Changing careers can be scary, but when 26-year-old Kerry Brodie saw a need, she decided to do something about it. A lifelong food enthusiast, the former communications professional decided to marry her passion for cooking with her desire to help refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking. She founded the New York-based nonprofit Emma’s Torch, which provides culinary training to refugees and helps them find meaningful careers in the food industry. Emma’s Torch launched in December with a pilot program and will welcome its first full class of students in June. Kerrie credits the women she met in the JWI Young Women’s Leadership Network with giving her the encouragement she needed to make the leap first to go to culinary school and then to create Emma’s Torch.
The idea is simple: Give someone a fish and you’ve fed them for a day. Teach refugees to cook a fish, and you’ve given them a marketable skill.
by Lauren Landau
What inspired you to take on this mission and found Emma’s Torch?
I worked in public policy and have always been very passionate about social justice issues. I spent my free time working on food related causes, like volunteering at a homeless shelter or teaching cooking classes to my peers where we’d prepare meals for a shelter for women living with HIV. For years, I’d talk about how someone should use the culinary world to empower refugees. Finally my husband said to me, “Why don’t we stop asking why someone else isn’t doing this and take the initiative?” I quietly and deliberately started laying the groundwork for Emma’s Torch, putting feelers out and seeing what existed. And now 18 months later, we have this organization that’s functional and equal parts exciting and terrifying.
The logic behind barring refugees seems to stem from a safety concern. I’m curious, who are the people you serve and why are they coming here?
To me, a lot of the xenophobia is antithetical to our identity as Americans. We’re a nation founded by people who were seeking a better life and this idea that when we come together and bridge differences, we can build something truly beautiful. That’s the America that I believe in.
Many of the refugees I meet with are fleeing situations that might not make the news. For example, LGBT people fleeing for their lives don’t make the headlines every day, but they’re coming from all over the world. The people that I’ve met can only be described as inspiring. They are hard-working and dedicated to building a better life for themselves, but more importantly a better life for their children. I feel really honored to work with them.
How do you expect Emma’s Torch students would react to those who don’t welcome refugees?
Telling our students, “You’re welcome and we want you here and what you bring to the table matters,” was amazing. I didn’t expect it to have that type of impact. Telling people “Hey, the food that you make, the arepas that your grandmother taught you how to make in Venezuela, we want to eat them,” makes somebody’s face light up. This type of experience is why I get out of bed in the morning. I can only imagine how hateful the rhetoric that people are hearing now sounds to them. I hope that the voices saying that refugees matter, that they are welcome, and that they make our country great are helping to uplift the community that we serve.
What can we do to help?
I’ve gotten a ton of people reaching out and asking “How can we help, what can we do?” That’s the America that I know and love. It’s just an incredible tapestry of people coming together. I think that’s the silver lining to a lot of the darker stuff.
Financial support is very important, but so is raising awareness about the importance of the refugee community to our culinary landscape, about the work we’re doing and the need to give people a chance at employment. I’m hoping that people will help spread the word about what we’re doing. That’s how we make more connections with the restaurant industry. That’s the way that we help people find employment, and that’s the way that we keep going.
How, if at all, does your Jewish identity play into this work?
I get asked a lot if we are a Jewish organization. And the answer is very Jewish: we are and we aren’t. Part of being a Jewish woman is recognizing the importance of the Jewish women who came before us, and Emma Lazarus—the namesake of Emma’s Torch—is one of those unsung heroes. Her words are on the base of the Statue of Liberty and many people don’t know who she is or the fact that she was a pioneer leading the fight for the rights of refugees. Building on that legacy is a huge part of my own personal Jewish identity, but also the way I see Judaism functioning in the world at large. I attend synagogue and I love being Jewish. For me, fighting for the other, fighting to make our communities more inclusive, is an essential part of being Jewish. I’ve never felt as connected to my Jewish identity as when doing this work.
The act of leaving behind my career and making the leap to go to culinary school, a lot of that was in part because of my involvement with the Young Women’s Leadership Network and JWI. The inspiring women that were doing the events and the women on the JWI and YWLN boards were the first people I spoke to about this idea. They were the people who heard the pitch, and they continue to be my biggest supporters. I feel really grateful to be part of that larger community.
With Passover coming up, have you thought at all about that story and how it might relate to your work?
I think on the one hand it is very obvious - we think about the Seder and we say repeatedly that "We were strangers in a strange land." In that sense the work of Emma's Torch relates directly to welcoming in the stranger.
But I think there is a more subtle connection. The plague of darkness is described in the Bible as being so dark that people could not see each other. The plague is most painful not simply because of the lack of light, but the lack of human connection. Sometimes, it can feel as though the refugee crisis, and indeed many world conflicts, are so dark and so devastating that we cannot see our common humanity. The hope of Emma's Torch is that we can create the light in that darkness. That we can help people see one another not as strangers, but as new members of our community.