Irit Umani: Toward Humanity
If Hollywood made a movie of Irit Umani’s life, Dame Judi Dench would play the Israeli-born Austinite.
The executive director of the Trinity Center, which helps the homeless downtown, shares with the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire the short, white hair, the creased brow and the alert eyes. Both employ warm, deep voices to convey fluent, carefully connected thoughts.
True, Dench is 78 and Umani is a mere 62, but the actress would be fascinated by the journey of the sabra, born just after the birth of the Jewish state, who studied education and psychology, completed her national service inside a frontier kibbutz, escaped a harrowing marriage, started a women’s shelter, pushed for peace in her native country, embarked on a pilgrimage that included time in a New Mexico monastery, then eventually devoted her life to the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of Austin’s homeless at St. David’s Episcopal Church’s center.
“It feeds me so deeply,” Umani says. “If nothing else, if one doesn’t cultivate gratitude when in a place like Trinity Center, then one is blind. Serving people with true, deep respect and compassion rather than judgment, even when you have to say ‘no’ — you don’t throw people out of your heart — is how I wish to live my life.”
Umani’s relatives were driven from the Ukraine by anti-Jewish pogroms.
“We heard stories about our grandparents’ generation, the journey, on foot, in carriages, in good weather and bad weather, it took months and months and months,” she says. “Our grandmother’s family was killed in a pogrom. There was not much talk of ghettos, but much about ‘Never again’ even before the Holocaust.”
Umani grew up in the relatively safe and pretty coastal city of Haifa.
“I had an Israeli-typical, early-’50s childhood,” she says. “By that I mean, the family was run by a very strong connection to Zionist Israel. It wasn’t until later that I figured out that there were options to war.”
This lover of languages first spoke Hebrew.
“I still go back and forth thinking in Hebrew,” she says. “It depends on the content. If I’m going to see family and friends, I think of them in Hebrew. I think of my work in English.”
A rebellious teen, she rejected generally accepted thoughts about the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict, especially after the 1967 war.
“Given my people’s history, it should not be OK with us to occupy other people’s land for nearly 50 years now,” she insists. “Given power, most people will abuse it — and the Israeli people are no exception.”
Umani got married and raised two children. Her extremely difficult marriage ended in a complex divorce, by which time she was living in the U.S.
“I strongly believed that people should live in a place other than where you were born,” she says. “Especially when you come from a small, village-like culture like Israel.”
In California post-divorce, she ran smack into a major spiritual crisis.
“I was looking for ways to understand and to crawl into the light,” she says. After following various sages, she booked a week’s retreat at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico. She stayed three years.
“There was no one teacher or one way, but rather what is called a meeting of the ways,” she says. “So one could explore many traditions. It was the best gift I’ve ever given myself. It changed my life. When I came down from that mountain, I knew my life was about service.”
Umani was attracted to the Buddhist concept of “bodhisatva,” applied to a person who forgoes Nirvana to save other people out of compassion.
“In the Jewish tradition, when Rabbi Hillel was asked to capture the whole Torah in one sentence, he said ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself. The rest is commentary,’” Umani says. “In that, I think he was a good brother to Jesus.”
Meanwhile, Umani had unfinished business back home. In the 1980s, she became involved with the Women’s Peace Movement and organized to end domestic violence. At the women’s shelter she founded, Jews and Arabs worked side by side. She was employed by a similar shelter in Northern California before moving to Central Texas, in part to be near her son.
A job description from the St. David’s Trinity Center popped up on Craig’s List.
“I thought: ‘Fat chance, but what do I have to lose?” she recalls. “I worked in a related field, but not the same. The economy was at its worst and it was faith-based, but not my faith.”
The new job at the Episcopalian center matched her journey. She now jokingly refers to herself as a “JewBudscopalian.”
“I love it,” she says with throaty laugh. “That’s really who I am. You see, at the heavenly gate, there’s a party. Mohammed, Buddha, Christ and Krishna are having a fabulous party. They see that all their paths lead to the one and they each have a key to the gate. I think until we understand that, we will still create wars.”
The Trinity Center helps the homeless to find affordable, permanent housing with integrated support services for mental health, recovery and job training.
“Having so many mentally ill people living in the street is a sin,” she says. “We have to help them meet the challenges. And long-term solutions are cheaper. For the so-called richest country in the world not to care is mind-boggling.”
The core of her experience is facing the Trinity Center’s neighbors every day.
“We feed them breakfast, but their hunger for care is greater,” she says. “We all know that, when we are respected, we are brothers and sisters in this together.”