Talking GOOD with Lee Hendler

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Question: What things do you associate with the holiday of Thanksgiving? Like most Americans, you might immediately think of family gatherings, over-eating, football, massive sales, and the start of the commercial holiday season. I think about how Starbucks switches to that annoying Christmas music 24x7.

But my friend Lee Hendler has very different ideas about what Thanksgiving is all about. Since 2001, she has crusaded for the idea that Thanksgiving (indeed every American holiday) is a time to celebrate our citizenship and our families' origins. To this end, Lee spearheaded and continues to champion the nationally recognized program, Freedom’s Feast, a nonprofit civic engagement project whose mission is to raise stronger citizens through the celebration of America’s major holidays. According to Lee:

"Citizenship begins at home. America is now the longest functioning constitutional democracy in the world. The Constitution's preamble begins with 'We the people...' The Declaration of  Independence states 'When in the course of human events...'  These two documents remind us that we, ordinary citizens, are responsible for our government. Families need to discuss human events at home and model participation so that children learn early that citizenship is a valued activity.  Freedom's Feast gives families and educators tools to engage in citizenship during the national holidays when we often slow down enough to truly spend time together."

In preparation for this year's holiday, check out these 10 ways to make Thanksgiving more meaningful!, fun!, and American!  Or, you might want to download one of Freedom's Feasts Thanksgiving ceremonies, to spark conversation (and even singing) around the dinner table.

As for all the other stuff going on in Lee's life, I'd need another 3 paragraphs just to scratch the surface. And we do want to get to her interview after all. So if you'd like to learn more about what Lee has been up to, feel free to read her bio at the bottom of this post. Thanks Lee for your holiday message and for taking the time to respond to my Talking GOOD questions.

1. IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE? Enlist help from God and others so that those around me each day will be a little better for my influence.

2. WHAT IS SOMETHING YOU WANT TO ACCOMPLISH BEFORE YOU “EXPIRE?”  Get a handle on my mild hoarding neurosis. Then take back about one third of the stuff I'm about to toss or give away (“Wait, I think I need that!) for one of the large scale art projects I regularly dream about. See how conflicted I am? Actually, I want to master one significant new skill every three or four years. I’ll learn biblical Hebrew, a string or percussion instrument, live someplace different and challenging for a while, and learn a craft. Neuroscience tells us that skills acquisition is what keeps us from becoming addle pated  so it’s a prevention strategy.  More importantly, I want to have a meaningful relationship with my grandchildren and other young people. I don’t want to be the cranky old woman who says and thinks that “ the old days” were better. Some things about them might be but I don’t want to make that claim because my brain is stuck on replay and I’ve taken refuge in the past. 

3. IF YOU COULD MEET WITH ANYONE (ALIVE), WHO WOULD IT BE AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM? This is the hardest question. There are so many people and the list changes regularly. Usually what I want to ask them is, “What inspired you to do X? What surprised you most about doing it? What did you learn from it that still matters? " The most honest answer is I want to meet with my children and grandchildren. Unlike my siblings and Dad who all live here (for which I am so grateful), my kids, their families and I live in 5 different places now. The easy connections we enjoyed when we were a single geographical family are much harder to maintain. I long for time with them together so that we can reinforce those bonds and make new connections. There’s always laughter and story-telling and when the inevitable squabbles, old patterns of behavior or assumptions threaten to upset, I want to ask them,“Where else can you do this?”

4. WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE? “Get in the Helicopter:  Life Lessons to Master Your Fears.”    When I was six, my mother took me in an open cockpit helicopter ride high above the valley in which we lived. I was terrified but I got in because Mom wasn’t afraid and I adored and trusted my mother.  By the time I relaxed,we had almost landed and  I glimpsed our house below us, a bird’s eye view I’d never had before.  I’d taken the ride and knew I could do it again. She taught me one of my most important life lessons. “Life is a helicopter ride.  Don’t let fear keep you from taking the ride.”

5. WHO WOULD PLAY YOU, IN A MOVIE ABOUT YOUR LIFE? Wait?!!! There’s going to be a movie about my life? In our family, I’m always the one who takes the pictures and the movies (and not all that well, I might add) so this is great news. I finally get to be in a movie! But who’s going to write the script? I’m on the verge of 60 and I can barely make sense out of the way things have gone. Most days I feel like this has been a Heinz 57 journey. One thing led to another which  led to another. So I choose Meryl Streep. We don’t look a thing alike but she can transform into any character she needs to be and make it believable. And I would watch her in absolutely anything—even a movie about my life.

6. WHAT IS A BELIEF THAT IS CORE TO YOUR BEING? Never , never, never give up. Except when it makes sense to do so.  Work hard at the things you believe in. Hold yourself to the highest standard you know you are capable of but know when it’s time to ask for help (hard for many leaders and hard driving types), pass on the baton (so the thing you love can grow in a different way) or simply admit failure, learn your lessons and move onto the next thing.

7. WHO ARE YOUR HEROES? Mighty Mouse and good teachers, who work in classrooms every day all over the world. They really are the instruments of change. I often think THIS is the loneliest profession, not being a tollbooth operator. Imagine, as an adult, spending most of your day in the company of children who come to you with a constant array of challenges and needs. The work can be hugely rewarding but it takes such creativity, commitment and courage to manage the demands alone, then go home and take that world and its work with you. Sadly, in this country teaching is not the honored profession it is in others so you have to doubly love it to be good at it here.

8. IF YOU WEREN’T DOING THIS, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING? I’d be an artist or an early child hood educator in a progressive school setting that sees the child as an equal partner in learning with the teacher. I absolutely adore pre-schoolers. I would rather have a tea party with toddlers than go to cocktails with adults. 

9. TELL US SOMETHING SURPRISING ABOUT YOURSELF. I had a near death experience when I was 9. I went into anaphylactic shock from a bee sting;my mother’s quick thinking saved my life. She tossed me into the back of the car and drove 100 miles an hour through every traffic light to get to our pediatrician. Since I’d stopped breathing and had no heart beat, I was told that he gave me epinephrine to the heart when we got there.  But I didn’t recall the near death part until I was in my 30’s and saw the closing scene in "Ghost."I started shaking, sweating, crying and couldn’t figure it out. I suddenly remembered dying and coming back. That place where we go is extraordinarily beautiful and serene yet charged with a mysterious energy I have not since encountered.

10. WHAT QUESTION(s) DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED? What book did you read as a child that made an impression on you?  Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss and The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. These are not magnificent works of fiction but each made an indelible impression on me. I tried to figure out the connection between the preachy Wyss narrative and the zany Seuss storybook.   I think it's this:  Sometimes the world we are given is not the world we need or want. We have the power to change the world through the exercise of imagination,character, hard work and community. Leave one of those elements out and success will be much harder if not impossible to achieve. Also reading is great for children. Start when they're infants and it will become a lifelong pleasure.

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Lee M. Hendler's Biography: Lee Meyerhoff Hendler is a civic activist, educator, and philanthropist. Born and raised in Baltimore, Ms. Hendler attended the Park School and received her B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis. With nearly four decades of leadership and fundraising experience in the nonprofit and foundation worlds, Ms. Hendler is a well-known national speaker on family philanthropy and adult Jewish learning. She is president of the Harvey and Lyn P. Meyerhoff Fund and serves on several family foundations. She is project director of Freedom’s Feast, a nonprofit civic engagement project whose mission is to raise stronger citizens through the celebration of America’s major holidays.  A trustee of the Johns Hopkins University since 2004, Ms. Hendler is the author of "The Year Mom Got Religion," program consultant to the Children's Museum of Manhattan on "Raising Citizens.” She is past president of the boards at Chizuk Amuno Congregation and The Park School, former co-chair of the board of the Institute for Christian Jewish Studies, and vice chair for education at the ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.   She also teaches courses for funders and foundation leaders in Baltimore.  She is vice president for marketing at E Vino, an eco-friendly wine distribution company based in Maryland.  Ms. Hendler is a proud mother of four children and even prouder grandmother of three grandchildren and another on the way. (Please note that she does not dote. A prominent sign in her kitchen reads “Thou shalt not whine.” While play and discussions of all kind are encouraged, whining is not acceptable in the Hendler household.