October 10, 2002
Woman of the Book
Sherrill Kushner's crusade on behalf of the Santa Monica Public Library system began with her realization that Jews are the People of the Book.
"I've always felt comfortable in a library," she said. As a child, Kushner spent many happy hours in the "cozy and wonderful" Carnegie Library in her hometown of Lincoln, Neb. The library was a welcome refuge in a community (population 175,000) where the Ku Klux Klan flourished, the singing of Christmas carols was mandatory in the public schools and Jewish classmates were few and far between.
Descended from Ukrainian immigrants who came to the Midwest via Galveston, Texas, Kushner grew up in a family that emphasized community service and dedication to Jewish life. Her parents were pillars of the local Conservative synagogue, whose congregants barely spoke to the members of the anti-Zionist Reform temple across town.
"We lived at the synagogue. When you're a minority -- a real minority -- you cling to it all the more." She herself found social outlets in such organizations as Young Judaea and United Synagogue Youth. But her intellect truly blossomed when she moved from Lincoln, where there were eight Jewish students in her high school class, to St. Louis' prestigious Washington University, where fully one-third of the student body was Jewish.
Despite her intense involvement in Jewish campus life, Kushner came to California in 1971 to join a Catholic boyfriend. By 1976, however, she was married to Ed Klein, a young physician whom she met through an ad in the B'nai B'rith Messenger. Unsure about a career path, Kushner explored teaching, journalism and consumer affairs, before "working up the nerve" to enter Loyola Law School at age 33. Daughter Alana was then 3 years old; Shana was born two years later.
"I was fortunate to have a very supportive husband and a housekeeper," she said.
As a new attorney, Kushner gravitated first to labor law. But her struggle to help her refusenik relatives leave the Soviet Union turned her into an immigration specialist. Today, she's proud of having helped 18 family members from Ukraine, along with eight she discovered in Argentina, obtain U.S. citizenship. Still, she's concluded that the practice of law is not for her: "I don't have the temperament to be an attorney. I don't like adversarial situations." Her current plan is to segue into a writing career. One goal is to complete "Don't Let the Lights Go Out," a nonfiction work for children containing rare and unusual Chanukah stories.
But the writing is going slowly. "I get waylaid, because I get enmeshed in volunteer stuff." Back in 1981 she helped found Santa Monica's Kehillat Ma'arav. The Conservative synagogue's staunch egalitarianism is largely a tribute to Kushner, who opposed from the start the forming of a Sisterhood-type group that might relegate women to the kitchen. Her feminist principles also come into play when she airs her annoyance with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Women's Division, which she views as a form of voluntary segregation. "Aren't we all Jews? Can't we all give?"
Currently, it's the city of Santa Monica that benefits from her activism. In 1998, her complaint that her local branch library needed refurbishing led to her chairing the campaign that overwhelmingly passed Proposition L, a $25 million city bond to cover the renovation of the entire system. She now serves on the committee overseeing the design of a new Main Library for downtown Santa Monica, while also raising funds for library furniture at her own neighborhood branch. Beyond this, she's taking on the cause of historic preservation. As a founding member of the Santa Monica Conservancy, she rose before dawn this past July to stop the bulldozing of the city's last 1880s shotgun house.
Kushner occasionally questions the focus of her energies. She wonders whether she ought to be tutoring children or helping Ethiopian Jews instead of struggling to save buildings. In the future, she may choose a different path: "I have done many, many things, and I'm not done yet."