it’s wonderfuI that her nephew, Malcolm Trifon, and his wife Selma are here tonight from California. To people who have never heard of her, I sum up Bessie Margolin this way: “Before there was a Notorious RBG, there was an Audacious Bessie Margolin.” And if you come to hear my talk tomorrow, you’ll get a better sense of what I mean. For now, suffice it to say she showed extraordinary willingness to take bold risks.
As an adult, Bessie Margolin was grateful for all the opportunities that the Home had given her and for the “family feeling” the Home promoted for her and her siblings. And, as she told family members, “she always felt loved.” I, too, share those same sentiments. But I express my gratitude in a different way – and I don’t think the Audacious Bessie Margolin – or any other JCRS recipient — would disagree.
Not once was I told to dream small or aim low.
Not once was I told to settle for what life held in store.
Not once was I told that I didn’t have something that I could contribute to my community or to the world.
In fact, with each counseling session, and each camping experience, and educational opportunity, my world vision only increased and my personal and professional ambitions and aspirations soared higher.
Tonight’s theme – the Jewish roots of celebration – is so very fitting. For 160 years, the JCRS has celebrated its anniversaries by honoring its benevolent mission and by raising crucial funds to sustain it into the future. The results of your generosity are all around you:
• in private homes where the JCRS supports grandparents who care for grandchildren
• in services for children with special needs,
• in camps where children still learn priceless life lessons about Judaism and citizenship,
• and in colleges where your scholarship recipients are receiving life-changing educations.
Thank you for this wonderful honor, and for sustaining the JCRS and its audacious mission of hope and opportunity for at least another 160 years!