The woman who’ll replace Judith Bernstein-Baker after 18 years as the executive director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) of Pennsylvania knows she made the right choice.
While music may have been the food of love for Shakespeare, it was never enough to satiate Cathryn Miller-Wilson’s appetite for doing something meaningful with her life.
So back in the late 1980s while at Tufts University she abandoned her career as a classically trained flutist — which included studying at the Tanglewood Music Center and the Manhattan School of Music — and decided to devote herself to public service.
More than two-and-a-half decades later, the woman who’ll replace Judith Bernstein-Baker after 18 years as the executive director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) of Pennsylvania knows she made the right choice.
“I was 21 and the way my career was going I felt very self-absorbed all the time,” recalled Miller-Wilson, who’s served as HIAS deputy director, and Bernstein-Baker’s right-hand woman, for the past two years. “It was always about how I could win the next competition or the next prize.
“It really had bothered me for a long time, and I was getting increasingly concerned about how I was contributing to the world. I decided I wanted to quit and do something more engaged with my community.”
She’s never looked back on a decision that impacted her in more ways than she could’ve imagined.
While attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School, she met Bernstein-Baker, the director of public interest programming, as well as fellow student and eventual husband Laval Wilson.
It also prepared her for her career, which has included stints as deputy managing attorney of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, public interest coordinator for the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Delivery of Legal Services Committee and attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, in addition to teaching at the Villanova School of Law.
“I was hired to set up the program and figure out placement for students who were required to do 70 hours of public service work while in law school,” explained Bernstein-Baker, who remained in close contact with Miller-Wilson and encouraged her to apply when the HIAS deputy director’s position was created. “She came in early [Miller-Wilson’s first day in law school] and said she wanted to know if there were any special classes she could take.
“She said she wanted to do something innovative and unique and I suggested she partner with another student.”
Together, they pioneered a custody and support assistance program for domestic abuse victims that dealt with other issues that eventually became a model picked up by the Department of Justice.
In her new role, Miller-Wilson concedes that she’ll be replacing a legend.
“The biggest challenge is being the new Judi without the expectation I will be Judi, because I’m not her,” she said. “There’s a lot Judi and I have in common.
“Both our husbands are African-Americans, and she’s hosted us for an interracial seder. There’s certainly a lot she taught me I intend to use, but we’re very different people in the end.
“I knew when I took this job [as deputy director] I would enjoy it or I wouldn’t have applied. What I didn’t know was how deeply the work would move me.”
It all relates to what goes on at HIAS, an untold story she’s hoping will get passed on to the public once she assumes the reins.
“All my other jobs were enjoyable and very much in line with why I went to law school,” Miller-Wilson said. “But this job is so profoundly moving.
“What we do is help people begin a new life when they have no other options. These people are fleeing real persecution. They’ve lost family members and are in fear for their own lives.
“My goal is to gain visibility for HIAS, which Judi and I believe is one of Philadelphia’s best-kept secrets. The reason for that is because we’re busy doing the work and not out there promoting.
“People should know about it. It’s for funding but also for understanding who refugees are and what they bring, particularly in light of the nasty rhetoric we’ve been hearing in the last year.”
That’s the kind of rhetoric and ignorance she can relate to on a personal level.
“Many of our dinner conversations long before I took this job were about democracy,” said Miller-Wilson, who met her husband in the mid-1990s.
They married in 1998 and are raising two sons, Elijah and Benjamin.
“To some extent, what it means to be in an interracial marriage is we have a lot of discussions about race and persecution. We also have lot of discussions about Judaism. Both my husband and I are very engaged with the world.”
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