How a Kentucky lawmaker’s friendship with a Jewish woman helped inspire her viral speech decrying anti-trans legislation


(JTA) — Pamela Stevenson, a Democratic state representative in Kentucky, was chatting recently with her friend Zahava Kurland about one of Kurland’s duties at her Orthodox synagogue: preparing the dead for burial.

“She was trying to explain to me certain things that had to be done,” Stevenson, who is also a Black Baptist minister, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last week. The seemingly esoteric topic was one of many the two women have discussed over more than a decade of weekly Friday-morning conversations — which cover anything from politics and friendship to faith and being one’s true self. 

Stevenson said her conversations with Kurland have made her attuned to Jewish sensibilities. “She’s always listening for and giving me information” about Judaism and Jewish experiences, said Stevenson, who was first elected to the Kentucky legislature in 2020. 

So Kurland was not surprised when, in a viral speech on Wednesday decrying her fellow lawmakers for signing off on a law that bans gender-affirming care for trans youth, Stevenson also centered antisemitism.

“First, you hated Black people,” Stevenson said, addressing the Republican lawmakers who voted for the legislation. “Then, you hated Jews. Now, you’re hating everybody. So the question is, when the only people left are you, will you hate yourself?”

Kurland said her friend is a listener and naturally empathetic, so she would be sensitive to how hatreds intersect.

“She’s truly well balanced,” said Kurland. “She truly cares about people.”

Stevenson says she looks forward to her Friday morning talks with Kurland. She said the conversations have helped give her a more expansive perspective on life, which drives her to fight bigotry. 

“I really believe that I will never know as much as she knows,” Stevenson said. “But I can develop an appreciation for what it’s like and not use my view of the world as the only view of the world.”

What prompted Stevenson’s floor speech was the overwhelmingly Republican legislature’s override of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of a law that bans a range of medical treatments and practices for trans youth. It outlaws doctors from providing gender-affirming treatment to youth; requires them to cease care if it has already begun; bans conversations in schools about gender identity or sexual orientation; bans school districts from allowing transgender students to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity; and allows teachers to refuse to use a child’s preferred pronouns.

The bill was introduced weeks after state Sen. Karen Berg’s trans son, Henry Berg-Brousseau, died by suicide. Berg, who is Jewish, said that referring to the anti-trans bill as a parents’ rights bill is an “absolutely despicable affront to me personally,” according to The Washington Post. Stevenson, who has appeared alongside Berg at rallies, called her “phenomenal” and said, “This is infinitely more personal for her.”

Stevenson said that she mentioned anti-Jewish hatred in her speech because she believes hatreds are mutually reinforcing, and she connects the anti-trans sentiment she sees with rising racism and antisemitism.

“If you have a model where you have to hate somebody to win, then you always have to have somebody to hate,” she said. “People say it was out of nowhere, but it’s really out of somewhere. We’ve gone through the cycles of the Native Americans, the Black folks have been hated for a long time, the disabled. Everybody is always on the bottom of that model. And in just recent years, it was the Muslims, then it was the immigrants, and then it was back around the Blacks again. And so because of this overflow of hate, there’s been an uptick in antisemitic actions.”

Stevenson said her mission is to make people cognizant of the roots of hatred. “People want to say that all the attacks against the Jewish temples and the Jewish people in recent times came out of nowhere,” she said, referring to reports of a spike in antisemitic attacks. “No, it did not. We just have chosen not to pay attention to what’s been said.”

Kurland, who is a member of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta, and Stevenson, a retired Air Force Colonel and an attorney who is running to be Kentucky’s attorney general, met in 2006 when Stevenson was serving in the Air Force and Kurland was working as an accountant in Atlanta. They attended a three-day course with Landmark, the personal development program that presses participants to face uncomfortable truths about themselves.

“When we were closer-in logistically she came over very often for Shabbos meals,” Kurland said. “I often invite people for Shabbos meals and the holidays and I love explaining, you know, how Judaism gave more to the world than anything, anybody, any person. Torah, Judaism has given the world its whole structure for society.”

The Air Force started moving Stevenson around. “That’s when we started talking on the phone all the time, because we couldn’t get together,” Kurland said.

Stevenson is “a committed listener, someone who’s going to hear you and call you out on your stuff,” Kurland said. “It’s not a friendship where you massage each other’s egos. It’s a friendship where you hold each other to account for who you say you are.”

They each speak with outrage at the lawmakers who, they feel, would breach the relationship between a parent and a child.

“As a mother, how dare you interfere with one of the most intimate relationships?” Stevenson said two weeks ago during debate on the bill, addressing Rep. Jennifer Decker, a Republican who was its lead sponsor. “We have no right to interfere in the parental rights.”

Kurland agrees. “These are all decisions to be made between a child and his parents or her parents and their doctor,” she said. “It has no place for the government to have anything to do with anything.”

And both Kurland and Stevenson say religion is a key part of their identities.

“Judaism is the center part of my life,” said Kurland. “It’s what I am, it’s who I am, it’s what I’m about. And as a Jew, you cannot sit by and let another one of God’s human beings [be excluded]. I mean, when we honor other people, we are doing God’s work. We are honoring God. When we cut people out, then we’re not “

Stevenson likewise calls herself “a woman of faith.”

“I believe what is required, in almost every faith that I know of, is to love one another and take care of the people around us,” she said.

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