Talora Gross takes first steps at ADL
By KAREN LOZINSKI, Special to the CCJN
When sitting in the office of the new community director for the South Central Region of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Talora Gross, it’s hard not to notice how bright, airy, and open to possibility it is. Tall windows overlook the gently pitched roofs of the peaceful residential Metairie neighborhood lovingly crowded with greenery. A bookshelf stands between them, stuffed with scholarly tomes. And on the desk, a brilliant royal blue betta fish darts and swirls around bamboo stalks in his bowl, adding a flash of life and color. The fish is new too; he does not yet have a name.
“I want to pick a Hebrew name that reflects hope for utopia,” says Gross, whose own hopeful enthusiasm and dedication match the openness and expectations of her office. Gross possesses that particular combination of authority and affability that comes from years of helming a classroom, which is not surprising, as before taking on her role with the ADL, she had spent years as an educator. Talora taught English at the middle and high school levels, and was an adjunct college professor for two years.
“I’ve always thought it’s amazing that ‘rabbi’ is basically the term for teacher. It was important for me, from a very young age, to be a teacher.”
At first glance, her professional background may seem unaligned with her new role as an ADL Community Director, but nothing could be further from the truth. ADL’s Outreach and Education efforts are a natural fit for Gross. Her classroom experience is supplemented by multiple extracurricular efforts throughout her career, including Pasadena Learns, an after-school program specifically designed to help skills-deficient students. Gross lights up when asked to talk about how the ADL works with schools in the Greater New Orleans area.
“We’re trying to expand our education initiatives at the ADL, and I feel very passionate about all of them, especially combating cyberbullying and ‘No Place for Hate.’”
The ADL program “No Place for Hate” addresses very compelling and immediate issues which kids across the country face everyday during the simple and expected activity of attending school. This includes bullying, cyber-bullying and name-calling, which can damage students’ self-esteem and ability to learn, points out the ADL website.
Gross concurs that “No student should ever feel isolated because of his or her ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation or physical appearance.” The South Central Region office is one of 17 fellow ADL regional offices offering “No Place for Hate” as an effective solution to the problem.
Gross’ rundown of the “No Place for Hate” program starts with a school’s commitment to be a “No Place for Hate” school. After initial steps, the school forms a club, typically called Diversity Club. Over the course of the school year, students are engaged in a variety of projects, with a compulsory completion of at least three. Gross says many schools opt to do more.
These projects include bringing in guest speakers, participating in brown bag lunches that encourage children to get to know each other and talk, and at year’s end, there is a presentation of a banner that celebrates the students’ strides and accomplishments, acknowledging their efforts to be a “No Place for Hate” school. Students also sign the Resolution of Respect.
Thirty schools in the ADL’s South Central region currently participate in the program, throughout Louisiana and Arkansas, and Gross would like to see that number increase to 45 this year. Through this growth, the ADL hopes to include schools in Mississippi.
A native of Northern California, Gross grew up primarily in South Florida. She attended the University of Central Florida for her bachelor’s degree in English, and went on to attain a master’s of fine arts degree in creative writing with a concentration in fiction from Antioch University in Los Angeles. She traces her lifelong zeal for education, its manifestation as a career, and her passion for civil rights to the loving, guiding force of her parents.
Her father, Reform Rabbi Mark Gross, had his first pulpit in Monterey, CA, at Congregation Beth Israel. He has led the Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs, FL, for the past 26 years. Her mother, Carol Gross, is a social worker, who has worked side-by-side with her husband in his efforts.
“I have two parents who are really passionate about social justice. I have a father who’s extremely interested in interfaith outreach. I grew up attending Thanksgiving unity services that he initiated in our community where every member of other religious congregations would come together, and we’d collect food to give to a food bank,” she reflected. “I’ve really seen from my dad’s example what it is to build bridges between different groups who maybe could have a continued history of clashing.”
Gross recalls her years growing up in the synagogue with great fondness; her remembrances of teaching Hebrew school, singing in the choir and productions, and helping with fundraisers cause her to light up with the same enthusiasm she undoubtedly brought to those activities when in her youth.
2013 marks the centennial of the founding of the Anti-Defamation League by Sigmund Livingston. The centennial year has been filled with celebration and activism, according to Gross, and was kicked off regionally with the annual ADL South Central Torch of Liberty Dinner in December of 2012 headed up by her now-retired predecessor Cathy Glaser.
All attendees of the dinner were given a reissue of “A Nation of Immigrants” by John F. Kennedy, with a forward by Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the ADL. Foxman, who had been widely publicized as the keynote speaker at the dinner, was a last minute cancellation when his wife fell ill.
For this centennial year, Foxman and Christopher Wolf also published the book “Viral Hate,” which addresses the hateful vitriol present on the Internet thanks to extremists and the amorphous nature of the medium itself.
Launched in tandem with the organization’s centennial, “Imagine a World Without Hate” is a new ADL campaign Gross is heading up. It’s intent is to encourage individuals “to stand up (and) speak out against prejudice and bigotry.”
The centerpiece is a compelling 80-second public service video with music by John Lennon that imagines the contributions that victims of high-profile hate crimes might have made to society had their lives not been brutally cut short by racism, homophobia or anti-Semitism. Among those profiled are civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther, King, Jr., Holocaust victim Anne Frank, hate crime victims Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., former Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
The video itself is haunting, poignant, and renders viewers close to tears at the possibilities it suggests. A free, corresponding curriculum is available online for educators.
As part of her celebration of ADL’s centennial, Gross traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend events there, and lobbied for the Dream Act and S.744 Senate Immigration Bill with another regional community director for the ADL. Her training as a new regional director has been intense and non-stop since she took over the role last month.
Gross’ love of New Orleans began on a visit to a friend to celebrate Halloween here in 2009. A self-proclaimed foodie, she feels right at home in the culture of this great city. She can’t get enough of New Orleans’ cuisine and the music, citing Rebirth Brass Band as one of her favorite artists.
Her expertise as an educator may make her a natural in her role at the ADL, but Gross is sure to mention the mission statement of the ADL as part of her own core beliefs: “To stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” For her this statement reflects the questions posed by Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
She pauses after reciting both, draws a breath, and sits at her desk.
“If I had to put something next to the Shema, that would be it.”
(This is the second in a CCJN series on the three new executive directors who have recently taken office. Next week’s series finale will concentrate on Liba Kornfeld, the new Jewish Community Center director of Jewish Family Life, among whose many new duties will include overseeing the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School and the annual community Yom Ha’Shoah program.)