Katie was born and raised in Superior, Wisconsin and received her undergrad degree from UM- Duluth in International Studies and Spanish. After working as a nanny for several years, sprinkled with other jobs, some travel, and a stint teaching English in China, she just recently finished her Master’s degree in social work at the U.

We met recently, finding a bench in front of Macalester’s Markim Hall (which, perhaps appropriately, is the home of its Civic Engagement Center and Institute for Global Citizenship).

Can you tell me about your family, growing up?

I was born in Superior Wisconsin and grew up there. My dad’s side of the family is from the Duluth/Superior area and my mom is from Louisiana. She came up to teach speech to northern kids for a year – with her southern accent! She ended up meeting my dad and staying here. She says it was a bit of an adjustment.

I have a younger brother and we’ve always been close. He lives in Oshkosh right now, he’s finishing his last year of nursing school. After high school he went into the Marines for four years. He did two tours in Southeast Asia, which was just fine with me, though that was not what he had in mind. Then he came back and received his Associate’s degree in fire science. He got to burn down buildings for his assignments. He wants to move out west, but I have been trying my best to convince him to stay in the Midwest. So far I am failing….

I finished high school in 2002 and I have a little connection with (Mount Zion Administrative Coordinator) Jen Baddin. We attended day care together as little kids. And then her mom was my high school counselor for all four years. I hadn’t seen her since we were little, so it was fun to reconnect in the Twin Cities as adults.

After high school, I felt that I wanted to stay close to Lake Superior, so I went to UMD. I was going to go into medicine but I didn’t like chemistry, so I switched to International Studies and Spanish, which I loved. I studied politics, foreign policy, and cultures. The plan was to become a foreign diplomat, but I fell in love with Saint Paul and refuse to move, so that plan changed.

And you went to UMD for four years?

Well yes, I finished my degree in three and a half years, but I was there for five years. I took off one semester to be a nanny in DC, and then I took another semester off to teach English in China. DC didn’t ‘work out’, which is an understatement, so I came home, bought a ticket to Beijing, finished another semester of school, and then left.

So you bought a ticket for China a semester in advance, and without knowing what you would do there?

Yes. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me! I found an agency online that matches teachers with schools. The agency was based out of Shijiazhuang, about 3 hours southwest of Beijing, so that’s where I went. I arrived early, and spent two weeks with a “well-off” family in Beijing who came and picked me up. I got quite the tour around the capital. I had a whirlwind of Chinese history in a matter of days. Then I began with a Chinese language boot camp for 6 hours a day for two and a half weeks and made some great friends. After that I began teaching verbs to kindergarten kids by acting them out, such as: jump, jump, jump, sit, stand, sit, stand.

It was exhausting!

I would have taught verbs like sit, or reach.

Ah, hindsight. That job was only part-time until I found a job at a high school in a ‘small’ town of over four million people, where I taught conversational English and American culture. Seventy kids packed in a room wearing winter jackets, with very limited heat. It was very interesting. But the students were focused and determined to do well in school – there was a lot of pressure to succeed. And I was able to sing a Chinese song in a huge televised concert after only two weeks at school!

Did you try any interesting foods?

I did. I ate dog. Twice. A once in a lifetime trip to China, so why not? The first time it was in a hot pot (a pot of communal soup) and so we had to chew the meat off the bone. That was a little difficult. But the next time it was just in a stir fry, and it was fine.

Would you have it again?

I have no desire to have it again. I’m set for life, thank you.

But I ordered snake once. My friend had finished her vegetarian meal and my food still hadn’t come, so I asked them and they said ‘it’s coming, it’s coming’. So I just thought it takes a really long time to cook snake. But no, then a woman came walking in holding a wiggling bag. So I have a picture of myself with the live snake wrapped around my neck.

The one you were going to eat?

Yep, and so later I ate it, and no, it doesn’t take that long to cook. That was really delicious. I also had donkey, it was really greasy. The worst thing I had – and to date it’s the worst thing I’ve ever eaten – someone in our group once ordered all kinds of appetizers and one of them was a delicacy made of congealed beef fat. So just a purplish cube of fat. Awful! I learned after that to ask for a general description of foods before someone would order for me.

So, back home, and then you finished your degree and moved to the Twin Cities?

I did, at first I lived with an aunt and uncle. I had a job at Barnes & Noble, which was fabulous, but I think I bought more books than I needed … or sold. I don’t recall saving much money from that job.

My first full time job here was with the American Cancer Society. I was a patient service specialist, which became like a call center position. People with cancer would call in and we would provide resources and information, and we had materials in many different languages. We served a lot of low income people who needed financial assistance so they could afford their chemo treatments or radiation appointments. That was my first introduction to our health care system. People would have to sell their house and move in with family, so that they could pay cash for their chemo, because they didn’t have health insurance. It still seems devastating to think that people in the United States continue to die from illnesses because of their economic status.

We also had a transportation service and would organize rides for people to get to their daily appointments. My favorite part of that job was when women who had lost their hair due to chemo would come in to the office and we would fit them with wigs.

It was interesting, but I didn’t want to be in front of a computer and on my phone all day so I wanted to get a new job. But this was around 2009, and the market had dipped, so I ended up becoming a nanny. I love kids and was paid to play, go to the park, do crafts, read books, and run around outside. And the best part was, I was my own boss. It was great to be a part of many different families in the Twin Cities, and I still see the kids often.

Does that bring us up to today?

Almost. Then I decided to go to grad school, so I’ve just finished two years for my Master’s degree in social work from the U of M. There are several tracks, and my focuses were Families & Children and Clinical Mental Health. I finished everything up over the summer, had my last nanny job, and am now looking for a job.

Is there anything in particular you are looking for?

I’m looking into various things. I am envious of people who know exactly what they want to do. I just love everything and want to try it all. I am looking into hospice social work, teen programs, family therapy, case management, becoming a trauma or grief therapist, or a medical social worker.

I did get a part time job at United Hospital, in the mental health department, and I begin my training tomorrow (this past Monday). I’m really excited to start working. But that is job number two, and I am still waiting for job number one. The student loans are terrifying.

Can you describe your path to Judaism?

I’ve been trying to figure out how I wanted to tell that story. My quick and easy answer is that something about Judaism really fit with me, and gave me a certain amount of peace that I was looking for. I converted in March of 2012; I remember it was four days after my 28th birthday.

Growing up, my family had – and still has – a lot of friends who are Jewish, so Judaism was always something I was interested in learning more about. The times I went to events at the temple in Duluth – Rabbi Amy was there at the time (Rabbi Amy Bernstein, formerly of Temple Israel in Duluth, who has since moved to California).

And my grandpa actually was a surgeon, an ortho…orthopedic surgeon

I thought you were going to say orthodox.

Ha, no! A German and Norwegian Lutheran married to an Irish Catholic. He practiced with a very prominent Jewish surgeon in the Twin Ports, Dr. Weisberg. In fact, my elementary school was named after Dr. Weisberg. And because their practice was Weisberg and Heisel, two German names, it was often assumed that we were Jewish.

So – my path to Judaism. When I moved to the Twin Cities I began to really miss the academic learning piece. I had never taken a comparative religions class in college and was intrigued by Judaism. I found the Taste of Honey class at Mount Zion, and I took that. I only went to half of the classes that first year, but I really liked it so I took it again the next year and completed it.

There was just something that fit with me. It was after my third Yom Kippur that I thought that maybe I had found a spiritual home after all! I began to find answers for a lot of the important questions I had. And the best part was – there were a lot of answers to choose from. We would be able to find the ones that worked for us. This year is my seventh observance of the High Holy Days, which I feel is rather significant.

What is your Hebrew name?

Nitzana Chagit. Nitzana means a bud of a flower and Chagit relates more to dancing (joyful, festive), so it’s reminiscent of a dancing bud, a dancing flower. I picked it because it is really representative of my new beginning.

What do you see for your Jewish future?

Oh I have so many things! I do want to take the b’nei mitzvah class, but I just finished Grad school, so that won’t be happening for a while – I need a break! I want to learn more Hebrew. And going to Israel is still on my list. For me right now it’s finding out how to make Judaism work for me and be a part of my life. I have made some fantastic friends here at Mount Zion, so I am creating my own Jewish family.

Were you active in high school?

Yes, definitely. I was active in sports, forensics/speech, Spanish club, musicals. I played piano all the way through high school, and I played the cello from junior high into college. But I sold my cello to buy the ticket to China.

And that rolled over into my undergrad years. I was active in all the political groups, pro-choice, amnesty international, DFL student groups, and DFL involvement in Duluth, and elections. Actually, the “being active” has never really stopped. There is just too much to do in the Twin Cities and not enough time!

How about your hobbies now?

I love to garden. For one of my summer jobs, I was a landscape architect assistant, so we got to rip up yards and put in patios, and trees, and plants. I love it. I think at the highest point I had 42 houseplants in my apartment. But grad school was rough on them, poor things. I kept forgetting to water them and they just died one by one. It was terrible.

And I can read for fun again! I am in a book club with friends and am going to get into the Saint Paul book club called Books and Bars. Everybody reads the same book and then gets together and discusses the book over beer.

I could do that.

I know! It’s genius!

And I have a ton of things that I want to do as a volunteer. I am a volunteer at a crisis suicide hotline and really like that work. Neighborhood House has started a new program with walk in therapy that one of my professors from school is involved with, so I am hoping to start doing that after I find a job. I volunteer with Restorative Justice Community Action (RJCA) and love that that is slowly making headway into our criminal justice system. Political activism is also a fun hobby for me.

And music continues to be a big part of my life. I like to do karaoke with my friends as often as possible. I have taken Taiko drumming classes, have currently started Flamenco dance lessons, and still play the piano and take voice lessons. I am trying to teach myself to play my didgeridoo, but I can’t say I am performance ready yet.

So my list is long. And I could keep going. I’d like to do animal-assisted therapy with hospice or kids – especially if I could take a dog to work! And I want to do foster care and respite care with the county someday.

And I have yet to really dive into Mount Zion’s volunteer activities!

So do you have any thoughts about Mount Zion before we wrap up?

It was the first place that I came to learn. And that was my initial purpose – to learn about Judaism, and I’ve been really happy and pleased that that learning has continued.

For me, Saint Paul became my home from the moment I moved here. I really love it. And it’s nice that the same feeling has continued for me with Mount Zion. There are so many different classes, and for somebody who doesn’t have a background in Judaism, it’s nice to have so many choices for adult learning. I love that there are always new people to meet here, and it still feels like my Jewish home.

But my favorite, favorite, favorite thing about services is when we are able to have the interpreters. I know a little ASL and I just love that people are receptive to the fact that we really do need to be inclusive and that there are many different ways to do so. I mean, how wonderful is it that our services together as a community are done in English and Hebrew and ASL? I want to learn some songs in sign language for next year I think.

With that we ended, and walked back to our cars. As we passed Breadsmith, a woman standing outside asked us for spare change. Avoiding eye contact, I said no, and continued to walk by. While at the same moment Katie stopped, opened her wallet, and gave the woman change. And the woman thanked me, no less.

It seems we may both still have a lot to learn about Judaism.

My own learning curve continued at services just yesterday, when Rabbi Spilker paused to draw our attention to our Yom Kippur haftarah portion, from Isaiah 58:1-14. Words that he tells us are often overlooked, including “Is not this the fast I have chosen …surely it is to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked to cover them, never withdrawing yourself from your own kin.”