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Cotler said that she was drawn to Jewish communal work by her growing awareness of American Jewish power.
“We have responsibility to leverage our financial resources, intellectual heft, cultural capital, to leverage our deep organization, to leverage the positions of influence and power that Jews have attained in politics, business, finance and education” to assist “other communities that are still facing discrimination, that are still disenfranchised, who are not experiencing the kinds of opportunities Jews experience on a daily basis,” she said.
Prior to her Jewish communal career in New York, Cotler — who previously went by the name Staci; Stosh was her family’s nickname for her — was an activist in Portland, Ore. She founded Open Hand, a local organization that trained women in self-defense and provided violence prevention and girls’ empowerment programming in local schools.
In her mid-20s, Cotler had what she describes as a spiritual crisis, but since none of her friends or family were active in Jewish life, it did not occur to her that Judaism could be a resource. A few years later, however, she had a transformative experience that she wrote about in the “Love & Justice in Times of War Haggadah.” In her essay for the 2003 ’zine-style, activist Haggadah, Cotler, who identifies as queer, recounted how a lesbian couple invited her to their Passover seder after she did a table dance for them at what she refers to as a “sex club.”
Cotler declined to comment on her work at the club beyond saying that she was a dancer for a period in her 20s “to make ends meet.” But she said going to that seder, her first in many years, set her on a Jewish path.
“I realized I have a place in this tradition, that I am not alone, that other people like me found ways to connect, that this tradition has wisdom to teach,” Cotler said. Soon after, Cotler said, she met a rabbi who “literally took me under her wing and said, ‘Please come to synagogue, you can sit next to me.’” At age 30, after a few years as a weekday minyan regular, Cotler celebrated a bat mitzvah.
In Portland, Cotler was involved in activist groups like the Jewish Radical Action Project and Jews for Global Justice, and she demonstrated against Israeli policies. In 2001, she protested a Portland appearance by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The next year, Portland’s Willamette Week described her staging a mock Israeli checkpoint in a downtown intersection.
“You are now at an Israeli checkpoint. If you protest, you will be killed. Expect to be blindfolded and beaten,” she shouted through a mega-phone, according to the paper. Cotler refused to discuss her participation in Israel-related activism, saying that Israel does not factor into Bend the Arc’s work.