“As long as tikkun olam and tzedakah continue to be my spiritual tenets, I will always continue to evolve. It’s about all of the aspects of my intersectional identity and making sure they are all cared for.”
Alaine Jolicoeur, Passionate Community Advocate, Synagogue Board Member
“I was born in Petion-Ville, Haiti to wonderful parents, both of whom started their careers as educators, but it was not a path that I accepted as inevitable,” says Alaine, a tri-lingual Washington, D.C. teacher. But the circuitous journey that brought her to Baltimore, to teaching, and to a role as an outspoken advocate for equity and inclusion is a story that has defined who she is today.
Alaine remembers an idyllic childhood until, when she was 11 years old, her father was assassinated, and she, her mother, and a younger sibling went into exile in the United States, settling in Miami, Florida. “Overnight, I had to become an adult to support my mother and younger sibling,” she explains. There was a huge adjustment to a new culture and a new language, but “tremendous opportunities were afforded me while in high school to travel and see different parts of the country.” By the time she started her college application process, she knew her passion: to be a professional pilot. She applied and was accepted to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University as an aeronautical science major but discovered that avionic systems was an “interest, not a passion.” She transferred to Rollins College, realizing that she needed a liberal arts education. Alaine graduated with a major in Philosophy, was a Fulbright Scholar finalist, and accepted a position with the French Ministry of Education, moving to the Bordeaux region of France. As fate would have it, education seemed the perfect career, and when a former Teach for America (TFA) Corps member told her about the thriving Baltimore Jewish Community and TFA opportunities, she headed to Baltimore and a position teaching U.S. History to 9th graders at Benjamin Franklin High School.
Since arriving in Baltimore in 2016, Alaine has brought her voice to many forums as an advocate for equity and inclusion. As Chair of the Baltimore City Education Committee of the LGBTQ Commission, she worked closely with Councilman Zeke Cohen on a number of initiatives such as adoption by the Baltimore City Council of the first resolution in support of trans and non-binary students. She also served as a Policy Fellow for Baltimore City Public Schools/Office of the Chief of Staff. Alaine worked on equity issues around school funding and on literacy initiatives focusing on the goals of the district’s strategic vision.
Alaine’s Jewish journey is interwoven into the fabric of her life and who she is. Her mother bought a home in an Orthodox enclave in North Miami Beach, next door to a yeshiva, in a neighborhood with Jews from Russia, Ukraine, Argentina and many Sephardim. “It was a diverse, safe neighborhood,” she explains. In her senior year of college, Alaine went to Israel on a Jewish National Fund (JNF) Caravan for Democracy, and the trip “made a tremendous impact on me.” Rollins College has a robust Jewish Studies Program, and upon her return from Israel, she petitioned to be allowed to enroll in graduate courses in Jewish Philosophy, studying Baruch Spinoza, Blu Greenberg, Theodor Herzl, Mordecai Kaplan, Sigmund Freud and others, and she started to attend Shabbat services at Hillel. She completed her thesis on the Aesthetic Theory by Theodor Adorno.
Upon arriving in Baltimore, she began attending Shabbat services with a friend, but, combined with attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins University and working full-time, her plate was very full, so joining a synagogue was not yet a priority. Nevertheless, she felt that “this is what adults do: they join a synagogue!” By 2018, she began “shul shopping” but was planning to move “West,” so the exercise was not with deep commitment. The experience, however, exposed her to different segments of the Baltimore Jewish community, “like shopping for college,” and helped her to know when she found her synagogue “home.” One of the experiences she relates was when she was in a synagogue social hall and was mistaken for a server with the catering company. “I said, ‘did you ever see a server with 6-inch heels?’ ” When she met Rabbi Andy Gordon at Bolton Street Synagogue (BSS), she was immediately impressed with how authentic and genuine he was, and she joined, attending activities and Shabbat services, meeting more and more members. She was cast as Vashti in the Purim Shpiel. And then the pandemic hit and interactions were one-on-one and virtual. “I joined the Social Action Committee at the time of George Floyd’s murder, and I allowed myself to share certain vulnerabilities from my personal experiences, and I thought ‘this is where I feel connected, and if this place is really home, how will I become part of its mold? I need to be invested.’ ”
Alaine was elected to the synagogue’s Board and co-chairs BSS’s Equity, Inclusion and Community Initiative. She served on the Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) Mid-Atlantic Region Futures Board, participated in the Union of Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Religious Action Center (RAC) Lobbying Day speaking with Maryland senators about the need for the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and promoting the idea that voting rights are the key to keeping our democracy. She now serves on the RAC Synthesizing Team that seeks to encourage voting engagement of Reform Jews in the midterm elections. “Protecting voting rights is one of the next chapters of my leadership engagement. Three young civil rights leaders were murdered: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Two were Jewish and one was Black. When you attack members of my community, you’ve made it personal,” she says with tears in her eyes. “When I wanted to celebrate the election of Georgia Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, a Black and a Jew, I was instead watching an insurrection at the capital with Camp Auschwitz tee shirts and Confederate flags! THIS is why it is personal.”
She feels she has been able to utilize bring the skills learned in her public sector leadership to her volunteerism in the Jewish community. “I have experience advancing policy and legislation against sex discrimination, protecting trans and non-binary students, building consensus amongst stakeholders through the Baltimore City Commission. But when I was first approached to take on leadership in the Jewish community, I needed time to think about it. What does it say that, as a Black person, I am leading this work in a predominantly White space? How are my actions going to be perceived? How am I going to be perceived? It’s one thing to have a leadership position and it’s another thing to have a leadership position where you can be effective. I’m not into grandstanding or a title chaser.”
When asked what advice she would offer her younger self, she said, “All of your lived experiences are going to help you in your decision-making. They will shape how you see the world and how you understand that your leadership has to be interwoven with intentional outreach to those who don’t have power, who have unique perspectives and experiences in worldview. Pay attention to those people and listen to them. Learn from them because there’s so much wisdom to be received from those who are the unsung heroes.”
On leadership and mentoring, Alaine offers: “Teaching gives me the opportunity to shape young people’s minds on a daily basis. I always think about making sure that my impact, the work I do, is not for me or for the current stakeholders. It’s for those who will come after. As long as tikkun olam and tzedakah continue to be my spiritual tenets, I will always continue to evolve. It’s about all of the aspects of my intersectional identity and making sure they are all cared for.”