State Legislator – And Hindu Jew – Visits Israel on Birthright Trip
by Abigail Pickus
For the Hindus, she’s Hindu.
And for the Jews, she’s Jewish.
So where does that leave Kesha Ram, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Hindu father?
“That’s like asking me, who do I love more, my mother or my father?” asked the 25-year- old Ram, who also happens to be Vermont’s youngest state legislator – not to mention the youngest state legislator in the entire nation.
Ram recently delved deeper into her Jewish heritage on her first trip to Israel as part of a Taglit-Birthright tour.
“It’s been incredibly powerful,” said Ram during a break from the ten-day tour. Sitting in an outside courtyard in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, Ram reviewed some of the highlights of her tour she shared with forty 20-somethings from across the United States, as well as eight Israeli soldiers.
Her parents met as students at UCLA in the late 1960’s – her mother from Illinois and her father from India. “My mom used to hang out at the international house,” said Ram.
When they decided to get married, they had two weddings – one in the Jewish faith and the other in the Hindu faith and they raised their three children in Los Angeles in this harmonious spirit.
“We celebrated every holiday imaginable,” said Ram.
In an interesting twist, both religions lay claim to her since traditional Judaism subscribes to matrilineal descent while Hinduism to patrilineal descent.
But even if Ram managed to avoid choosing one faith at the expense of the other, there is a cost to being a member of two clubs simultaneously.
“I come from a mix of two cultures, of two races, yet I never felt enough of anything,” she admitted.
Having visited India three times, Ram realized that she was losing her Judaism.
“My Jewish side was floundering,” she said. “And without that how could I really understand who I am?”
Her brother had visited Israel and recommended it so when the time was right, she applied to go on a Taglit-Birthright trip.
“I had never been to the sacred places of my Jewish ancestors,” she said. “Going to India was powerful to me because I always grew up with a strong sense of place and that history matters. It’s important to see ancient spaces and to understand history where it happened so being here, meeting Israelis, seeing the sites, this is something that I could have never gotten by staying in America.”
Ram made a conscious decision to experience Israel as both an elected official and a private person – and, more significantly, as someone who embodies these two interlapping identities.
In addition to being encouraged by Israel’s exploration of solar energy, Ram found herself inspired by the IDF soldiers who joined her group.
“It is Israel ‘Defense’ Forces not the Israel ‘Attack’ Forces,” said Ram, offering unilateral support for Israel’s right to defend itself. “The media is often skewed against Israel and it was important for me to see firsthand how it feels to live in Israel and, in the case of the soldiers, to defend it.”
Ram was so inspired by the soldiers that she wants to bring back to the United States mandatory service modeled on the IDF, particularly its Sherut Leumi, the alternative voluntary service for people who do not wish to serve in the army.
“I’ve seen huge changes with Kesha on this trip,” said Rabbi Zalman Wilhelm, the Director of Chabad at the University of Vermont who served as a counselor on Ram’s Taglit-Birthright tour. Wilhelm befriended Ram when she was the Student Government President at the University of Vermont. “Vermont is a very left-wing state and on this trip, and through talking with soldiers, Kesha is realizing the challenges Israel faces. That’s why it is so important that politicians see Israel firsthand.”
What is unique about Ram, according to Wilhelm, is her open mind.
“I’ve seen how she works and she doesn’t come with her opinions. She actually goes out and listens to what the people have to say. Her voice is the people’s voice,” he said.
It was precisely this kind of open mind – and a ready ear – that led to Ram’s victory as a State Representative in 2008 at the tender age of 23. In Vermont, state legislators serve six months out of the year. For the other half of the year, Ram works as a legal advocate for victims of domestic violence. She is up for re-election in November.
She ran for election fresh out of university and took on incumbents who were more than twice her age. It was a brazen move, but she had few things on her side. The first was that more than half her district was comprised of young people like herself. The second was an inherent mistrust people have of elected officials.
“They don’t know who these people are,” said Ram. And so she set out to change that.
“There are 5,000 voters in my district. I knocked on all of their doors – twice,” she said.
As she made her way through her district one door at a time, she met people from all different backgrounds and political allegiances. “I wanted to know who they were, what keeps them up at night,” she said.
One 94-year-old woman who welcomed Ram into her home was a conservative Christian. “My liberal views did not mesh with hers, but I listened to her and at the age of 94, who knew if I would even get her vote?” Ram admitted. “But by the end of the conversation she said to me, ‘You are the first person who has sat and listened to me. I don’t care what your views are. I will vote for you.”
Ram won by the largest margin of any challenger in the State of Vermont and she did so, she is convinced, because she talked to so many people.
“My story is uniquely American, but it is also uniquely Vermont where you can go and talk to people in their homes,” she said.
As she prepares to return home to Vermont, she is convinced that her visit to Israel, which enabled her to tap into a missing part of herself, will make her a stronger and more moral legislator.
And what of her future goals as a rising political star? If she has lofty ambitions, she’s not saying.
“I love government and serving the people and it would be amazing to be a senator or a governor one day,” said Ram, “but now I love where I am and am focusing on that. We will see where it takes me.”
photos by Uri Yehezkel