For Montclair Local

March is Women’s History Month, and I'm focusing on a phenomenal woman whom I've known for decades in the political and educational world, Jessica de Koninck. It’s been said that you can’t have and do it all, but Jessica comes pretty close to covering all the bases and positively affecting the lives of her fellow Montclair residents.

Jessica was born in Brooklyn, where she lived until the age of 6, moving to Closter in northern Bergen County, “the land time forgot,” as she calls it. It was a jarring change for her, as she was used to a progressive, diverse community. 

Even at age 12, Jessica knew that she didn’t want to follow the stereotypical career paths expected for women, which were either in teaching or nursing. She attended Brandeis University, where she received a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in 1975, saying, “I'm a nerd, in case that’s not apparent. I wanted a college that was nerdy or scholarly, non-sectarian Jewish.”

Believing that law was her field of choice, she went on to Boston University and received her juris doctor degree in 1978. However, Jessica said, “I hated the law school. It was like 'The Paper Chase.' Criminal work wasn’t the best fit for me. I was more interested in juvenile justice issues.” “The Paper Chase” was based on John Jay Osborn Jr.’s 1971 novel about the rigors and realities of a Harvard Law School education, becoming a film in 1973 and a TV series in 1978.

Jessica’s resume is almost encyclopedic, with her serving in the county counsel's office, working with former mayors Bill Farley, Bob Jackson and Bob Russo, and elected to Montclair’s Township Council for two terms as Second Ward councilor. 

She served as a fellow at the John S. Ward Institute for Public Policy at Thomas Edison State College, where she worked on projects involving urban education policy. It's no surprise that she was also appointed to sit as a member of Montclair's Board of Education.

Her son Henry is a political consultant and principal at Publitics, a consulting firm for Democratic campaigns throughout the U.S. When I called Henry to find out how his mother’s work in politics shaped his life, he said, “It’s no stretch to credit the beginning of my own career to the early formative days learning at her feet. Although I didn’t inherit her lack of cynicism or her agreeable personality, I like to think at least some of her inherent goodness did rub off.”

She moved to Essex County in 1981, first living in Belleville and then buying a house in Montclair in 1984 after doing what she called “synagogue shopping.” She decided that Bnai Keshet, a progressive Reconstructionist congregation founded in 1978 whose name means Children of the Rainbow, was a good fit for her family. 

The vision includes people of all races, family structures, ages, genders, class and ethnic backgrounds. Reconstructionist Judaism sees an evolving religious civilization focusing on modern changes to traditions and observances in a rapidly changing world.

Jessica's daughter, Isabel de Koninck, is executive director and Reconstructionist campus rabbi, Hillel at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she lives with her wife, Rabbi Roni Handler, and their two young daughters. Isabel was the first female rabbi I knew of, as I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, the antithesis of change.

Jessica serves as co-president on the executive committee of Bnai Keshet synagogue, along with Brian Herman. who is a lawyer specializing in litigation, financial services, mergers and acquisitions, During our phone interview, I learned that he was born and raised in the Jewish Conservative faith. His wife was born in Israel, and they keep a kosher home. 

He said, “The synagogue provides a way to celebrate in the way that we choose. It is a warm and welcoming environment. There is no judgment.” The roles of board of trustees members include working with the rabbis and committees, and overseeing strategic and operational plans. 

Future family and adult events coming up are a Passover Family Fun Day on Sunday, April 3, featuring moon bouncers, storytelling, singalongs, gardening and snow cones for all. A community Passover Seder is also in the works, with more details to come. A Mental Health Kabbalat Shabbat service will be held on Friday, May 13, followed by a Pride Shabbat on June 4, in conjunction with LGBTQ Pride Month.

There’s a poetic side to Jessica as well, with a collection of poems in her book “The Cutting Room,” and “Aubade, Winter” appears in Spring 2022, Issue 24 of Glassworks magazine. I was most affected by her darkly beautiful tribute poem to her mother, Rosaline (Shevach) Diamant, whose recent passing influenced a piece called “Descanso,” which I want to share with you.

"The traditional salutation for mourners in Portuguese, my friend writes, is Descanso. Not in Portuguese, rather for Jews of Portuguese descent, who escaped to the Netherlands at the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Inquisition spreading like a mutating virus. 

“Then those Jews sailed west to the Antilles. No place was safe. Descanso, Ben explains, may my mother rest in peace. May I find peace in memory. I search Descanso. In Spanish, it means broken. The primary meaning, fallen to pieces, secondary, rest. In Portuguese, the order is reversed.

“Resting in pieces. How to find peace with the January ground frozen hard and covered by a fine layer of snow as we toss shovels full of dirt that fall and land like the sound of a timbrel, on the simple pine casket.

“In Descanso, I hear ‘Encanto,’ the animated Disney movie my granddaughter has watched at least five times this week, its music contagious. Encanto means charm or enchantment in Spanish, I tell her, and cantar means to sing. Canto, a song, a spell, an incarnation.

“But cansar means to tire out, to weary. My mother loved singing, but her body had grown weary. A hospice music therapist came and sang to my mother her favorite arias, the ones where the mezzo rarely find peace. Roused to attention, my mother began smiling, moving her mouth as if to sing. I am peaceful, and I am broken. I remember her smiling.”

Keep smiling as you honor all the women in your lives, the arrival of spring, and celebrating my birthday month as well.

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Robin Woods is a local girl-about-town, writing about activities, stores, restaurants and interesting people that catch her eye. She’s written memoirs and personal essays, as well as music and fashion columns for various New York City newspapers. Her writing awards include the Shirley Chisholm Award for Journalism and the Director's Award of the Essex County Legacies Essay contest.