Growing up in Forest Hills, Queens, surrounded by German-Jewish refugees, Johanna Sanders did not emerge from the typical millennial cocoon. Her accomplishments are just as distinct.
In 2011, the SUNY Binghamton student publication Prospect Magazine designated Sanders the 29th most influential student on campus out of a student body of 20,000, and in 2013, Sanders was one of 20 women from New York State selected for the New Leadership New York Summer Institute.
“I do my best work when I have an overflowing plate,” said Sanders. And her plate, indeed, runneth over. Sanders serves as the chairwoman of Aleinu, the LGBTQ community of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah; a peer counselor at Identity House, an LGBTQ walk-in center, and is active in her Upper West Side synagogue, Congregation Habonim. She also takes classes at Broadway Dance Center and sings in the CBST chorus.
When Sanders is not putting on Shabbat dinners and coordinating adult education programs for CBST, she is developing a discussion series: Architects of the LGBTQ movement.
Sanders attended Etgar, an Israeli Hebrew school in Forest Hills, from kindergarten to fifth grade and was the only American in her class. As an only child, the experience only deepened her sense of self-sufficiency. After graduating college in 2013 she traveled solo for nine months throughout South Africa and Australia, researching same-sex, inter-partner abuse and tutoring underprivileged children.
“I really believe in causes,” Sanders said. “When something really affects me I throw my life into it.” That kind of passion shows through Sanders’ commitment not only to social justice causes, but also to carrying on the stories of older generations. “I have one grandmother who is 98 years old, but really all of these people [including the older congregants at Habonim] are my grandparents. In many ways their story is my story.”
Laying down the law: Sanders is studying for the LSATS even though her parents say “it’s OK if she dances in a field.” One with nature: Sanders finds being immersed in nature particularly liberating: “When you’re snorkeling in Fiji the fish are in their own world; they’re not like, ‘Oh my God there’s a gay person above us. Run!”