Our Woman of Impact profile features a local woman making a notable impact in our community. For this issue, we spoke with Debbie Mehlman, who has been active among Greater Hartford’s Jewish agencies and organizations for nearly four decades. Debbie also enjoyed a 40-year career working in a local social-security office, processing disability claims for those in need. During her time in the Greater Hartford area, Debbie’s volunteerism has connected her to Mandell JCC, the Jewish Children’s Service Organization, Dignity Grows, Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, and many other local organizations. She also taught Hebrew school at The Emanuel for nearly 25 years. Recently, Debbie fulfilled a longtime goal of joining the Lion of Judah Giving Society. Debbie and her husband Peter continue to live in West Hartford, and their daughter Rebecca resides in Bloomfield.
What drew you to West Hartford from such a young age?
I grew up outside of Trenton, New Jersey, and we were pretty much the only Jewish family for miles. I remember raising my hand in school to say, “I can’t take the test that day because it’s Rosh Hashanah.” There were lots of little things like that, and I knew I didn’t want to live that way as a Jewish adult, or have my children go through it.
When I was a teenager, my family moved to Manchester, Connecticut, and my mother would come to West Hartford to shop at the Crown. We’d drive around and I’d think to myself, “Oh, this is where I want to live when I get married.” Years later, when my husband and I finally moved here, it was like I died and went to heaven. They even had kosher cooking classes in the adult education program!
What role does the Jewish community play in your life today?
The community is basically my whole life. I mean, I do have friends who aren't Jewish, and I belong to book groups where not everybody's Jewish, so it’s not like I live in a little shtetl. But being with other Jewish people with Jewish values and keeping Judaism alive in West Hartford, as well as helping people elsewhere — that’s all so important to me.
I also grew up in a very Jewish household. Even though we didn't go to synagogue that often, my father would quote [Rabbi] Hillel and we always had guests for Seder. It was important in my family to do things for other people. Even today, when it's one of the high holidays, I think of someone who may not have a place to go and say to myself, “Let me find out. Because if they don’t, they can always come here.”
You’re a regular at local Dignity Grows packing events, among other volunteer opportunities. What do you enjoy about supporting their work?
Oh, that’s the best. You're with all these other people who are working in a line making an impact you can see: At first, there's 94 bottles of shampoo in front of you, and a half hour later there's all these totes stacked up with [goods] ready to go to people who need them. I went to one [packing party] that also had people from Goodwin College who talked about the impact. They told us about students who felt they had to choose between buying books or sanitary supplies. And here we were giving them what they needed. You don't need to be recognized when you do something like that — that's not the point. But it is important to know that you did something that mattered.
You recently made the decision to become a Lion of Judah. What drove you to make that choice?
I’d wanted to do this for a long time, so when I was finally able, it really was a dream come true. In fact, it felt like the last piece of the puzzle. I live in a Jewish area; I go to synagogue; I taught Hebrew school for almost 25 years — but I wanted to get to a point in our lives where we had the financial resources to make an impact, not just with our local Jewish community, but beyond.
Things became a little easier once I retired; I had a pension and we’d paid the house off. So, I became a Pomegranate. Then, and thank G-d for Laurie Mandel, she called and asked, “Have you ever thought of becoming a Lion?” And I told her, “That’s my goal, but I’m waiting!” She told me about a program that corresponded with my financial situation and we were able to make it work, which made me so happy! It’s not like money's nothing to me — it took some figuring out to be able to do it — but that’s also what made it really mean something and feel special.
What accounts for your passion for volunteering and giving back to the community?
It’s not like being philanthropic is genetic, but I did have an interesting experience when I was 45. At that time, I learned I’d been adopted and that I have an identical twin sister. We had to hire an investigator to find her, and we did. She was brought up Catholic and I was brought up Jewish, but she and I have done many of the same things in our lives: She’s very active in her church, as both a volunteer and lay leader. She’s also donated regularly [to causes she believes in] and had people stay in her house who needed to. It was like we led parallel lives. Both of us had something in us that pushed us to be a certain way. Is there a gene that makes you go to synagogue, or church? No, I don’t think so, but there does seem to be something inside that pushes you toward a spiritual life.
Above: Debbie Mehlman receives her pin at the 2023 Lion of Judah Celebration