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Bend the Arc’s new leader is a black belt with a radical streak

Stosh Cotler, at right, is taking over as CEO of Bend the Arc from Alan van Capelle, at left. They are pictured outside of the White House. (Courtesy of Bend he Arc)

Stosh Cotler, right, is taking over as CEO of Bend the Arc from Alan van Capelle, left. (Courtesy of Bend the Arc)

NEW YORK (JTA) — When Stosh Cotler takes over as CEO of Bend the Arc, a Jewish group that fights for immigration reform, workers’ rights and other domestic liberal causes, she will be one of the few women leading a national Jewish group of its size.

But Cotler’s gender is not the only thing that sets her apart.

It’s not just that she only connected with Judaism as an adult or that her appearance during an interview in her Manhattan office — all-black clothes, dark red lipstick, pale blue fingernail polish and a visible tattoo on her arm — is more Goth than corporate. How many Jewish communal CEOs have a black belt in kung fu, trained women in self-defense, danced at a sex club or protested Israel’s treatment of Palestinians during the second intifada?

The 45-year-old Olympia, Wash., native declined to discuss her past or present views on Israel, which she said are not relevant to her work at Bend the Arc. But she describes her unconventional background as an advantage in reaching out to Jews on the margins of the community.

“If we are successful in reaching more Jews who have little or no or an ambivalent connection to being Jewish, if they come to us, we will be transformed because of that infusion of very different perspectives,” Cotler said.

Bend the Arc was formed from the 2011 merger of the New York-based Jewish Funds for Justice and the West Coast-based Progressive Jewish Alliance. It has billed itself as “the nation’s leading progressive Jewish voice solely dedicated to mobilizing Jewish Americans to advocate for the nation’s most vulnerable.” In addition to its policy advocacy, Bend the Arc collects funds for community investing in disadvantaged areas, makes grants to grassroots activist groups and conducts leadership training. The organization had a budget of $5.7 million last year.

Cotler has been with the organization since 2005, for the past three years serving as its executive vice president. She is replacing Alan van Capelle, who spent two years at Bend the Arc’s helm and is leaving to become CEO of the Educational Alliance, a venerable Jewish institution on New York’s Lower East Side.

Cotler’s colleagues at Bend the Arc and liberal Jewish groups give her high marks for her strategic planning skills and collaborative approach. She has led Bend the Arc’s Selah Leadership Program, which has trained more than 300 Jewish activists working for a mix of Jewish and secular organizations.

Cotler said that she was drawn to Jewish communal work by her growing awareness of American Jewish power.

“We have responsibility to leverage our financial resources, intellectual heft, cultural capital, to leverage our deep organization, to leverage the positions of influence and power that Jews have attained in politics, business, finance and education” to assist “other communities that are still facing discrimination, that are still disenfranchised, who are not experiencing the kinds of opportunities Jews experience on a daily basis,” she said.

Prior to her Jewish communal career in New York, Cotler — who previously went by the name Staci; Stosh was her family’s nickname for her — was an activist in Portland, Ore. She founded Open Hand, a local organization that trained women in self-defense and provided violence prevention and girls’ empowerment programming in local schools.

In her mid-20s, Cotler had what she describes as a spiritual crisis, but since none of her friends or family were active in Jewish life, it did not occur to her that Judaism could be a resource. A few years later, however, she had a transformative experience that she wrote about in the “Love & Justice in Times of War Haggadah.” In her essay for the 2003 ’zine-style, activist Haggadah, Cotler, who identifies as queer, recounted how a lesbian couple invited her to their Passover seder after she did a table dance for them at what she refers to as a “sex club.”

Cotler declined to comment on her work at the club beyond saying that she was a dancer for a period in her 20s “to make ends meet.” But she said going to that seder, her first in many years, set her on a Jewish path.

“I realized I have a place in this tradition, that I am not alone, that other people like me found ways to connect, that this tradition has wisdom to teach,” Cotler said.

Soon after, Cotler said, she met a rabbi who “literally took me under her wing and said, ‘Please come to synagogue, you can sit next to me.’” At age 30, after a few years as a weekday minyan regular, Cotler celebrated a bat mitzvah.

In Portland, Cotler was involved in activist groups like the Jewish Radical Action Project and Jews for Global Justice, and she demonstrated against Israeli policies. In 2001, she protested a Portland appearance by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The next year, Portland’s Willamette Week described her staging a mock Israeli checkpoint in a downtown intersection.

“You are now at an Israeli checkpoint. If you protest, you will be killed. Expect to be blindfolded and beaten,” she shouted through a mega-phone, according to the paper.

Cotler refused to discuss her participation in Israel-related activism, saying that Israel does not factor into Bend the Arc’s work.

“It’s fully outside of our mission. We have a principled approach that we just do not make any commentary on that issue at all,” she said. “We feel like by being so clear in this way what we create is a big tent, what we create is an organization where Jews who have a range of opinions feel like they can find a home at Bend the Arc to focus their activist energy on a very progressive domestic agenda.”

Howard Welinsky, a member of Bend the Arc’s executive board who is also active in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and chairs Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles, said that Cotler’s views on Israel are not relevant to her work at Bend the Arc.

“I’m personally passionately pro-Israel and have been very aggressive in those activities, but when I’m on a [Bend the Arc] call it’s about the domestic programs of our country and the progressive Jewish agenda we focus on,” Welinsky said. “All the other things we leave at the door. I have never had a conversation with [Cotler] about Israel.”

Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, which participates with Bend the Arc in the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, praised Cotler for being a “responsive, out-of-the box thinker” and a “real team player.” Like several other high-ranking Jewish women professionals interviewed for the article, Messinger praised Bend the Arc not only for hiring a female CEO but for recognizing talent within an organization rather than looking outside.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, formerly the American branch of Rabbis for Human Rights, said that as recently as five or 10 years ago, “the Jewish social justice world was surprisingly male, and now it’s really shifting.”

Jacobs, who previously worked with Cotler at Jewish Funds for Justice, said that Bend the Arc’s newly tapped leader is known for being a “strong presence” who is “attuned to human dynamics and interpersonal issues.” Cotler, Jacobs said, is “not someone out there tooting her own horn, but everyone who’s ever worked with her is impressed by her.”

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