Oct. 22 update: This article has been updated to correct multiple errors, including about Harriette Wimms’ education and career history.
“If not now, when?” asks Hillel in Pirkei Avot 1:14. It’s a quote that, according to Harriette Wimms’ friend, Justin Fair, encapsulates Wimms.
“Harriette perfectly harnesses this energy and gives with [it] a message of light, of perseverance, of the promise of relief and humor,” Fair said.
Wimms, 52, was born in California but grew up in a Christian home in St. Mary’s County in Southern Maryland. “When I was six, I told my mother I did not believe in organized religion,” Wimms said. “I had my own ideas, I was into alternative music and I was always in the library learning.”
She loved to read about Judaism, but it wouldn’t be until much later that Wimms would feel welcome to convert.
Wimms eventually earned a full ride to Towson State University to study English.
“Honestly, it saved my life. I had internalized a lot of racism and sexism and classism from St. Mary’s County, where I just did not fit in,” Wimms said. “But English gave me a way to externalize it.”
After graduation, Wimms started a ten-year career in medical and disability publishing. Wimms also helped youth with disabilities and taught creative writing. She continued her education at Johns Hopkins University to study psychology so that she could give herself a better understanding of the kids she worked with.
“I saw a difference between the kids in the city and county in the resources they were afforded but I didn’t have the words for their trauma before,” she said.
A mentor suggested to her that she should go further, so on a whim, Wimms applied to a Ph.D. program at the human services psychology department at the at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Among hundreds of applicants, she and just nine others were accepted. There, she studied clinical and community social psychology.
Wimms continued to employ her used her clinical psychology skills in creative and therapeutic outlets. She worked at the Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, The SEED School of Maryland, and Chase Brexton Health Care.
Almost 10 years ago, Wimms met her current partner and found out that he was Jewish.
“I told him I always wanted to be Jewish but that I had felt I couldn’t be because I’m Black,” she said. “I can still remember the look on his face. He thought I was joking.” He welcomed Wimms to a service at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. “I don’t know if I can even describe the experience. It was like speaking the Hazzan was speaking a language I had always known. It was like coming home. Judaism is me!”
Wimms dove into the Jewish community. She had a bat mitzvah, learned Hebrew, joined Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl’s board and developed new spaces and programs such as Baltimore’s Jews of Color chavruta. She’s also planning a national Jews of Color Shabbaton for May next year.
When she’s not celebrating Judaism, Wimms devotes herself to social justice and professional development. Wimms created Chase Brexton’s health care’s first adolescent behavioral health program, which tripled its projected clientele within a year.
Today, she commits almost every workday hour to her own practice, The Village Family Support Center of Baltimore. She is also currently a professor at the Loyola Clinical Centers. And she’s not done.
“I will forever advocate that money should not impact access to mental health care,” she said. Wimms does so by providing free services to community members in need and trains community agencies about mental health awareness, issues of diversity, trauma on child development and neurodiversity.
Most recently, Wimms co-organized “Jews of Color, Jewish Institutions and Jewish Community in the Age of Black Lives Matter,” which started Oct. 18. Wimms also recently organized a playback theater event, “Here’s What Jewish People of Color Need You To Know,” which shows Nov. 14.
Even with her busy professional life, Wimms makes time to cook for her family, which includes her ex-wife/co-parent, her partner and their three 16-year-old kids. On Fridays, Wimms cleans, prepares her home for Shabbat and participates in services.
“I make a really mean challah,” she joked.