Sue joined our Leadership staff this year as Religious School Director. Having grown up in Richfield, MN, she graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, where she met her husband Jeff, who himself had grown up in Connecticut, and within the Reform movement. Until recently, they had lived in or near central Massachusetts, where they raised their daughters Ariana and Zoe, and where Sue evolved from her degree – and early career – as a technical writer and editor, to an array of volunteer roles, and eventually to her current career as a professional Jewish educator.
Her immediate family has remained in Minnesota, including younger brother Michael, who is a poet and author, as well as her mother Barbara and her father, Professor Fred Amram, who together with his wife (and artist) Sandra Brick have been members of Mount Zion for some time.
Sue left her family and many good memories in Minnesota, and was eager to return again once the girls headed off to college and careers. We met recently in her office at Temple. I have to admit, that sitting in the office of the Hebrew school principal at 5 pm on a Wednesday evening suddenly brought back vivid memories for me as well. This time, fortunately, it didn’t involve a call to my folks. I liked her already.
We began after finally setting up my two recorders, though worried that neither seemed to have sufficient battery power left.
OK, one of these has to work. Either that or I’m going to make it all up.
OK, I’m comfortable with that.
Can you tell me about your own Jewish education?
I was raised at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, but actually I took a very circuitous route. When I was in the seventh grade I asked if I could please go to religious school, which led to my parents joining Temple Israel. Before that, we did all our Jewish celebrating and studying at home. My mom was raised as a secular Jew and my dad as an Orthodox Jew. So I like to say that I am from an interfaith marriage. All of our Judaism arose within the walls of our house, and I really didn’t know any other Jewish people. I was the only Jew at my elementary and junior high school, and then at high school there was only one other Jew in my grade of 550 kids.
Did something connect or trigger your interest?
I just had a lot of questions, and I was tired of being the only Jew. And I wanted to be part of this group that was larger than my small family. My mother’s family is very small, and my dad is an only child.
How did you end up going to Carnegie Mellon?
It was a compromise, really. My dad wanted me to become an engineer. To do something that women don’t usually do. I didn’t want to be an engineer, but I decided if I did technical writing and editing, that would be something that I really enjoyed, and I could still have a viable career. And the jobs were there, so I was able to support myself immediately outside of college, and buy a car, and do all those things I wanted to do.
What did you do after college?
I worked in the high tech field for seven years, as a technical writer. Toward the end of that period we had our first daughter Ariana, and shortly after that I quit my job to stay home with her. But then I began to realize that I wasn’t content to just be a mom. I started organizing play groups, and they became more elaborate over time. I started planning activities, and I started a friendly-visitor program, where we would take kids to visit a nursing home in Worcester. These groups included kids from all walks of my life, but our first meeting place was at our temple, and it expanded from there.
There were two Reform synagogues in the area, and I began to volunteer. With a friend, I started a Tot Shabbat at Temple Sinai, and we hired Ellen Allard, who was here at Mount Zion recently. It was funny, because just before I left Massachusetts, I talked with Ellen and told her I was leaving. She said she was going to Minnesota for a gig on November 6th. I asked where, and she said Saint Paul. After some more back and forth banter, we finally realized we were both coming to Mount Zion.
I take it that your career grew from your early volunteer work?
It did. I began to take classes locally, for my own edification mostly, on Judaism and parenting, and eventually at Hebrew College in Boston. And I got very involved in the preschool, first as a parent volunteer, then as the coordinator of all the parent volunteers. The directors of the preschool and religious school were wonderful mentors, and just kind of reeled me in, and I started working at the preschool while taking early childhood education classes at Becker College in Worcester. I had to wait until my youngest graduated, because they told me I couldn’t be a teacher at the Reform congregation while she was still a student, because it would be a conflict of interest. So I went to the Conservative synagogue, where I took classes as well, but they told me I couldn’t teach there unless my child also attended. Because otherwise what kind of message would that send?
So one wouldn’t let you teach because your child was a student there, and the other wouldn’t let you teach because your child was not a student there?
Exactly. Each had the opposite reason.
Where are your girls now?
Ariana is 24. She went to Roger Williams University and has remained in Massachusetts. She studied the sciences and works in an environmental chemistry lab analyzing water and soil samples. She would like to eventually do field work. And Zoe is in her senior year at Goucher College, right outside of Baltimore. And she is the mini me, studying special education, planning to go to grad school.
It just dawned on me that it must be your car out in the lot with a bumper sticker for Goucher College.
That’s me! I lost the Roger Williams magnet somewhere along the line.
What does Jeff do?
He is a design engineer. He started his career at Sprague Semiconductor, which changed names and leadership many times. Then he took other jobs at other companies, and now he has his own company – LumeWay. He is doing business with people all over the world, so he can have his home base wherever he likes.
We are both into the outdoors, hiking, canoeing. Though he is much more adventurous. He has done a bit of hang gliding, and until recently he owned his own hang glider. I never went, but my daughters tried it out, with an instructor. And my dad did as well.
What about your parents?
My mother is a retired School Social Worker, still living in Richfield. She takes a lot of Olli classes through the U, especially classes that involve travel. (Olli = Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) She travels a lot. She’s been to over 50 countries, most recently, Argentina and Chili, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Everywhere. All on educational, hands-on trips. Some are through Olli, and others are through relationships she has established at Olli and elsewhere.
My father was born in Hanover, Germany in the early 1930s. He came to the US during the holocaust. He first met my mom at Camp Solidarity in NJ and they were eventually married. They came to Minnesota from New York for him to attend graduate school at the U of M studying speech communication. He then joined the faculty and has been there ever since, teaching Speech and Creativity, including a focus on his studies of women inventors. Now he is focusing more on the holocaust. He is writing his own stories, putting them together into a memoir, working with a publisher. I’ve read a lot of the stories and have helped a bit with editing.
I assume your technical writing skills come in handy still at times?
It is unbelievably helpful to have those writing skills, all the things that I learned – know your audience. Makes it totally different.
What prompted the move back here, after so many years in Massachusetts?
Well I ended up becoming the Director of a joint high school program between Temple Emanuel and Congregation Beth Israel. And eventually I was also Director of the religious school program at Temple Emanuel. But over time, the Jewish community of central Mass was shrinking and they came to the decision to combine all three of the synagogues into one school, for K-12. In the course of that process, we went from needing three directors to needing just one. At that point I became the Religious School Director at Temple Beth Am in Framingham, MA, which was nearby.
I was there for three years, and all this time, every week I would get this email, every Wednesday, from jewishjobs.com. Whether I was looking for a job or not. And I always went on, and I checked Minnesota. And this whole time I was also trying to talk my husband into coming back here. We were at a point where both of our girls were out of the house, and we could do it.
But there had never been a job. Anything that came up was either not in the Reform movement, or it was not full time, or it was in fundraising.
And then one week – it came up on the screen.
Mount Zion. Reform congregation. Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Religious School Director.
And I said I’m going to apply!
So you were in the right place in the right time. Those things seem to happen when you are prepared for them.
Yes. And when you look every week.