People of the Books

Brian Zimmerman

Examining the world through the microscope and Midrash. By Spertus Institute's Brian Zimmerman.

People of the Books

New Year, New Page

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The new calendar year brings thoughts of change. Like a blank page, a new year is a chance to start fresh or embrace something unfamiliar. While many of us see it as an opportunity to transform something within or about ourselves, it can also be a time to seek inspiration and think about our impact in the world.

So in this post, it's my pleasure to share a few books about people changing and making change. 

Josh Ruxin's A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda was a Hanukkah present from my sister. I read it in one fell swoop and have been recommending it to everyone and anyone who will listen to me.

On its surface, the book's premise sounds crazy: foodie Jewish newlyweds from New York move to Rwanda and open a fine-dining restaurant. And while that description is indeed - almost unbelievably - accurate, the book is about much more.

Josh Ruxin was already an expert on public health and international development before he embarked on the change that's at the core of A Thousand Hills to Heaven. Educated at Yale, Columbia, and University of London, he had led projects in several countries and served as an advisor to government and business leaders on economic development. In 2002, along with Jeffrey Sachs (author of The End of Poverty) and Internet entrepreneur Rob Glaser, he founded Health Builders to support countries working to improve their health systems with financing from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Several years later, Ruxin and his wife Alissa (who has a master's in public health from Harvard) were at a party in Manhattan when they were challenged about whether their work could make a difference in Rwanda, a country with rampant poverty and the scars of genocide.

Amazingly, they take the challenge, leaving their friends and families to move to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. With incredible honesty, A Thousand Hills to Heaven tells the story of their work to build opportunity - in ways expected and unexpected - in the country that becomes their home.

Another book of young Jews leaving Manhattan, one that has stayed with me over the several years since I read it, is Brad Kessler's Goat Song.  The book is a chronicle of the changes Kessler and his wife experience when they move to a 75-acre goat farm in southern Vermont. Kessler, an award-winning author, describes with humor their transformation from farm novices to expert artisan cheese makers. On deeper level, he shares the new aspects of his faith uncovered as he finds himself closer to Judaism's ancient relationship to the land. About the book, the Wall Street Journal says, "Goat Song offers a meditation on pastoral life that will make an urbanite regret having missed the experience."

For those whose New Year's resolutions involve health and fitness, I recommend A.J. Jacobs Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. Jacobs, the bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically, puts every possible workout, diet, and fitness device to the test-on himself. As a journalist who is his own subject, he weaves his personal experiences together with medical studies and expert opinions. Of the endeavors on which he reports, some are hilarious, some absurd, and a few hold the possibility for meaningful change.  

About a different kind of transformation, I recently read some interesting reviews of Harriet Rossetto's Sacred Housekeeping: A Spiritual Memoir, and it is now on my reading list. Rossetto is the CEO and founder of Beit T'shuvah (House of Return) in Los Angeles. Today an acknowledged residential treatment center for drug and alcohol addiction, Beit T'shuvah started as a halfway house for Jewish ex-cons. While Beit T'shuvah's  mission is change, Rossetto's own story is itself an example of a tremendous shift both personal and professional, with implications well beyond herself.

Rossetto is a social worker who, when she was unemployed and homeless, answered what would be a life-altering classified ad in the Los Angeles Times. The ad, placed by the county jail, specified the need for "a person of Jewish background and culture to help incarcerated Jewish offenders." Since then, she has been working on rehabilitation for what she calls "the unpopular cause" of Jewish addicts and criminals. Sacred Housekeeping tells her story and the role Judaism played in her journey.

Speaking of change, with the turn of the New Year, I turn this column over to my Spertus colleague Brian Zimmerman. I look forward to reading what he writes - and I know you will too.


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