Ina Resnikoff is a Swampscott attorney who grew up in New London, Conn., and the Bronx. She chose a career in pursuit of social justice and equality. Her work scope has been diverse – from a post at Camp Simchah at the JCC in Marblehead to director of Area Agency on Aging Region 6, to serving on the Boston Commission on Affairs of the Elderly. Ina also developed and ran Home Health Services for Family Services of Greater Boston, and was president of the statewide Mass Home Care Corporation. As an attorney, she has focused on child welfare and family law. She’s also served as a professor and learning specialist at North Shore Community College.
Ina, could you tell me about your upbringing?
I was born in New London, Conn., and I spent a great deal of my childhood in the Bronx. My grandparents were colorful people, immigrants from Russia, and we passed many a weekend in Bryant Park, where my grandfather espoused Mother Russia, dressed in tails and top hat, while my grandmother mimicked a flapper, boa and all, while she distributed meatloaf sandwiches! My father was a great Zionist. His father had immigrated in 1890, and was also a devout Zionist. My grandmother on that side was a very pious woman. My earliest memories of Judaism are the days sitting upstairs in her modest synagogue with the beehive of female gossip counterpointed by the ancient cantor’s screaming admonitions.
As a child, when did you first connect with Judaism?
My paternal grandmother raised us for the early years and we learned the importance of Shabbat and how to daven from her. Like so many females of my generation, we were an “afterthought” of development as Jews. I did go to Hebrew school after school and I did have a bat mitzvah, but that was more pro forma than sincere in the Orthodox community. So I would say that my Judaism comes from a cultural bias and keen interest in learning. I always loved to go to shul and still love to attend services and stretch myself to think about a “Jewish perspective.” My identity as a Jew is baked-in and I have been privileged to not only have strong faith but to be exposed all my life to other religions and practices. Humanity stacks up for me first as a being human, then as a Jew. It is compelling.
Where did you go to college, and how did that influence your interest in social justice?
I graduated from Boston University and got my advanced degrees from Harvard. Later, I got my law degree from Suffolk University. Then the most challenging education I had was becoming a teacher and getting certified by Salem State University. My interest has always been in social justice. I think that comes from a number of places. We were quite poor growing up and lived in a section of town that housed mostly minorities and transient Navy families because of the Underwater Sound Labs and Navy base. That gave me the opportunity to start life with parity, with an understanding that all people are equal and that all are entitled to basic human rights and in the America I knew, to equal justice under law. I remember hearing when the little girls were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963; my mother cried for three days. Her compassion and outrage stirred me deeply. Something triggered a lifelong belief in the potential for our society to afford equality, but I knew it would take guts and determination on my part and on the shoulders of each person living here. It has just never wavered and been my foundation and fulcrum.
What made you want to move to the North Shore?
Throughout college, I worked at nursing homes and hospitals near Cambridge and BU. I didn’t know that the North Shore even existed! One day, I was taking a bike ride and blew a tire. I was changing it on a piece of random newspaper and there was an ad for senior adult director at the North Shore JCC in Marblehead. They had just moved to the stunning new campus from Market Street. I rode out and turned the corner at the Nahant Rotary and became breathless. I fell in love with the North Shore and I was extremely lucky to get the job. In the winter, I was the senior adult director and in the summer, I worked at Camp Simchah. It was a natural fit and the happiest time of my life. I met many people with whom I am still friends and became part of a very special community. Much to my dismay, I did move on to work in Boston because I was in my mid-twenties and the wiser woman who worked in the JCC office warned me that I’d never meet a husband if I stayed in the more isolated North Shore! So, I rode my bike and began a long and privileged career in government, social service, law and education.
You’re a lawyer who chose a career in pursuit of social justice and equality. Why are you so passionate about social justice and equality?
Again, I think that when you experience deprivation and/or tragedy at a very young age, you grow with a tremendous sense of purpose to see things righted. It’s actually a choice and one that informs how you view life. You have to be very careful not to be judgmental or evangelical, but to stay open in mind and heart. I have a lifelong personal struggle with obesity and know firsthand about prejudice and scorn. I also know about kindness and generosity of spirit in the wonderful people I’ve met over many decades. I am a believer that in the end, justice prevails. It may be slow and sometimes excruciating on every level – social, racial, economic – but we each have a responsibility to look out for others. That is what makes the current political situation so painful.
You seem to have dedicated your life to Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world. Why?
It’s a little presumptuous to think about repairing the world, but I am committed to making a difference. I chose child welfare work because the most vulnerable often need the loudest and most serious voice. I have met hundreds of children who have been adjudicated abused and seen them “recover” and make a reasonable and often outstanding life. In my youth, there was a totally different orientation toward children and family dynamics. Children had very few civil rights and certainly no respect. We are a long way from where we need to be in prevention and wholesome appropriate intervention, but it is better, and I am grateful that I could contribute.
This situation with immigrants at the border and the way they are treated is shameful and I’m sure will be regarded in history as evil. To separate parents who made desperate efforts to give their children a fighting chance in life, if not actually saving their lives from inevitable tyranny in their native lands, is just plain sadistic. The young ones are marred by such anxiety separation and the older ones, particularly the boys, are seething with anger. We, the United States government, have created a class of damaged youngsters who will inevitably turn against us. How not? And, is it possible that some Americans think that immigrant parents love their children any less than we love ours? Is enforced separation not psychologically devastating for parents who may be impoverished or uneducated or emotionally trapped? It drives me crazy. So I decided to do my little piece and train for the border. It has been a totally overwhelming and humbling experience. Here, in Swampscott and Marblehead, we have a weekly vigil to try to keep the issue alive.
How has Judaism influenced your life?
Judaism has always made me aware that I am part of something much larger than my own life. I take comfort in knowing basic principles of conduct and attitude. I am proud of scholarship in ordering the world. My great love for Zion is both inherited and inculcated. When I go to Israel, from the moment the plane lands, I am filled with confidence and joy and a sense of belonging. It’s not rational but it is real. I know that Israel and her citizens and residents aren’t perfect but I feel such national pride and hope. The Jerusalem swagger? Have you ever noticed how when a person goes to Israel, especially on a first-time trip, he/she comes home with a tendency to float? Being Jewish is a gift and an awesome obligation to follow the Commandments and the mitzvahs. It is a frame of mind and a great exclusive club but one open to new members and new ideas all of the time.
You’ve run voter registration drives at colleges and universities, and have registered over 1,500 new voters. What motivates you to do that?
Participatory democracy is simply the greatest human endeavor ever. If we are lucky enough to be born in America and to grow and to flourish, the least we can do is our civic duty to vote. Many of my students at the college level were new immigrants and first-generation students. I always tried to help them demystify government and its relation to them and their families. I always broke down voting eligibilities, procedure and outcomes. Eventually, the Swampscott Democratic Town Committee took over the efforts and we started to do two nonpartisan voter registrations a year. We included classroom presentations and lessons. An amazingly great number of adults and eventually students became involved.
It is heartwarming to know that we have the ball rolling. I will say that we are relentless in approaching shoppers at the supermarket and everybody in any nursing home, school, library, hospital, etc. It just makes our democracy better and better. To cherish American citizenship is an historic and current blessing.
You’re a member of Temple Sinai and a past president of the Lynn, Marblehead-Swampscott Chapter of Hadassah. You’re also part of the Committee for Jewish Book Month at the JCC. How important is it to have a connection with other Jews, and what does it do for your soul?
I am very happy to serve the Jewish community where I can. When I was working, it was harder to be active. Retired, I can be more available. I really like Temple Sinai and the rabbi and cantor and administration. There is a feeling of family. The Jewish Book Month Committee takes me right back to my roots at the JCC. The committee is awesome, with very excellent leadership and staff support. Hadassah has always been in my heart. Our Youth Villages have saved Jewish children since before Israel was a state. Our hospitals and satellite programs serve whole communities regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation. I love the egalitarian nature of Hadassah’s mission. I congratulate the handful of women in our area, Lynn-Marblehead-Swampscott, who labor relentlessly to revive a once prominent chapter.