Sara Kershnar, a Queer Jewish activist and community leader, was born January 1, 1970 in Los Angeles, California. She and her family lived there for five years and then moved to Orange County, California in 1975. Most of her extended family was living in Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Long Island, and her parents had a strong sense that it was important to connect with Jewish people wherever they lived.
Sara was always connected to a temple or synagogue while growing up and had the extended family of a chavurah to observe Shabbat and celebrate holidays and spend time together. They practiced Reform Judaism which was important in shaping her as both as a person and her ethical beliefs. When she was a child she loved the prayers and remember using them and reciting them to comfort herself when she was sad or struggling. Her family tied a strong sense of Jewish ethics and enacting justice in the world to her identity as a person.
The family was not assimilated and, especially after moving to Orange County, they were experiencing extreme hatred and anti-Semitism. She remembers challenging her teachers in public school and questioning why only Christian songs and holidays were celebrated in the classroom. Her teachers denied the Nazi genocide against Jews and other targeted people. Neo-Nazis in Orange County would desecrate their temple during important holidays and smear dog feces on cars in the temple’s parking lot.
At the age of twelve Sara found out that her father was gay and closeted and had been arrested for public sex several times. She did not care that he was gay or what kind of sex he was having, but was upset that he had instilled in her that it was not okay to lie; it was difficult to reconcile what he had taught her in relation to his own behavior.
As a young teenager Sara had a Bat Mitzvah and continued to celebrate holidays and Shabbat. Hoever, she began to question and disbelieve in God around the age of 16 when she started being exposed to existentialism in her English class. When she was seventeen and in Talmud class she said she did not believe in God or that Jews were the only chosen people. She walked out of her Talmud class and remembers her rabbi following after her and shouting, “You’re still Jewish!”. This was memorable to her because it felt completely true; she had never felt “not Jewish”, but had felt that some of the theology being taught was contradictory to the ethics passed on to her by her family that all people are valuable. Her father had taught her that part of being Jewish was the concept of mitzvah both as a principle that you are on the planet to care for other people, and that the meaning of “never again” after the Holocaust meant that you stand up when anyone is being mistreated.
At this time she did not have an active relationship with God, but identified her beliefs as existentialism. This paralleled the emergence in the 1970’s of what was then called GRID (Gay Related Immune Disorder) and her awareness that her father had it. Her mother was extremely abusive of her, her sister and her father. In 1987, at the age of 17, she told her father that she knew he was gay and sick and that it didn’t matter to her, but that she needed to leave the home environment and her mother for her own survival. As a result her father divorced her mother and moved out with her and her sister.
In 1989 Sara began attending the University of California Santa Cruz for college. She did not like being in school and was worried about her father whose sickness had progressed. During this time she met Vito Russo who got her involved in ACT UP in Santa Cruz and she began participating in the group's work and activism. In 1990 she returned home to help care for her father and introduced him to ACT UP and a larger gay community. Her father started a Gay chavurah and finally came out to her sister and to his own parents about being gay and having HIV. She continued her education at the local community college and became the caretaker of her father. His parents, her grandparents, were very supportive of him when he came out as gay and HIV+ and continued to tell her that they were proud of him.
Her father Harvey Eliot Kershnar died in 1992. She and his family and community sat Shiva and buried him in a Jewish cemetery at his request. She reflects that being politically active is part of how she survives moments of injustice such as the death of her father and all of the oppression and hate that people in their neighborhood had targeted him for.
Through the five years following his death Sara realized that so much of her religion and religious practice was rooted in the politics and political movements of her life. These movements birthed transformation and organizing that felt deeply spiritual to her—when she sees a group of people moving together for dignity and for freedom that’s what makes her feel a connection with God.
Sara moved to Berkeley after her father died and earned a B.A degree in Peace and Conflict studies in 1997. Later in 1997 she moved to New York City and helped start a harm reduction-training institute. Their work included a needle exchange, alliances with ACT UP, and addressing the intersections of the needs of people who were marginalized from the resources and issues talked about for white gay men. This included people of color, women, lesbians and drugs users who were finding ways to work in coalition with one another to meet material needs. During this time she began using IV drugs. Using drugs got her through the loss of her father, the history of trauma she had been through as a child, and brought a relief to her during these struggles emotionally and physically.
In working with the Harm Reduction Coalition she was interviewed by a woman who was a dyke and teaching at the Harvard School of Social Medicine. She was conducting interviews on women who have sex with women and also inject drugs. The research was very participatory and she encouraged Sara to apply to graduate school in 1999. Sara believes that it was this encouragement, and getting into the Harvard School for Public Health, which helped get her out of a very destructive spiral of drug use.
Sara continued to work with the Harm Reduction Coalition, herbalists, and other holistic medical practitioners treating young people who were homeless. As a team they were connecting the experiences of this population with self-reported histories of childhood sexual abuse.
During the second Intifada beginning in 2000 and with the U.S’s reaction to the attacks on September 11th she began to come into a more complex and conscious awareness of the politics of Palestine, Israel, and the U.S. She felt an affinity to Jewish Diaspora and the ways that Jews have lived all across the world and shared some common values and practices even in the midst of many different cultural contexts. She recognized that Jews as a group have knowledge of how to co-exist for both survival and for separation and to maintain traditions through centuries of persecution and displacement.
Sara graduated with a masters degree in Public Health in 2001. She focused her work on intersections of drug use, childhood sexual abuse trauma, homelessness and queer identity. As a result she, Stacy Haines and Gillian Harkin started GenerationFIVE together. GenerationFIVE works to interrupt and mend the intergenerational impact of child sexual abuse on individuals, families, and communities. It is their belief that, “meaningful community response is the key to prevention”. (www.generationfive.org)
In this period of her life she was also reconnecting with Jewish people outside of her family and practicing collective Jewish rituals with a new lens. She also realized that for herself being Jewish was a specific historical location and that she needed to develop a framework for what was happening in Israel and with Zionism because she felt that if you don’t speak up, then Zionism is what gets to dominate. The rituals she was participating with were trying to fortify community, political orientations, and tradition. In 2002 Jews for Free Palestine Bay Area, of which Sara is a member, held its first Liberation Seder for Passover.
In 2004 Sara traveled with Jews for Free Palestine to Palestine and, after witnessing the oppression of people Palestinian people by the Israeli state, felt strongly that Israel had nothing to do with herself and the Jewish ethics of justice that she had been taught. She was upset at the scale of funding and money Israel was receiving worldwide, especially from the United States and from Jewish people all over the globe. It was during this time she realized that Jewish people needed to be speaking out about what was being done in their name in Israel.
In 2004 Sara and several other activists started forming the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN). IJAN is a network of Jews who pose an international opposition to the idea that Jews are safer in isolation and through dominating other people. They reject the justification that any history of persecution, repression or genocide justifies a participation or aggression against another people. The network exists to fight and contribute to liberation of Palestine and of the region from U.S allied imperialism that Zionism has helped create. There are many people in the network who believe that on both political terms, and on terms of the ancestry and legacies of Jewish history, there should be no destruction of other people and places in the name of Jewish people.
In addition to IJAN, Sara is also active in work in Richmond and Oakland in California with the RYSE Center. RYSE works with young people and different projects including building two youth centers. She also does alliance work with the Black Organizing Project and the California Coalition of Women Prisoners.
(This biographical statement written by Sonny Duncan from an interview with Sara Kershnar.)