January 10, 2011
The Next (Jewish) Miss America?
Loren Galler Rabinowitz is not an overachiever. Not to say that she hasn’t achieved more during her 24 years than most accomplish in a lifetime; however, none of it came without expectations. Galler Rabinowitz has felt the pressure to succeed her whole life and has borne it well. You’d be hard pressed to find a more driven or dedicated individual, but no amount of drive can easily explain how a fiercely intellectual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard ended up on stage in spangles with a tiara on her head and the title of Miss Massachusetts.
Galler Rabinowitz was born in Brookline, Mass., into a family of physicians. As a child, she accompanied her mother on trips to her clinic in Barbados, where she worked with underprivileged children. “I’ve been involved with medical research my whole life,” said Galler Rabinowitz, who, by the age of 14, was helping write grant requests and caring for people at the clinic.
Galler Rabinowitz has a particularly strong relationship with her mother, a major role model in her life. It was through her mother’s influence that Galler Rabinowitz would find her first passion. “My mom was a ballerina, and when I was small, she took me ice skating. It became something we did together.” It was on one of her childhood trips to the rink that Galler Rabinowitz was discovered by an Olympic skating coach and put on the track toward stardom.
Paired with skater David Mitchell, Galler Rabinowitz soon rose through the ranks of U.S ice dancers. She and Mitchell won the bronze medal at the 2004 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “I so desperately loved skating. It was my singular focus for 10 years,” Galler Rabinowitz said in a recent phone interview. However, her Olympic dreams were star-crossed: A shoulder injury to Mitchell sidelined the pair for the 2005 season, and they never recovered their previous chemistry. To make matters worse, Galler Rabinowitz was about to lose someone who had been her inspiration for years.
When she was just a child, Eva Vogel had been rounded up in a Nazi sweep with her family and put on a train to the Belzec concentration camp. Vogel’s father, wanting to spare her the horrible fate that awaited her, pushed Eva out the small window of the train so that she would have a chance at freedom. Eva managed to find a sympathetic Christian family to take her in. With her blond hair and green eyes, Vogel spent the rest of World War II as Katrina, an assumed identity. After the war was over, she married Henry Galler and eventually made her way to America, where she, Henry, and their daughter, Janina, settled in New Orleans. Years later, Janina Galler would marry Burton Rabinowitz, and among their children would be a talented young ice dancer named Loren.
Loren’s grandmother Eva was her idol. She’d dedicated her post-Holocaust life to traveling around to schools with her husband and preaching against racism and bigotry. Galler Rabinowitz is effusive in her praise of her grandmother. “One of my most cherished memories is spending time in the kitchen with my grandmother. Every time I make her famous matzah ball soup, I feel closer to her, like I’m bringing part of her with me.”
In August 2005, like some cruel joke from above, Hurricane Katrina, bearing the same name that had once saved Eva Galler’s life, crashed into the city of New Orleans. Their home damaged, Eva and Henry were forced to move to Texas, but Eva couldn’t stand the strain. A few short months later, she was dead.
With her skating career over and her beloved grandmother gone, Galler Rabinowitz was forced to consider a new direction in life. She took a trip to Israel to help care for a sick relative. It was her first experience in the Holy Land. “I’d never been there before and wanted to see it. It was really important for me to connect with where I came from and to get a sense of where I needed to go,” Galler Rabinowitz said wistfully. “I had the best time ever. Having the ability to eat falafel four times a day after years of being on a skater’s diet was definitely something I took advantage of.”
Galler Rabinowitz returned to the United States and enrolled as an undergrad at Harvard. While everyone around her encouraged her to study medicine, Galler Rabinowitz decided she’d prefer to get her undergraduate degree in English. She was later handpicked by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham to work with her on her thesis. “I’ve always needed a creative outlet,” Galler Rabinowitz said, and her work with Graham provided it.
Galler Rabinowitz settled into a comfortable routine at Harvard. She would rise before dawn to teach ice skating at a local rink, then attend classes. She worked hard, maintained an admirable GPA, and won awards and commendations. Little did she know that her life was about to take another surprising turn.
A chance encounter with the former Miss Massachusetts, who extolled the virtues of the Miss America Pageant’s scholarship program, convinced Galler Rabinowitz that the pageant might be just what she was looking for. When her classmates heard about her decision, their reaction wasn’t one of condescension but one of surprise. “ ‘Really? You?’ That’s what they’d ask me,” Galler Rabinowitz said. “I’m not the most glamorous person in real life. People didn’t believe I was serious about doing it.”
Despite the skepticism of her peers, Galler Rabinowitz was intent on being a successful pageant queen. “I took the idea of the Jewish American Princess to the next level,” she said, chuckling. But when Galler Rabinowitz puts her mind to something, she’s not a person you want to doubt. She captured the Miss Massachusetts title and soon found herself with a host of new duties and responsibilities. “I got to appear at Harvard Night at Fenway Park, and I was recognized by the president of Harvard for my accomplishments.” It was a surreal experience for Galler Rabinowitz, but hardly the one of which she is most proud.
As part of her duties as Miss Massachusetts, Galler Rabinowitz put together a fundraiser for the Children’s Miracle Network, a charity that raises funds for children’s hospitals around the country. “I want to go into pediatrics, so being involved with that was cool.” In a nod to her former career, her fundraiser was a figure-skating show. Competitors from around the country flew in and performed for the charity. By the end of the night, a very proud Galler Rabinowitz had raised $21,000 for the network.
On Jan. 15, in Las Vegas, Galler Rabinowitz will compete for the title of Miss America and the chance to represent her organization nationally. When asked how a beauty pageant can still be relevant in the 21st century, Galler Rabinowitz answered with conviction: “It’s still relevant because the contestants make it relevant. I’ve had great female role models in my life. My grandmother survived under extraordinary circumstances and lived to tell her story and spread a message of tolerance. Not every little girl has those role models. Doing this job, I get to be one for them.”
Galler Rabinowitz isn’t nervous heading into her big day. “I sort of feel like I’ve been training for this my whole life. I love dancing again. If you can do it on skates, it’s no problem doing it in stilettos.” Galler Rabinowitz sees a lot to admire in the Miss America pageant. “It’s the largest provider of scholarships to women. Unlike skating, you’re being judged on what you have to say, too, not just on how you perform. Having an opportunity to talk about my background is important; it’s a privilege.”
It’s safe to say that whether Galler Rabinowitz is crowned Miss America or not on Jan. 15, her life of public service will be far from over. She’s looking forward to attending medical school and becoming a doctor. And whether her leap of faith into the land of evening gowns and swimsuit rounds pays off, Galler Rabinowitz has proven that, like her grandmother before her, she’s not a woman afraid of taking risks to dwell in a better world. l
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