Sarah Greenleaf: Words, images and tikkun olam go hand in hand


Sarah Greenleaf joined the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island in May as the digital marketing specialist. She grew up in Seattle, studied English Literature and Journalism at the University of Washington, earned an MFA in Film and Media Arts from Temple University, and taught filmmaking in Los Angeles for many years. 

I knew I had found my people the first time I attended a Passover seder. As my friend Jess led us through the 1970s’ Berkeley Haggadah, everyone around the table, almost all strangers to me, thought deeply about the many questions in the Passover story. We discussed the ways in which we had freed ourselves in the past year, and admitted the things or forces we still felt enslaved to. 

I had never been in a ritual space like this before – open, personal, honest and profound. Passover was suddenly my favorite holiday. 

It would take years between that moment reaching for the bitter herb on the seder plate and my conversion to Judaism, but the guiding principles of Judaism had been with me for my entire life. 

As a young person in Seattle, I was involved in numerous volunteer and social-justice activities, from working with the YMCA to map resources for pregnant teenagers to serving as the teen documentarian for “The Freedom Crisis Project,” a youth-led advocacy group working on behalf of incarcerated children and teens. I always took tikkun olam seriously. If the world was broken, why couldn’t I help fix it? If not me, then who?

Long before I held the Torah at my synagogue for a Yom Kippur service, I was practicing the values of Torah, seeking knowledge and learning in each stage of my life. 

I learned to make films at age 14 as part of a film program for young women, and, for the next few years, I mentored in that program, and had my short film shown at festivals across the country. I went on to eventually earn an MFA in Film and Media Arts and taught filmmaking in Los Angeles for a number of years. 

While in Los Angeles, I met the woman who would become my wife, and converted to Judaism.  As a couple, my wife and I attended an 18-week course covering all aspects of Judaism, from peoplehood to history and theology. We both learned a ton, made friends we still see to this day, and found a religious community that was welcoming and loving. 

We also spent time volunteering at the Holocaust Museum LA, learning from survivors, attending film screenings and practicing dor l’dor. 

When you convert to proselytizing religions, people are ecstatic for you. When you convert to Judaism, people are worried for you. And it is no wonder, since antisemitism is surging worldwide. Klal Yisra’el, the people of Israel, have never been more important.

Throughout my life, I have worked with young people as a peer, mentor and teacher. Children and teens are most impacted by the societal choices we make, and although they are unable to vote, they are completely capable of making profound and lasting changes. As a visibly-out teacher and a co-leader of my school’s GSA (Genders & Sexualities Alliance), I make sure to practice Hineni (here I am) whenever I can. 

As an artist and creative person, I have brought my skills to kids in Seattle, Philadelphia and Los Angeles and have traveled internationally to bring film screenings to places as far away as Xining, China. Art is the true universal language and visuals can transcend numerous barriers. 

I am bringing all my experiences with me for my new role as the digital marketing specialist at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. 

As an artist and writer, to me practicing tzedakah means giving people spaces in which to see and be their full selves. Whether it’s an article in Jewish Rhode Island, an Instagram post, or copy on the website, people can tell when you are thinking of them. Words and images matter, because acknowledgement matters, being seen matters and so does knowing that you are not ever, ever alone. 

You can see some of my work on my website,