Our Woman of Impact profile features a local woman making a notable impact in our community. For this issue, we spoke with Dr. Robin Santiago, who has called West Hartford home for nearly her entire life. Until her retirement five years ago, Robin owned a private dental practice in West Hartford, where she specialized in cosmetic dentistry. A proud supporter of Israel, Robin serves on the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Israel Task Force, as well as the Israel Engagement Committee at Beth El Temple. In addition to AIPAC, Robin is also active with the Jewish National Fund (JNF), serving on a task force to promote the development of Israel’s Galilee region. Robin and her husband, Rafael, have four adult sons and seven grandchildren.
Editor’s note: The majority of our conversation with Robin took place prior to the horrific attacks on Israel, though we reconnected for a brief follow-up, found at the end of our Q&A below.
What role does Jewish identity play in your life?
It’s central. We keep a kosher home and have always been very active in the Jewish community. I have been sisterhood president at my synagogue and a member of the Jewish Community Center for years. I was also very active at Solomon Schechter Day School when my kids went there. My son and daughter-in-law both send their two kids to Schechter, which we’re thrilled about.
My values have always been Jewish values, including how I treated my employees and how we raised our children. I studied for a semester in Israel — and that helped me realize that having a strong Jewish home was essential to my being. I won’t pretend to be perfect, but we observed the holidays, went regularly to synagogue, and tried to instill Jewish values in our children. If we don’t stand up for ourselves as Jews, we’re in trouble, and the best way to do that is to be proud of our faith and traditions.
You’re a strong supporter of the State of Israel. What does that look like in practice?
I’m very supportive of Israel, but I don’t believe that showing support means you can’t criticize. I also occasionally criticize my children, but it’s a constructive criticism because I love them and want to see them improve. However, when you go so far as to say that Israel shouldn’t exist, you’re not looking to make it a better place; you’re looking to get rid of it. To me, this is a form of antisemitism, and I’m committed to doing what I can to stand up for my faith, the Jewish people, and Zionism. Judaism is a living religion and culture, and the land and people of Israel are part of what it means to be Jewish. It’s also true that we are not a homogenous people — we’re individuals. I have friends who are Chabad and friends who are atheist Jews, but what did Tevye say? You can bend only so far before you’re no longer who you were. Taking Israel out of Judaism, for me, waters it down too much.
How does Israel impact you emotionally when you visit?
It just feels like home. I remember when I was living there briefly and it was Pesach. Everywhere was kosher and everyone was celebrating! I felt like I was with a huge family, a spiritual community that began in Israel and stretched around the world. And if I looked behind me, I’d see my grandparents and great grandparents, stretching all the way back to Aaron. Many of our prayers are so old and from different parts of the world, and yet it comes together in a unified whole — and I feel that with special intensity when I’m in Israel.
I also serve on a task force with JNF called “Go North West,” which promotes development in Galilee. We’re working to create employment in the area, help small businesses thrive, and start a culinary institute in eastern Galilee. I’m a little more involved with Akko and western Galilee, but that whole region is one of my favorite areas in Israel. I love the greenery and the small villages, including the Druze and Arab villages. It gives me hope that people with different beliefs can coexist.
How do you see your responsibility to the local Jewish community?
You can’t sit back and let other people volunteer. You have to step up, speak up, and take an active role — and then talk to friends and family about what you’re doing and why it’s important. And that responsibility goes beyond just the Jewish community. I’m in a dental group where we discuss how to move on from your career and be happy. A Catholic woman and I were asked to do a presentation about spirituality, and I love having the opportunity to open people’s eyes to the beauty and richness of Judaism and Israel. Part of what I love to share about the Jewish tradition is that our heroes are not perfect, so people like us can still do good in our time. In fact, the imperfections of our forefathers and mothers gives me hope and strength; they don’t negate their positive values and strengths. So when it comes to giving back to the local community, it’s ok to do that in baby steps: What motivates you? What inspires you? Can you volunteer, or join a committee? Do you want to be more connected to your synagogue? As the rabbis say, if you do the right things, it leads to right thinking. That may even start with just educating yourself a bit more about a Jewish issue you’re interested in. And when you discover something you’re interested in, you have to ask yourself, “How can I make the most of that?”
Update: We spoke with Robin again in the wake of the attack by Hamas. She shared her reflections below.
Robin, what was your initial reaction when you heard the news from Israel?
We have a friend who lives on the border of Gaza, and I was beside myself with worry. I texted him and it was hours before we heard anything. I was thinking about him, a few other friends, and a cousin I have there. It’s hard to know what to do — you call in hopes of hearing good news, but then worry if you should call at all. What if the phone rings at the wrong time?
Everyone I know has lost someone. I had the honor to meet a man named Ofir Liebstein from Sha'ar HaNegev, and I learned that he died defending his kibbutz. The irony is that he was working on a project to promote business between Israelis and people from Gaza, to help improve the economic situation for Gazans. That irony is just so painful.
In the face of such tragedy, are you finding any opportunities for hope?
It’s true that this is all very personal; every one of my friends has a story [of loss]. But what does give me hope is the great rapidity with which the Jewish people in Israel supported each other. They didn’t wait for the government — they saw what needed to be done and they did it. And we’re also seeing support from so many organizations. Jewish National Fund (JNF) is providing the basics for those who need them, because many people don’t have towels, underwear, or toothbrushes. JNF is making a list of their names and needs, and hundreds of volunteers are putting together care packages and making sure they get to the right person.
Adi Negev [is an organization that] takes care of children and adults with challenges. They took in some of the young people who escaped from the concert at the Gaza border and provided emotional support until the army was able to rescue them. There are also 300 Ukrainian refugees who are affected — can you imagine, after all they’ve been through? JNF has already found a place just outside of Jerusalem to relocate them. Everyone is asking what they can do. I’m hoping that sense of community will translate to our community, as well.
Speaking of the Greater Hartford Jewish community, what have you observed so far in its response to Israel?
I attended the rally in West Hartford, and it was so good to see everyone, whether secular, Orthodox, or Ultra-Orthodox, all standing together. And I was incredibly appreciative of our representatives; in particular, Chris Murphy spoke strongly in support of Israel. I don’t care what your politics or religious beliefs are: What I’m hearing from people is, “How can I help?” But we also know that it’s going to be a long haul, so we need to stay strong and resilient.
When something bad happens in my life, I take action. In this case, I made a donation in the memory of my friend, Ofir; I called all my representatives; I emailed the president of the United States asking for his support; and I told many of my friends and family to do the same. We need to stick together and we need to act in concert. That’s the strength of the Jewish people.