10 Jewish Influencers in Birmingham, including one who (sometimes) dresses like a unicorn

Read Time 5 Minutes

Sara Metzger sometimes dresses like a unicorn.  Photo by Susan Shane-Linder

The Jewish community has played an important role in shaping Birmingham. Because I grew up here with a Jewish Dad and a Christian Mom, I’ve always loved hearing these stories about Jewish influencers.

Recently I spoke with an eclectic group of 10 modern-day Jewish influencers. We talked about their visions for the city, and how Jewish values shape their actions.

Michael Saag, MD – Physician + HIV/AIDS Researcher, UAB

“Action matters. We make a difference by doing.
Laughter is the best tonic for pain and discomfort.”

Mike Saag
Mike Saag with Groucho Marx. “I keep him in my office to maintain levity and humor in my day-to-day activities.” Photo taken by a colleague.

Dr. Michael Saag has been working for 37 years to “end the suffering associated with the AIDS epidemic.”

“We have medicines that allow HIV+ people to live almost normal lifespans. Now we need to identify all who are infected and treat them. This will benefit them and will stop the spread of HIV. We’re working to achieve this in Alabama, the US, and the world.”

Michelle Bearman-Wolnek – Co-founder + Executive Director, Heart Gallery of Alabama

“He who saves the life of one man saves the world entire.” 

The Talmud
Michelle Bearman-Wolnek (far left) at an October 11th Heart Gallery event, with volunteers and supporters – Patti Hirsberg (behind), Sandi York and Michelle Pake. Photo Asher Krell.

“When Heart Gallery of Alabama was formed, we said if one child was adopted it would be enough. Since then, we have helped over 600 children find their forever families.”

Michelle’s vision is of a city where “every child goes to sleep at night feeling safe, loved and wanted.”

Jeffrey Bayer – President & CEO, Bayer Properties

Meanwhile, if you’ve ever been to The Summit, The Pizitz, Cahaba Village or Uptown, you already know Bayer Properties. Jeffrey got in touch from China to share his vision.

Photo taken in the Dallas Arts District by Matthew Shelley.

“Greater Birmingham is at a crossroads. My wife Gail and I established a new fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. It’s called ‘The Instruments of Hope Unity Fund.’ The goal is to help create a better environment for shared prosperity.

We have to break down barriers between people and within our governance structures. When we do this, Birmingham can take part in the opportunities of the 21st century.”

Jim Sokol – President, Take-a-Jew-to-Lunch Foundation + Arts Patron

“There are many pathways to God.”

The late Rabbi Milton Grafman, Temple Emanu-El
Jim Sokol with Maurice the camel at the Birmingham Zoo, taken by Maurice’s handler.

“We have a real opportunity to make changes in Birmingham now. Now that we have a new mayor and a new crop of very diverse young professionals, we’ll be able to become something we’ve never been able to become before.”

Annie Damsky – Co-Creator at The Fearless Om + Owner, Villager Yoga

Photo taken at Villager Yoga by Rachel + Noah Ray.

Annie wants “to welcome people from all places who bring vision and enthusiasm to the city.”  This means “providing diverse wellness opportunities, such as through yoga or food choices. It also means supporting the tech and entrepreneurial boom currently happening.”

She’s motivated by tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” and the love of community.

Jon C. Goldfarb – Civil Rights Attorney, Wiggins Childs Pantazis Fisher Goldfarb

Photo taken in The Badlands, South Dakota, by Ilan Goldfarb.

Jon will go down in the history books as the attorney who represented Lilly Ledbetter. Her Supreme Court case led to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act of 2009.

“I would like the rest of the world to recognize what a vibrant and diverse City Birmingham is today. My work is influenced by the Jewish value of the equality of all humanity.”

Michele Forman – Director, Media Studies at UAB + President, SHOUT Film Festival, Past President, Sidewalk Film Festival

Photo taken at the future home of the Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center at the Pizitz by Liesa Cole.

“I love the energy and optimism in Birmingham. I want everyone to have access to great schools and healthy environments. And opportunities to contribute to the arts and cultural life of the city.

My mother, uncle, and grandmother survived the Holocaust. This was because of their bravery, their luck, and the risk that other people took to hide them. As a documentary filmmaker, I give viewers a window into someone else’s experience. By telling these stories, I hope to create a sense of our shared humanity, no matter our differences.

Tikkun olam means ‘repair the world.’ This is about how we as individuals have to work towards justice. I try to live up to that in my work.”

Jeremy C. Erdreich – LEED AP, Erdreich Architecture PC

Photo taken in Vietnam by Larry Slater.

Jeremy Erdreich divides his time between New York and Birmingham. You can see his local work at The Phoenix, Railroad Park, and other places around town. His vision is “to help revitalize downtown. It can be a vibrant core serving the entire metro that respects and welcomes everyone.

Jews learn to strive for justice and equality for all people. We learn to care for the world, asking ‘how can I preserve what’s good, improve what’s not, and share the results with others?’”

Sarah Metzger – Ambassador of Music, Laughter, and Smiles, Temple Beth-El

During a short time in Birmingham, Sarah’s made an impact. You may have seen her at LJCC Summer camps, Temple Beth-El, or the occasional comedy club.

Photo taken in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, by Susan Shane-Linder.

“My vision of Birmingham is one of inclusivity, collaboration, humor, and musical ruach (spirit). I envision the most joyous Jewish community possible (which is why I sometimes dress like a unicorn).

The two teachings that guide my vision are the idea that we’re all created in God’s image, and the quote ‘Who is wise? One who learns from every [person].’”

Curt Bloom – The Voice of the Birmingham Barons

“Nobody has more fun than me. I am living my dream.”

Curt Bloom

For Curt, the new UAB stadium will create a “once in a lifetime opportunity to draw more events to Birmingham.” He sees it as “the last piece of the puzzle,” along with Railroad Park, Regions Field, and the Convention Center.

Photo taken in Regions Field conference room by Mike Ferko.

The main Jewish value that drives him is a strong work ethic. He’s proud of the fact that in 31 years, he’s only missed one game. And that one fell on Yom Kippur, one of Judaism’s High Holy Days.

It’s been amazing for me to get to know each of these folks better. Some, like Michele Forman, I’ve known since junior high math class (she hasn’t changed a bit). Some I’ve heard about for years, and it was great to connect with them for this piece. Plus, I even learned that one is a cousin (cue “It’s a Small World”)!

The bottom line is this: since its founding, Birmingham has been shaped by Jews who came from other parts of the world in search of a better life. Not only did so many find that promise of a new beginning here, but they and the ones who have come after them have worked to make this a more inclusive, funnier, and creative place for everyone.

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Sharron Swain
Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference
Articles: 512