January 2023 Woman of Impact: Evi Shekhman

Our Woman of Impact profile features a local woman making a notable impact in our community. For this issue, we spoke with Evi Shekhman, a former healthcare executive, philanthropist, wife, and mother of three in Farmington. Evi and her colleagues were recently featured in local and national media outlets for their response to the Farmington Board of Education’s controversial decision to remove Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah from the district’s list of school-closed observed holidays. With the help of fellow families, Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, and several other Jewish and non-Jewish advocacy groups, Evi and her colleagues succeeded in overturning the board’s decision. Born in Tel Aviv and a longtime resident of Toronto, Evi now lives in Farmington with her husband Mark and three sons: Sean, 18; Rafael, 15; and Viktor, 13.

What role does Judaism play in your life?
It’s a fundamental part of my identity. The Jewish value of tikkun olam means supporting your community. For me, it also means recognizing you’re part of something bigger than yourself and you have a responsibility to do what you can to make a difference, which is both spiritual and traditional. Religion can inspire, but it’s up to us to live our lives every day with spiritual intention.

Help us understand how you got involved with the Farmington Board of Education’s decision to remove two Jewish holidays from their calendar.
 Just for background, my middle son is part of the rowing program in Farmington and I help out with publicity. During a regatta in November, he let me know that one of his classmates was spewing antisemitic rhetoric, and several kids had recorded it. This was on a Saturday, and I was closely working with the school on this issue — just to give you context for where my head was at. The following Monday, I received an email from the school board letting parents know that at their next meeting they planned to review several Jewish holidays that were currently part of the school’s planned days off, as well as whether or not to add the Hindu holiday of Diwali. I’d never received an email like this before, so I forwarded it to a few friends and a gentleman on the Farmington Human Rights Commission to see what they all thought of it. I was about to leave for a two-week trip to Israel to visit family, so I couldn’t be at that school board meeting, unfortunately. But while I was in Israel, I got a text from a friend who was there, saying, “They just deleted two Jewish holidays.” Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah had been added to the calendar as observed holidays in 1999. At that time, the Jewish community in Farmington had gone to the school board asking that these holidays be recognized as days off from school, as many other towns in the area had done. They added them then — and now they were removing them.

I wanted to know the reasoning, so when I got home, I listened to the four-and-a-half hour board meeting posted online. It was so upsetting; the decision the board made was unanimous and without discussion. I walked away feeling they didn’t understand the implications of their decisions and there were so many factual errors. And the core issue for the board didn’t seem to be the religious holidays themselves, or even understanding them — it was about getting those holidays back and not having to add Diwali so they could count all of those days toward the 180 teaching days required in Connecticut and end the school year earlier. They explained that they had used a decision-making chart, but it was an illogical process and had so many inaccuracies. I don’t think it was a malicious decision, but it was based in ignorance and showed an inability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. And, more importantly, understand the ramifications of their decisions.

How did you respond?
A lot of communication, including emails, texts, and phone calls to whomever we could think of. I reached out to the board asking for confirmation about the facts and David Waren [president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford] met with their leadership to highlight several inaccuracies in the information they used to make a decision. He and I were also in regular communication about what to do. Also, a number of us collaborated on an op-ed piece for the “Hartford Courant,” and someone in our group was able to get the story picked up by the "Today" show's magazine and "The Washington Times" But we didn’t see the board budging at all; my sense was that they weren’t listening. Finally, a friend of mine who works regularly with the media said, “You need to start a petition” — so we did.

The day before the next Board of Education meeting where they were going to put forth a second and final vote, David and I were speaking on the phone and he got a call on the other line. It was the chair of the board, letting him know that they were going to reverse their decision the next day. 

That must have felt like quite a victory.
Yes and no. It was definitely good to get the story out. We had a lot of media at that meeting and more than 250 people packed into a school auditorium, which was amazing compared to how these meetings are regularly attended. However, several members of the school board stood up before they announced the reversal and basically said, ‘We’re being forced to do this because of the pressure we’re getting. We don’t agree, but we are overturning it because we have to.’ We’re also still waiting to hear their decision on adding Diwali to the school calendar, which the board said they’ll consider in the new year. That’s part of our discussions now: How can we support the large Hindu community in Farmington, because this is not just about us. Clearly, this is not a closed book and the importance of this work has not ended. We’re still asking ourselves, “How do we make sure this never happens again?”

Is there a silver lining in this experience for you?
So many. Throughout this process, I received emails from teachers — both Jewish and Christian — thanking us for taking on this fight. Even during the school board meeting, I received emails of support from local people who were watching it online and sending me running commentary. The second silver lining is that five of us came together to coordinate our resources throughout this process, including one member of our group who is not Jewish. We really didn’t know each other before this and now they are some of the closest friends I have. In fact, in the span of just a few months, I’ve met so many amazing and supportive people, and I feel blessed and honored to have them in my life. I read a quote once to the effect of, ‘During times of struggle, people either fold or become extraordinary.’ That’s exactly what I feel happened here. In a time of struggle, we decided to do an extraordinary thing and not let fear bring us down. We’re a small town, but it’s my hope that when other communities experience similar circumstances, they’ll be able to say, “Did you hear what they did in Farmington?” I hope we’re setting a positive precedent.

How has this experience affected your perspective on Federation’s work?
Federation truly reaches every aspect of our community, and I am absolutely indebted to them for the work they do. They have me for life. When I didn’t know what to do in this instance, they acted as a sounding board. They listened, supported me, and guided me. In Yiddish, the term bashert refers to two soulmates coming together, and that’s a good analogy for my experience with Federation. I’ve told Laurie Mandell [Federation’s associate vice president of development], “I’m yours for whatever Federation needs. Here’s my background — I’m passionate and the time is now.”

What advice would you give to other Jewish people who experience instances of ignorance or antisemitism?
Pick up the phone — that’s how it started for me. If other Jewish Federations are like this one, and I’m sure they are, someone will respond. Also, you don’t have to feel afraid or alone. The Jewish community is a wondrous organization that has, unfortunately, had to refine its processes and procedures around incidents like this many, many times. We’ve read this book before and we know how it can turn out, so you can expect the community’s response will be smart, productive, and focused on keeping people safe.