Abbey and her wife Deirdre live in St. Paul with their sons Nadav and Matan. Deirdre serves as a Program Manager with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, while Abbey is a psychologist at The Center for the Victims of Torture.
I have always been intrigued by the fact that Minnesota provides a Center for the Victims of Torture, among our many other impressive and unique social service organizations. So I have been interested in learning more about it since the first time we met. Our families crossed paths again recently at a new member Havdalah, and we arranged to talk over coffee later that weekend. The backdrop of the photo may be just Breadsmith on Grand to you, but our focus was on the simple fact that we could actually enjoy a bright sunny morning on a Sunday in February.
I grew up in New York on Long Island about a half hour east of New York City, in Westbury. My parents are typical New York Jews. Both of them trace their roots through Ellis Island from Poland, Hungary, Russia. My father’s family name is Weiss, but his father had been adopted. And my mom grew up as Jacobs, but that was also probably changed at Ellis Island. I’m third generation on both sides – all of my grandparents were born here. My dad grew up on the Lower East Side, and my mom grew up in Brooklyn. When they married, they followed the huge migration to the suburbs.
How did you become a Kanzer?
I grew up as Weiss. My maternal grandmother’s name was Panzer and we were very close with that side of the family. And Deirdre had a similar experience on her side, her maternal grandparents are the Kanne’s – her grandfather was Norwegian and her grandmother is Swedish. We are still very close with her grandmother who is in her early 90s. They live a long time in Deirdre’s family. The name we chose was a combination of Kanne and Panzer. It is very expensive for two people to do a name change. And we couldn’t be legally married even though we had a ceremony in 2003. When the law changed in Minnesota and were able to legally marry, we were also able to change both our names to Kanzer by the stroke of a pen.
Can you tell me about your family growing up?
My dad worked for US Customs for many years, since the late 60s. That’s actually how my parents met. They were both working for US Customs. My Mom was gone from that very quickly. But not before meeting my Dad. My mom went back to school for her Master’s degree in social work after having three daughters. She worked in a hospital for over twenty years. I have two older sisters, and they have both somehow migrated to Florida where one of them works at a community college and the other is at home with her kids.
What was your Jewish life like growing up?
We grew up in an active Reform congregation in Westbury called Community Reform Temple. It was very small, maybe 50 or 60 families, so I am used to a much smaller place. We were very active there growing up. It was an important part of our experience. The Sunday School was all volunteer, so my mom taught Sunday School for many years.
I was a Bat Mitzvah, as were my sisters, and my mom was too! In 1978. That was the period of the 70s with the feminist movement, when a lot of women who had not become Bat Mitzvah were able to do that. I have this fabulous photograph! I should have brought it. It was the epitome of the 70s, with my mom and three other women all decked out in their bell bottoms. They are standing in front of the Ark, holding the Torah, with the cantor and the rabbi in the back. It’s black and white, and I just love it. It’s just such a period photograph in my mind. My dad had found it, and I said “I want that! I want that picture!” I have memory of that.
And I love that time, and I remember even early on in that temple, even though I was just a kid, but conversations were happening about so many things … like we didn’t use the word Lord, ever, and there was controversy about that. It was ‘Eternal our God.’ I have this memory of our fourth grade class discussing that. My feminist leanings were just awakening, I guess, and had an influence on both my Jewish identity and my larger identity. It seems funny, almost anachronistic now in 2016, but that was a very important time of change for us, to have that kind of thinking.
My father was active as well. I remember him doing a lot with the Men’s Club – it was all a central part of our lives, and it still is to this day. On Long Island almost all of their friends are from that same community that we grew up with, so it was very much like family. Now all of the kids I knew then have scattered everywhere, but we are still connected on Facebook, even now.
My folks are still both living in New York part of the year, in the same house since 1978, and then in Florida for part of the year. My sister had the first grandkid so they kind of followed her there. They didn’t want to snowbird in Minnesota.
So what did you do after high school?
From high school I went to SUNY Oswego on Lake Ontario, and majored in psychology. I think I already wanted to be a psychotherapist.
And then from college, straight to a job?
Oh gosh no! I lived in Israel for a year after college, on a service program called Sherut La’am, which is very similar to AmeriCorps in this country. I stayed on a kibbutz near Haifa to study Hebrew and work. The fantasy is that you are milking cows on a kibbutz. But their big money maker was a plastics factory, so we did a lot of grunt work. I was a lucky one who actually worked in the laundry room, but it was a lot of fun.
I spent the next eight months doing volunteer work at an absorption center, where they took in Jews from all over the world, from all different economies and languages. That was 20 years ago; I wonder what it looks like now. When I was there, there were people coming from Ethiopia, and from Teheran in Iran, and from Yemen. It was certainly eye opening and life changing about what it means to be a Jewish person.
We all lived in a large square of houses around a central square. And there was one family of Iraqi Kurdish Jews. The father’s name was Amir. He and I were both insomniacs, so we would often both be up in the middle of the night, sitting outside, and talk to each other. Hebrew was the only mutual language we had, and we could communicate in that. And he would just tell me stories. His father had been killed in front of him because he was caught reading the Torah. These are stories you don’t learn when you grow up on Long Island. It was really important to me at the time, and I think it had a lot to do with what I do now, and why I work where I work.
Where I work now seems to be a strange coming together of so many different parts and experiences of my life. Having worked with all these immigrant families in Israel. So there’s that. And then growing up a Jewish person and learning about the Holocaust. I did my graduate thesis on the meaning of suffering. I had read Victor Frankl who was also a psychotherapist and a Holocaust survivor. I also had struggles of my own as a teenager, and I know that the path I took made a huge difference. So now it is what I do. It’s the work that I do. Slow, intentional listening. Trusting the process of psychotherapy. Working at the Center brings all those different parts together for me in one place.
Do you know what ever happened to Amir and his family?
No. I went back and forth to visit Israel after my first year there and visited him. But it’s been over twenty years now. You can easily be found and lost in Israel, especially as a 20 something year old. So for a while, I spent time living in the Old City and studying with a very orthodox organization. That was really amazing. It was interesting to immerse myself in that world for a while.
And after Israel?
I knew that I wanted to get a graduate degree in psychology, but I also knew that at 22, I wasn’t ready to do that. I spent those few years working and living between New York and Israel, and then started graduate school at 26. And I also realized what it would mean to take on the debt, so I was ready for that.
What led you to choose Minnesota, and what were your first impressions when you got here.
Why here? It was a really good program. And I could pay my rent in Minnesota. I could go to graduate school and work part time. And I didn’t want to be in New York anymore. None of my peers were on Long Island anymore, and I didn’t want to live in Manhattan. It’s a very hard, busy place. My sister had been living in Manhattan and her rent was like $1,000 – this was in the mid-90s – and she lived in a box. And I came to Minnesota and my rent was $350 a month. So it was very affordable.
I came for a doctorate program in psychology at what is now The Minnesota School of Professional Psychology, but back then was known as Argosy University. The first time I came here was in February of 1998, almost exactly this week, and it was 48 degrees and sunny. And I remember walking around Lake Calhoun, and it was beautiful.
What was grad school like?
Mostly just studying. It was a night time program of classes, but by your second year you are doing internships and working. So I had an internship at the state hospital in Anoka for one year, and then I did an internship at Chrysalis.
What was the state hospital like?
It was great! I loved it. It was very intense. At the time it was a new facility that they had just opened. They were doing a lot of DBT (dialectic behavior therapy) which is very popular now, especially for people with severe trauma. That was probably my first introduction to trauma work, and that is what you tend to see there.
What is DBT?
A dialectic is when you hold two things that seem to be opposite, but they are both true. Like if you are doing the best you can, but you know that you can always do better. So with some patients, their life may seem painful and traumatic, and that is true to them, and at the same time they can learn to live with that life. And that’s also true. So it’s about how you learn to live within those realities. But of course it’s much more complex than that. So dialectics are a very important party of psychotherapy.
I often like to ask folks if there is anything about your work that resonates with your Judaism?
It’s all part of the same whole. I do think that there is a very Jewish choice that can be made when you do the work that I do. It is very much about tikkun olam.
When did Deirdre enter the picture?
I had met Deirdre half way through my degree. We had connected online on a site called Planet Out, before then having our first date at the Blue Moon coffee shop in Minneapolis. We were married in 2003, before I finished my degree.
What kind of ceremony? Was it religious or legal?
It couldn’t be legal. But we wrote our own ceremony. A friend of ours co-officiated with a pastor from a UCC (United Church of Christ) church, which is a very liberal church.
Deirdre has two degrees from United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, MN. One of her professors was from the Philippines, and he helped arrange for us to travel there. We spent about three months there the summer after we were married. That became a really important life experience for me. He helped arrange for us to go and stay with families in the city and rural areas. The UCC is very liberal and progressive. They have this idea for ‘reverse’ mission work, which is actually very beautiful. It’s not about going to a place and trying to bring about change, which can be very paternalistic, almost imperialistic. Instead, this is about ‘you should go see what is happening in the world, and then come back and tell people what you’ve seen.’ Because it’s only from privilege that we get to go there in the first place. So it was at this point of my life, and because of Deirdre, and the work that she does in anti-racism and social justice and economic issues, that I came to understand the place that privilege plays in my life.
We spent our time in the Philippines looking at what the global economy really does to people, the deforestation of this beautiful country, and why people are living in this poverty. And now I just tuck it all away for most of my day to day, but it really is kind of astounding. There were people who were willing to take us into their homes, where they are trying to eke out a living, and around them the pollution is terrible, and schools are almost nonexistent.
When I see people that don’t want to pay taxes here, I want to tell them to go to a place where there is not a thriving economy, and there are no roads, and all the things we take for granted. So a lot of my world view today has to do with that time.
And what happened after your time in the Philippines?
We came home in August of 2004, and I started my first job at Chrysalis, which is a women’s counseling center that I had interned at. I was there for two years, working in what they call dual diagnosis, chemical dependency and mental health programs, treatment and recovery.
And then I saw the posting …actually Deirdre saw the posting … for a job at the Center for Victims of Torture, and she said “it’s like the mothership is calling you home!” I feel very fortunate to have found that job. I have been there now for about 10 years.
What do they do there, and what is your role?
It is now a very large organization. Its early inception came from then Governor Rudy Perpich and his son. The story goes that his son asked him, “So what are you doing about human rights?” There were already many people working with refugee and torture survivors in MN, but this started a process to bring about the organization that exists today. We just celebrated 30 years. We serve people who come to this country who are victims of state sponsored torture. It changes through the years, but right now many of our clients are Ethiopian, and mostly a very large ethnic minority called the Oromo. We also serve people from Syria, Iraq, Bosnia, Cambodia, Ghana, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Togo, Cameroon, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya to name a few!
I’ve often wondered, how these different refugee groups end up in Minnesota?
A lot of it has to do with where the Office of Refugee Resettlement decides to resettle different groups of people. For many groups it is initially where ORR sees there are resources for resettlement. And then over time you see huge numbers in secondary migration, since people elsewhere are free to move, and they come here to be closer to relatives. So that is how a community grows. That was true for the Hmong community 30 years ago, the first wave started to come and are resettled here, and the community sees that this is a good place, there are social services and things are affordable.
And that is happening now with the Karen community too, who are mostly on the east side of St. Paul. They are amazing, they have only been here five years and they are so active. Seeing what they do for their kids, I just admire that. They are an amazing group.
But I have people on my caseload now from maybe twelve different countries. And most of them are asylum seekers, which means they come to the US without permanent immigrant status. I can tell you that, in many ways, the torture that people survive is often not the worst thing that they go through. People continue to suffer because of our immigration system. People that have applied for asylum can wait years for their case to be resolved. During that time, they can’t get student loans to study, and they can’t bring their families over and reunify, so their families are still living in the countries that they fled for their lives.
Logistically how does this all play out? There must be so many people who come to the US as victims of torture.
Some estimates say that there are over 30,000 torture survivors in the Twin Cities alone. Between the Liberian community, the Oromo community, the former Yugoslavia, and now the Karen is a large ethnic group coming from Burma.
OK, but your Center is just one group, one resource. So how do people decide who you should serve – do you get the neediest of all, or is it just the ones who are somehow lucky enough to find their way to you?
No, the majority coming from these countries come as refugees, so they have that status, and they can access care elsewhere. But there is a smaller subset that are asylum seekers, and they can’t get health insurance. So we are funded to serve the asylum seekers. We do also serve refugees and citizens.
Are there other Centers like yours?
There are 25 to 30 in the United States. There is a consortium of Torture Centers as well as other resettlement agencies that are serving large refugee communities.
Again, are there Jewish aspects that come to mind as you do what you do?
I think it resonates when someone comes from a persecuted community. My grandmother came to this country by herself, and much of her family had disappeared in the Holocaust. So at times it can be historical trauma as much as a personal trauma.
Tell me about your family today.
Nadav is six and Matan is two and a half. We are raising them Jewish, though Deirdre’s cultural heritage is very important to our family as well. So we will see how they find their way in the world, as they get older. But they already ask such good questions, especially Nadav.
How did you find your way to Mount Zion?
I knew about Mount Zion when I first moved here. I actually knew Rabbi Spilker’s sister – she had been on the same year long program in Israel that I did. So I came to Mount Zion for a while early on, but it was hard as a single person in their twenties to find a place there. Then I was a member at Mayim Rabim, and I really liked that place, I still do. I was very active – I learned to chant Torah, I led services, I was on the board. But eventually we wanted a place for our kids, and I kind of wanted a place to carry me for a bit. So we made a change to Mount Zion, which is a much larger community where there would be a school for our kids.
Were you active in the opposition to the ‘marriage amendment’?
We did a lot. We spoke at a couple places, and we went to rallies. In the Twin Cities they do a lot of ECFE (early childhood family education), and in Saint Paul there was a class that was specifically LGBT, which at the time was all moms. And we were a very important support to one another at that time. Especially in the first wave, with the attempt to amend the constitution to ban same sex marriage.
What was your second marriage ceremony like? How did it compare to the first one ten years prior?
At the first one we had maybe a hundred people. The second was much smaller. Deirdre had previously adopted Nadav, so she could legally be his mom … so she could protect him. And we did the same thing after the marriage amendment had passed, since as a same gender couple you want to protect your kids. I also formally adopted Matan. After the law changed, we called the judge that we had used when Deirdre adopted Nadav, and said will you marry us? And she said sure, so we had about 15 people there.
So after all the adoptions and the marriage, it was finally all Kosher?
I would say it was Kosher before. Now it’s legal.