Activist Leaves More Than an Echo
Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 12:08
Photo courtesy of Liya Rechtman '14
Rechtman, left, photographed at the "I Support Love" campaign this April.

One would be hard-pressed to find someone on campus who hasn’t heard Liya Rechtman’s name or a facet of Amherst life that she hasn’t touched. Through her vocal presence as an activist, a journalist and academic, Rechtman is unafraid to challenge norms and is never content to accept what is over what could be. Her passion and dedication to reshaping Amherst culture is unparalleled, and although future classes may not know it, the legacy she leaves behind will be lasting.

Puppetry and SATs

A graduate of St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York, Rechtman is no stranger to pushing the limits of traditional education. One of the top private schools in the nation, St. Ann’s allows students to discover the joy of rigorous academic pursuit while fostering their creativity as well. Teachers don’t give formal grades on work, and students have the freedom and flexibility to effectively design their own curriculum.

“I made this deal with my geometry teacher where I would read a series of feminist fiction books instead of doing geometry because I wasn’t paying attention in class,” Rechtman said. “That was cool until I ended up having to get a geometry tutor when I went to take the SATs.”

Beyond this non-traditional approach to geometry, at St. Ann’s Rechtman had the opportunity to take classes not usually found at your typical high school — like Constitutional Law or Puppetry. Outside of the classroom, she continued to explore both creative and critical thinking through poetry and theater groups, as well as the school’s renowned debate team.

During her sophomore year of high school, Rechtman spent a semester abroad in Israel. She remembers the time as a mix of exhilaration and intense homesickness. As difficult as it was to be a 15-year-old studying abroad, Rechtman credits the semester as one of the most important experiences in her life, one that allowed her to truly find her independence from her parents and the social world of St. Ann’s.

Although she loved her high school experience, Rechtman acknowledges it wasn’t until after she left that she could fully recognize the problems within the institution — or rather, within the student body.

“Everyone was cool and artsy, but it wasn’t cool to be politically active about most things, or to be gay. It wasn’t cool to have strong feelings about anything,” she said.

Rechtman’s underlying frustration with the apathetic atmosphere of St. Ann’s would stay with her through her time there and would later play a big role in shaping her experiences at Amherst.

Brooklyn to the Pioneer Valley

Amherst — a college with a belief in individual academic freedom like St. Ann’s, and her mother’s alma mater — seemed, in theory, to be a natural choice for Rechtman. But it wasn’t until a transcendent moment during Admitted Students’ Weekend that she realized that Amherst was the right fit.

After a night of dancing at a random party in the socials, Rechtman remembers taking a walk outside with the senior she’d been dancing with. The senior, who happened to be the president of Amherst Hillel, pointed to the sky saying, “Look at the stars. I bet you never see stars like this at home.”

“And it was true,” Rechtman recalled. “The sky at night in the city is foggy with smoke and streetlights and here the sky was just so clear and I could see all the stars.”

But the differences between Brooklyn and Massachusetts were more than she expected, and despite Rechtman’s experiences studying abroad, the transition to Amherst was difficult. Coming from a high school with few sports, she was taken aback by the prevalence of athletics on campus, among other things: the misogyny, anti-Semitism and intolerance for religiousness.

One Multivocal Voice

After a difficult first year, Rechtman was determined to start fresh during her sophomore year. That fresh start would not have been possible without, the Amherst feminist blog that would eventually become AC Voice.
On the recommendation of Becca Kelley ’12, one of She-bomb’s founders, Rechtman applied and was accepted as a writer at the beginning of her sophomore year. The blog began as the outlet she’d been searching for, as a way for people to get to know her.

When the original founders of She-bomb graduated in the spring of 2012, they passed on the responsibility of maintaining the website to Rechtman and Craig Campbell ’15. The two newly appointed editors had a vision of a site that addressed a broader range of campus issues than She-bomb had — a site that would allow a variety of Amherst voices to be heard. After a summer of reorganization, web design and recruitment, AC Voice was born.

At the time, Rechtman didn’t think of the redesign as the start of a whole new organization, one that she would be at the head of. “I really just wanted to be a writer,” she commented.

But Rechtman soon became anything but “just” a writer. In November of 2011, she published an article about the definition of rape and was surprised at the recognition it received on campus. After a couple of days had passed and students were still talking about the article, Rechtman began to realize that there were others who cared about problems of sexual respect on campus as well.

It was after she wrote an article in April 2012 endorsing Tania Dias ’13 for the AAS presidential election that Rechtman believes she became someone people thought of when they thought of women’s issues on campus. Shortly after that was published, she received a picture of a misogynistic T-shirt printed by the fraternity formerly known as TD from a senior who asked her to wait until he had graduated to write about it.

Although it was Dana Bolger ’14E and not Rechtman who eventually ended up writing the article, a trip through the AC Voice archives clearly documents Rechtman’s lasting commitment to exposing the culture of silence around sexual violence.

Tweeting with Evangelicals

Other reoccurring themes in Rechtman’s online writing often show up in other aspects of her Amherst life — most notably, her thesis within the Religion Department. The daughter of a rabbi, Hara Person ’86, Rechtman has been thinking critically about issues of faith for a while now. The beginning of her interest in her thesis topic — the connection between evangelicalism and Zionism — can be seen by some of her early AC Voice and She-bomb articles.

Titled “Politics and Promises: The Complicated Relationship between Evangelicals and Israel,” Rechtman’s thesis explores the nuances behind evangelical Christianity’s traditional support of Israel, including the little-researched field of evangelicals who don’t support Israel.

She began studying Evangelical Christianity her sophomore year in Professor David Wills’ “American Christianity” course. That same semester, she attended a conference in Washington, D.C. held by the American Israel Political Action Committee.
Arriving at the conference, Rechtman noticed that there were two different “tracks” of events and speakers: one for young Jewish leaders and one for evangelical Christians. Intrigued, Rechtman took the latter option on a whim and spent the weekend meeting and listening to evangelical Christians.

“I totally disagreed with everything everyone was saying,” she admitted, “but it was still really cool.”

After discussing her deepening interest in evangelicalism with Professor Wills, Rechtman began to design a research track that would eventually lead to her thesis. For the next two years, she immersed herself in the world of evangelical Christianity through historical research, fieldwork, interviews and social media. Rechtman even spent the summer before her senior year working closely with an evangelical church while simultaneously doing an internship in New York.

Rechtman ended her thesis with a chapter about evangelical criticism of Israel. Fundamental to this last chapter was a conference called “Christ at the Checkpoint,” which addressed the question of what Evangelicalism has to say about the oppression of Palestinian people. The conference was held in Bethlehem, but Rechtman livestreamed all of the events, maintaining a dialogue with Evangelical leaders in attendance though Twitter.

As her thesis advisor, Professor Wills was impressed at Rechtman’s unflagging dedication to her topic, especially over such an extended time period.

“She brought enormous energy and a wide-ranging curiosity to her project — so wide-ranging I sometimes tried, without much success, to rein her in a little,” Wills said. “She got me interested in things I hadn’t thought a lot about, so I learned a great deal from working with her.”

Constantly Evolving

Somehow, in the midst of double majoring (both religion and English) and running a successful publication, Rechtman has still found time to engage with the wider campus community.

As co-chair of Pride Alliance during her junior year, Rechtman worked to revitalize campus social life for LGBTQ students by founding events such as Queer Prom and Lavender Graduation. During that year, she and other co-chair James Hildebrand ’15 were excited to note that attendance at weekly meetings increased from ten people to 40.

Come senior year, Rechtman stepped down as Pride Alliance co-chair and ran for AAS senate instead. Although she said she initially joined senate with the intention of being an outsider, Rechtman was surprised at the degree to which she became absorbed in the workings of student government.

During her time as senator, she was involved with several important committees, including the Sexual Respect Task Force, the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee and the First-Year Life and Orientation Committee. Rechtman stated that she was proudest of her work on the First-Year Life and Orientation Committee.

“It’s pretty rare to have a senior on the Orientation Committee,” she said. “My orientation was a disaster, and it affected my whole first year experience. I think it’s one of the most important and formative parts of life at Amherst. I’ve spent all year thinking about the class of 2018, who I’ll never get to meet, which is weird.”

Terras Irradient 2.0

Although she hopes that she has had lasting positive impact on campus life, Rechtman doesn’t want to hold onto Amherst too tightly.

This summer, she will be working at the college with the Center for Community Engagement to set up a student archivist position and create an exhibit about the history of sexual respect activism on campus.

But as soon as August arrives, Rechtman plans to leave Western Massachusetts for Washington, D.C., where she will be working for the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. She described the opportunity to work with the progressive lobbyist group as her “dream job,” which combines her intellectual interests and passion for activism.

Amherst would certainly be a different place without the work she has done.

Whether graduating senior or incoming first year, whether they know her or not, students have directly and indirectly benefitted from Rechtman’s tireless efforts to improve the community we call Amherst.

James Hildebrand, a close friend of Rechtman’s, described her as the proverbial nail that sticks out and keeps getting hammered down.

“There’s this notion that putting yourself out there and pushing back against the status quo can only bring you pain and suffering,” Hildebrand said. “If there’s anyone who proves this statement wrong, it’s Liya Rechtman.”