Reflection from ICJS Founding Executive Director Chris Leighton
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Donna Lee Frisch had an eye for what is good and just, and she managed to find the best wherever she turned her gaze. She wanted to engage, to connect, to get close to friends and stranger alike, and to share in the adventure of discovery. She was too other-directed to take the measure of her own gifts, but she embodied perhaps the most essential dispositions of an excellent educator. She believed and trusted that people could not resist the light and that ideas and experience could crack open a cramped soul and break the grip of ignorance and prejudice.
After long suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Donna Lee died on July 7, 2020. She leaves behind a legacy that extends from family and friends to a much larger community, including ICJS. When Jewish–Christian dialogue took root in Baltimore during the late 70s and early 80s, Donna Lee dove in. She attended conferences, joined discussion groups, pursued advanced studies at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute, and traveled to Israel, ever eager to learn more and get at the heart of things.
After playing a vital role in hosting the Ninth National Workshop on Jewish–Christian Relations, she helped the Institute for Christian–Jewish Studies takes its first breath. There at our beginning, she continued to serve on the ICJS board over the next three decades.
Her work as a teacher of world religions at the Bryn Mawr School, as well as her tenure on the staff of the Baltimore Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, deepened and broadened her faith in education. She remained irrepressibly excited by the transformational power of a new idea, a new project, or a new collaboration. Donna Lee always encouraged ICJS staff to innovate; to try something new. We needed to find better ways of connecting with the African American community; join forces with the major cultural institutions and reach out to new audiences; bring high school students and teachers from public and independent schools into challenging conversations; and complete the circle and recognize Muslims as indispensable partners. At every turn, Donna Lee was ready to pitch in and make these worlds spin. No one could match her exuberance.
Sometimes we are blessed when a stranger becomes an acquaintance, an acquaintance a colleague, and a colleague a trusted and treasured friend. Donna Lee and her beloved husband Dick crossed that final line many years ago. It is impossible to imagine how diminished my own life, as well as that of ICJS, would have been without Donna Lee. I have no doubt that her devotion to what is best and belief in what is possible will echo into the future and inspire creative and daring action. A strong and beautiful voice carries.