If you wanted to illustrate a dictionary’s definition of the adjective “indominable” with a little line drawing, you would do will to commission one of Charlotte Bennett Schoen.
Ms. Bennett Schoen, who lives in Englewood, is a lifelong fighter for social justice; that fight has taken her as close to home as the Englewood City Council, where she represented her ward for five years and also was council president.
It also has taken her as far from home as India, Thailand, and Burma, where she worked on global justice advocacy both for the American Jewish World Service and for other organizations.
Most recently, it takes her to Elizabeth, where she volunteers for First Friends, a group that fights for rights for immigrants and asylum seekers.
And in October, it will take her to the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, where she will offer a pop-up exhibit, “ Faithspace USA Images on Canvas: Stories of Worship and Interfaith Tolerance.” The exhibit will be up all month; on October 4 she’ll screen a movie about the project. (See box for more information.)
Ms. Bennett Schoen, straight-backed, blue-eyed, and 75, sat for an interview in an outdoor café on a recent not-too-hot, not-too-wet late summer morning. She wore a blue embroidered shirt and a blue scarf, with its ends flowing back over her shoulders. “You always wear a scarf with Indian clothing,” she said, but she adapted the way she draped it for her busy Western life.
Just to look at her resume is to be awed. She is, it tells us, an “experienced administrator, program developer, teacher, and community activist”; she has traveled to India, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Nepal, Tibet, Turkey, Israel, Iceland, and various European countries. In most of those places, she has worked, either on small-scale projects or larger social-justice efforts. And in between, she’s worked at home.
Ms. Bennett Schoen grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of “a Jewish family of doers,” she said. Her family was active in a Conservative shul. “I was not bat mitzvahed, and that helped me form my feminist thinking,” she said. “I remember thinking about it when my own two girls had their bat mitzvahs in Temple Sinai,” in Tenafly.
She went to Temple University, where she earned first an undergraduate and then a master’s degree, in teaching. (She also spent a year at the Sorbonne, in Paris.) “I taught sixth grade in Pennsylvania for seven years,” she said. “Everything you possibly need to know you learn there. Everything is in it.
“If you can run a classroom with 30 kids, and develop programs, then there is nothing that you cannot do.”
But she got married, to Dr. Paul Schoen, and the couple moved to Englewood, and Ms. Bennett Schoen ran her husband’s office for 14 years. (Dr. Schoen, who was a family practitioner, died 26 years ago.)
During her time as a mother of young children — she is the mother of two daughters, Lindsay and Ava, now both lawyers, and she is a grandmother — Ms. Bennett Schoen worked in property management; but as entrepreneurial as she was, she felt the pull of community service more and more strongly. She worked in a program called “court accompaniment,” through Bergen County’s anti-domestic violence agency, where she provided company, reassurance, and a degree of calm to domestic violence victims as they waited in the courthouse for their time before the judge. She became the program’s paid coordinator, and “one thing led to another,” she said. She worked there for more than a decade. She also founded Englewood’s Community Mental Health Organization (which now is called Vantage) and was on its board from 1979 to 1984, and she sat on the city’s board of health board of directors (yes, the word “board” really does occur twice there) from 1979 to 1984.
In 2005, Ms. Bennett Schoen ran for Englewood City Council, and won; she represented the city’s Second Ward until 2010, when she decided not to run for re-election. “I was passionate about women stepping up,” she said. “When I went onto the council, there hadn’t been a woman on it for 20 years.” During that time, she instituted programs in sustainability. She’s also deeply involved in the Englewood Historical Society, where she has been co-president since 2014.
“I am passionate about people — especially women — stepping up to run,” she said. “Women tend to wait to be asked to run, although I see this as changing in the last few years.” But women cannot afford to wait. They may never be asked, and anyway why should they wait? “If you are not at the table, you won’t be in the conversation,” Ms. Bennett Schoen said.
Once she decided that her work on the city council was over “I went to Southeast Asia,” she said. She became a volunteer with the American Jewish World Service, which used to send volunteers around the world; they were asked to commit to stints of at least three months, so they were not do-gooding tourists but visitors with some understanding of the rhythms of daily life in the places they visited.
In 2010, Ms. Bennett Schoen went to India, where she worked with village women to help keep marginalized girls in school; whether or not they were educated and literate could mean a huge difference in the lives the girls could lead after school.
India was beautiful, she said, brightly colored and vibrant. But of course there is a great deal of darkness as well. “I learned that although the caste system has been outlawed, rural places still have it,” she said. “And darker-skinned people are treated worse and worse and worse. They are raped, and the rapists get away with it.”
But she took heart from the people she worked with, and marveled at their strength, and took pleasure in the beauty around her.
The next year, Ms. Bennett Schoen went to Thailand, where she worked with sex workers.
“I only use the term sex workers now,” Ms. Bennett Schoen said; it affords these women the dignity that they did not discard when they went to work in the trade most accessible to them. “They are people who are making money for their families.”
Over the next two years she went to work twice in Burma, a country whose recent history of dictatorship, combined with the ongoing violence — perhaps genocide, depending on who you listen to or whose definitions you accept — against the Rohingya demands that foreign volunteers be very careful. In Burma, Ms. Bennett Schoen worked with Smile, a small nonprofit agency there.
There is a small shul, Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, in Rangoon, Burma’s capital, she said. “A mayor of Rangoon was Jewish; the Silk Road brought some Jewish merchants there during British colonial rule, and later Baghdadi Jews escaped there, and some Indian Jews joined them. More recently, “Israelis have kept it going,” she said.
Ms. Bennett Schoen’s work with Smile was not through the AJWS, which had discontinued its Asian programs. Instead, she got to it through the Rotary club.
The Rotary club? Really?
Yes, Ms. Bennett Schoen said firmly.
“It found these wonderful people in Rotary, doing good work.” She’s now chair of her chapter’s Peace and Conflict Resolution group. She spreads the word about much of the work she’s done in Asia through Rotary.
Although Ms. Bennett Schoen found a great deal of satisfaction in her work in Southeast Asia, the 2016 election told her that there was work to be done at home; subsequent events made that increasingly clear.
She now is a trustee of First Friends of New Jersey and New York, a faith-based group whose mission is to help refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers. It is a serious group that does hard, unsung work, she said; the group is 20 years old, and it not as well-known as she wishes it would be. It also does not include as many Jews as she hopes that eventually it will. As the situations in which immigrants find themselves grow more dire in this unwelcoming political climate, she hopes that organizations like First Friends will be able to help more and more.
Meanwhile, the exhibit at the Kaplen JCC is from Burma; like all of Ms. Bennett Schoen’s projects, it’s about tolerance and mutual understanding. It is unsafe to be in favor of such things in Burma, she said, but nonetheless this exhibit, and the accompanying film, have made their way out of that country and into this one. It includes interactive panels where people are encouraged to add their comments, fears, and hopes. Ms. Bennett Schoen has shown the exhibit and the film across the state and the region, with help from Rotary.
“She’s definitely a role model,” Cheryl Rosenberg said of Ms. Bennett Schoen. Ms. Rosenberg is another Jewish woman on Englewood’s City Council. (She represents the First Ward; Michael Cohen, the director of the eastern region of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, represents Ms. Bennett Schoen’s Second.)
“We have worked together on several things already. One is the historical commission” — because history and historic renovation are deeply held passions of Ms. Bennett Schoen’s. “She has been trying to get it established. It’s been in the works for years and years, but we’ve never gotten there yet. We’ve always had a historic advisory committee, but she wants it to be state sponsored or authorized, so that it would have control over preserving the historic structures in Englewood. She’s been a real champion on that.
“And then also she is so active with immigrant rights. Our council in Englewood is very Democratic and very pro-immigrant. Last year, before I joined the council, it passed a resolution basically mandating that the police force and the city staff update their practices and training with regard to undocumented individuals. But although the council passed it, the staff and the police sort of felt that they were okay without it, so I have worked with her to follow up, to make sure that they really are updating their practices, and that we have the right policies and procedures in place.
“Charlotte is a very powerful person, but she is also a very calm person,” Ms. Rosenberg concluded. “When you are with her, you always feel that everything is going to be okay. But you also always know that she is a force to be reckoned with.”
What: An exhibit, Faithspace USA: Images on Canvas — Stories of Worship and Interfaith Tolerance. Organized in Burma (Myanmar)
When: From October 3 to October 30
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, 411 East Clinton Ave.
And also: On October 4, at 8 p.m., the opening reception will feature an 18-minute screening of a 2017 Burmese peace documentary, SITTWE, which features two teens — one Moslem and one Buddhist. The $10 entry fee includes the film, a Q&A, and a cookie and coffee reception. Proceeds support the JCC Patron of the Arts program.