Virginia “Ginny” Dodge grew up in Cohasset, worked as a tax attorney, and now lives in Swampscott with her husband, Dexter, whose two sons are Cabot Dodge of Swampscott and Stanton Dodge of Castle Rock, Colo. Their grandchildren are Arick and Cody (Texas), John (Swampscott), Bennett, Carson, and Hollis (Colorado), ranging in age from 31 to 2. Ginny served for 10-year terms on the boards of the North Shore Jewish Community Center and Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. In the past, she has supported and participated in the Anti-Defamation League, Israel Bonds, the Jewish Journal, and Epstein Hillel School activities and fundraisers. She is currently a member of the ADL North Shore Advisory Council.
Ginny, could you tell me about your upbringing, and some background on your family when you were growing up – such as where you grew up, what your parents did for work, and your major interests as a child?
I grew up in Cohasset. My father was in investment management and banking in Boston, and my mother was an artist and theater devotee who was a founding director of the South Shore Music Circus. I had the same interests as most kids back in the day, before the advent of tightly scheduled play dates and hours spent glued to a screen: playing outside with my friends (especially pick-up baseball) with little or no parental surveillance, riding my bike everywhere, taking care of my pets, learning to ride horseback, idolizing screen stars, and dreaming someday of being a lawyer, after becoming enamored of “Perry Mason” on TV.
Your father was baptized Catholic but ultimately raised Episcopalian, your mother was born and grew up a Mormon, and you were christened in the Episcopal Church. Later, your family was involved in the Christian Science movement. What were your feelings about religion and God as a child?
I didn’t particularly like Sunday school and wanted to belong to a church which, unlike Christian Science, had a choir, communion, and priests like my friends did. I recall as a very young child thinking God wore a light blue robe and had a long white beard! I said nightly prayers because they were expected, but I don’t remember having strong religious feelings. Christmas was an occasion for receiving gifts, Easter a day to dress up.
At what point did you first learn about Judaism, and what attracted you to learn about Judaism?
Growing up in a largely Protestant enclave, I didn’t know many Jewish people. When I attended Wheaton College [then a single-sex school], I made a number of Jewish friends. Some Jewish students held a Passover Seder and invited interested gentiles to attend. It was a lovely evening, definitely a learning experience. That was probably my first exposure to Jewish life. I’ve loved attending Seders ever since. Primarily through ongoing Jewish friendships during the post-college years, there were various aspects of Judaism I found appealing in a peripheral, undefined way, very gradually, during a long period of tribal and spiritual homelessness. I like to say that the winding journey of a thousand miles up Jacob’s ladder began with a single ‘oy.’
What made you want to become a Jew and formally convert?
To this day, I ask myself whether I chose Judaism or it chose me. My inclination came into clearer focus after joining the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in 1996 [mainly for fitness] and later participating in programs like the ADL Interfaith Seder and Jewish Book Month. I was ultimately invited to join the Board of Trustees, even though I was still only the “token shiksa.” Because of my involvement, and always curious, I decided to learn more about Judaism and signed up for the Lappin Foundation’s Introduction to Judaism course, not seeking to convert but simply to increase my knowledge. Rabbi David Meyer (of Temple Emanu-El, now my mentor, teacher, spiritual adviser, and dear friend) signed on as my rabbinic sponsor.
At the initial session, the rabbi/instructor observed that Jews are God’s partners, that arguing with God is not only permissible but is almost a sacred duty. That was my first eureka moment, when I began to wonder if simply learning about Judaism was not enough. In the past, I had never accepted what to me seemed the blind obedience inherent in traditional Christian doctrine, stubbornly questioning everything and finally losing interest altogether. A close Jewish friend described Judaism as a thinking man’s religion. That also resonated with me. So, I officially became a nice Jewish girl in December 2006 in a very moving public Shabbat ceremony.
After your conversion, you had a bat mitzvah. How was that experience?
Beyond special! On a Temple Emanu-El Shabbat evening, I became an adult bat mitzvah in June 2008. I practiced chanting the Hebrew parasha (Korach) from a CD Rabbi Meyer made for me. And Debbie Sudenfield, a real pro, gave me additional guidance and encouragement – via speaker phone. My Torah portion spoke of Moses falling upon his face. That night, I had major shpilkes and prayed I would not do the same, apprehension which quickly disappeared in such a holy place, in the presence of the friendly, loving congregation there to cheer me on.
What do you love about being Jewish, and how has Judaism influenced your life?
Being Jewish has given me the truest sense of belonging I’ve ever known, after a lifetime of marching to a different (and sometimes lonely) drummer. I metaphorically shed shoes that constantly hurt my feet in favor of comfortable slippers. It feeds my hunger to learn. It answers my spiritual needs. It channels my desire to give to something outside myself. I can happily live in the question, every day. I am proud to be a daughter of Israel. I love the values, the wisdom, the courage, the resilience, the generosity, the humor, the food, the joy, the membership in a “large, contentious, frequently quarrelsome, always emotional and loving extended family,” all of it. After 13 years, it is still a point of honor to say, as did Daniel Pearl before he was murdered, I am Jewish.
Have you been to Israel? Could you describe how you felt in Israel and where you visited?
I traveled to Israel in February 2013 as part of a Temple Emanu-El group led by Rabbi Meyer and an amazing Israeli guide, Irma Zaslansky. Our journey started in the north, on several kibbutzim, in the Galilee and the Golan Heights, moving south to arrive in Jerusalem in time to celebrate Purim, then on to the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv, all with many fascinating stops in between. So many memories crowd my thoughts from this life-changing experience, but two especially stand out. One is the constant awareness of walking on stones, crossing waters, and entering buildings in this land thousands of years old, and seeing highway signs directing travelers to places which had only existed in my childhood mind as fairy tale Bible stories. Nazareth? Caesarea? Jericho? Bethlehem? Really? At the Golan Heights, a battered old army vehicle pulled up next to our tour bus and dropped off a large group of very young Israeli soldiers on a training exercise of some kind. To my shocked older eyes, they were essentially babies, yet the discipline, the look of pride and strength in each face made me think to myself, “Protected and defended by such as these, Israel is going to be just fine.”
You’ve been involved in the Jewish Community Center and Temple Emanu-El and other Jewish organizations. What makes you want to volunteer, and what does community mean to you?
Without our welcoming North Shore community, I would probably still be a searching gentile. Being part of it has brought me most of the warm and loving Jewish friendships I now treasure. There are countless fine Jewish organizations in the U.S. and Israel I do support, many of them already well-funded, but I believe in stepping up to the plate first for our local area agencies, programs, and synagogues which have more limited resources and have a direct connection to our daily Jewish lives. If Jews don’t take care of each other, especially at the community level, who else will?
What’s the future of Jewish America?
My crystal ball is foggy right now. At the time of my conversion, it never occurred to me that the inclusion and safety of Jews in America were at appreciable risk, except perhaps from the distasteful but seemingly insignificant fringe neo-Nazi types and stubbornly prejudiced snobs.
Assimilation had been so successful that traditional Jewish havens such as synagogues, JCCs, and our own country clubs lost some ground because this acceptance enabled us to be at home almost anywhere. ADL expanded its hate-fighting mission to include all its forms, not just anti-Semitism. While beneath-the-surface anti-Semitism has obviously always been there, it is currently rearing its ugly head very publicly in the most brazen, dangerous and violent ways imaginable, fueled by those who have fanned the flames of man’s worst instincts and made it OK to say and believe that “Jews will not replace us.”
To the end of my days, I will never understand Jew hatred, where it came from and where it is going. I only know that when I am where Jews gather in any numbers, I do occasionally feel that little flutter of fear of attack. I am angry and heartsick but also hopeful and convinced we will endure and thrive. Jews have survived much worse, again and again, and as long as we are resolute, vigilant, proactive, and strong, we will not be replaced.