Date of Birth: November 10, 1937
Date of Death:
Place of Birth: Detroit, Michigan
An activist since youth, Betsy Wilson Winkelman has recognized the importance of caring for others both far away and in her neighborhood, through the preservation of human rights and the environment.
Born in Detroit to Celia Barnett Wilson and Benjamin Wilson, Betsy was inspired by her mother, who was an activist in her own right, for two causes which would become dear to Betsy as well: the liberation and settlement of fleeing Russian Jewry and the protection and nurturing of the environment. Active on both fronts, Celia Barnett Wilson advocated for the relocation of Russian Jews. She even practiced composting, a method of reprocessing organic waste which was highly uncommon and untapped in the early twentieth century. This small act of protecting and nurturing of the environment would become a passion of Betsy’s later in life.
Betsy knew she wanted to live a life of service when she was just a child. She recalls a teacher at her elementary school who humiliated children. The incident marked her, especially because the teacher stood in stark contrast to Betsy’s own mother, a “really good teacher.”
Betsy’s activism began while she was raising her three children in Michigan and Ohio. While living in Cleveland from 1964 to 1978, she took note of the women who were seeking their rights within the synagogue. They wanted to read from the Torah and participate in services. This inspired Betsy to study hard and eventually celebrate her Bat Mitzvah in 1974. When she moved back to Detroit, she joined Adat Shalom, where she eventually became President of the Sisterhood, and brought with her the very same passion she found while in Cleveland.
In 1984, Betsy and her husband Mike Winkelman traveled to Russia to deliver life-saving medicines, clothing, and other necessities to assist Jewish refuseniks who sought to leave the country, but in the process had lost their jobs. Betsy served as President of the Resettlement Board (which became a part of the Jewish Family Service Board) and co-chair of the Detroit Society Jewry Committee until the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991.
While Betsy considers her involvement in the Russian Jewry movement a “no-brainer,” she also took great interest in environmental issues, wherever she lived. In Michigan, she got involved with the Jewish Community Council as a board member and officer, became the Chair of the Michigan Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and became active with the Michigan Interfaith Power and Life as an officer and founding member of the Board of Directors. She also attended national meetings which brought together her Jewish studies with her concerns for the environment, and was a member of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs Committee on Energy and the Environment as well as a member of the Interfaith Environmental Organizations Committee within the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Betsy is now the inspiration to her children that her mother was to her, living in an intentionally “green” home and spreading knowledge and advice about water security and conservation to friends, family, and neighbors. She notes, “We are supposed to be stewards of the earth. As brilliant as we all might be in technology, we cannot originate or create nature. If we don’t take care of our earth, we could lose it.”
Written by Noah Krasman