In June, Detroit Jews for Justice lost beloved leader Bobbi Spiegler to a battle with cancer. Eleanor shared the following remarks at a memorial service held on July 6. In testament to Bobbi, there was a packed house.
Hello, I’m Eleanor Gamalski and I’m the Deputy Director of Detroit Jews for Justice. I had the true joy of organizing alongside Bobbi going back to 2016. It was the early days of DJJ, but at that point Bobbi already had a long movement pedigree. (Make sure to check out the photos of Bobbi getting arrested in the 1996 news strike, where it appears at least 5 cops were required to escort her to the paddy wagon!)
Even with this impressive history, she was so supportive and affirming of DJJ youngsters like myself. Having Bobbi as a friend and comrade was an important part of my life, and I already find myself missing her phone calls, her smile, and her gentle and determined calls to action.
Like many of our folks, Bobbi came to DJJ by way of Congregation T’chiyah. She was at a service and saw that DJJ folks had contributed some artwork in support of Black Lives Matter, and she was attracted to get involved right away. We knew we’d benefitted from Bobbi choosing us as a movement home, bringing her history with the labor movement, the Vietnam anti-war movement, the feminist movement, and the LGBTQ+ movement, all of which were paramount to her identity.
But she was never one to be long-winded about her organizing resume – if you were lucky you heard some bits and pieces of this incredible personal history. Her eyes twinkled when she let you in on these recollections from her past, but she always remained firmly rooted with you in tackling the struggles of today, primed for next week’s fight.
We are lucky to have had a few DJJ leaders who have really traveled a wide range of leadership with us, but it would be hard to rival Bobbi! In her several years of involvement, she served on our Campaign Advisory Team, our Steering Committee, and by my count, at least three hiring committees. Whenever I was carrying out a debrief of DJJ’s work, Bobbi was always willing to take my call and share such insightful thoughts. As a search of her name in our Google Drive testifies, she came to a lot of meetings. In my notes from one meeting, when we were working on the launch of our 501c3 organization, Bobbi said,
I’m a grassroots organizing person – I thrive in the day-to-day action more than structural transitions. That’s not something I hold a great deal of interest in working on.
And yet, Bobbi plugged along with us, perhaps with our plying. And those governance processes were greatly strengthened by her integrity and knowledge of our needs in the day-to-day work.
But as she would tell you, yes — her real interest was in organizing on DJJ’s campaigns. Bobbi was the DJJ liaison to Movimiento Cosecha and Drive Michigan Forward, spending the last several years pushing to restore access to driver’s licenses for undocumented Michiganders. Even as she got sick, she was on us to ensure we were still engaged. In my last text from her in May she wrote, “Eleanor. I heard 16 DJJ’ers were at the May Day Action. Awesome.”
My saved voicemails from Bobbi offer a sense of the breadth and depth of her involvement, from sharing thoughts about the criteria for selection of DJJ Trustees, responding to questions about a year-end evaluation, sharing the deets on a rally in Lansing, and reaching out to chat about the T’chiyah Tzedek Committee and their upcoming Israel-Palestine trip. Listening to these a row, I noticed that even as she’d rattle off her quick message, she always signed off with “Take care.” Bobbi was really a person who took care and offered care to those around her. That’s not every activist.
I asked some of Bobbi’s peers in DJJ what they appreciated about her. The reflections of her admirers — ranging from folks in their 20’s to their 80’s – show what Bobbi brought to the table as a committed activist: her truly incredible knack for critical thinking, her humility and real commitment to learning, her unrelenting drive and longview of the work, and her compassion and warmth.
Rachel Wasserman shares: “I would say something that really stands out to me about Bobbi was her love of intergenerational spaces. She was always learning and always teaching. I learned so much about how to show up to a space with care and open ears from just watching Bobbi, even when she didn't realize she was being a teacher.”
Barry shares: “Working with Bobbi on committees at DJJ I always found her a very good thinker. She’d call on her life experiences to come up with a question or thought that came from a perspective that’d I’d never thought about.”
And in a Steering Committee meeting last year, Syma described Bobbi in a similar way: “She’s extremely thoughtful about her contribution. It comes from her really big, deep commitment to the issues of equity and justice. And you can see her lifelong pursuit of justice in how she thinks things through. She’s usually not easily satisfied with an answer — she really works on it until she can come closer to satisfaction – and then still she works even more to understand! That’s a really good thing.“
Allie shares: “Bobbi was such a bright presence. She had tenacity and optimism, even when things looked bleak. She was opinionated, funny, and deeply dedicated to building a more equitable world. In saying goodbye to Bobbi, I keep coming back to Pirkei Avot, ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).’ Bobbi’s work is not done.”
When I visited Bobbi in hospice, she looked so small. I’d never realized she was small. Her vivacity, her warmth, her endless capacity for getting-things-done had such a large effect on all of us. Hell, the Detroit police figured they needed a whole squadron to take her down. Though she was losing her strength then, she still lit up as we talked about our organizing memories and the recent success of a lobbying day for Drivers’ Licenses in Lansing. I shared a card from DJJ, and read her incredibly beautiful tributes from her organizing community in Cosecha; which seemed to move her beyond what she had the ability to express at that point.
As I said goodbye, more of Bobbi’s friends walked in. She offered sweet introductions between us; and it struck me that we were part of a network of so, so many people who were transformed in relationship with Bobbi Spiegler. It’s a community I’m really grateful to be a part of. I know we will carry Bobbi’s spirit with us in the struggles to come, which she would have been anxious for us to keep front-and-center.
One of Bobbi’s most special DJJ relationships was with our former intern, Konrat, who hailed from Germany. These two were peas in a pod and hoped to maintain a lifelong friendship on their social justice journeys. Konrat shared the following story: “Bobbi probably had the biggest impact on me during a meeting in December of 2020.” At the time, Konrat was struggling with the loss of his Babaanne, his grandmother, and overall with his outlook on life. He shared:
In this meeting, Bobbi shared updates from Cosecha, and passionately taught us about the importance of the Drivers Licenses campaign to immigrant communities in Michigan.
I was moved to tears by her words (and her actions!), seeing how committed she was to helping groups of people she did not personally know and mobilizing so many around her to join in on the fight. I remember feeling incredibly grateful for her work, yet so sad that my Babaanne didn't have someone like Bobbi when she immigrated to Germany in the 1960s and was met with incredible discrimination and prejudice, making her an outcast. But what I really took away was that even one person – even if they're just half as dedicated, passionate, and loving as Bobbi was – can make huge differences in the lives of so many, especially when their actions are rooted in loving, embracing communities like DJJ, T'chiyah and Cosecha.
In that one meeting, Bobbi sparked something that I've carried with me ever since: a deeper understanding of what it means to hold multiple truths. Society is incredibly harsh on immigrants, and society is full of love for immigrants. Being an activist is tiring and frustrating, and being an activist is energizing and rewarding. Religious groups often harbor deep resentments against queer people, and you can be queer, proud, and loved by your community and friends.
Thank you, Bobbi, for all the love and inspiration you introduced to my life. I'll always remember you for that. May your memory be for a blessing. <3”
And when I tell you we can honor Bobbi by fighting alongside Cosecha to win Drivers Licenses for All, it’s not an organizing gimmick. I don’t need Bobbi here to tell us it would be an appropriate way to honor her, because she told us with her actions for the past 5 years.
Thank you, Bobbi, for agitating us and loving us; we love you and hope your spirit is taking some time now to rest, while you cheer us on at the next march.