Profiles in Purpose: Lara Haft

For Lara Haft, political discussions were a normal part of life in her Rockville, MD home. Issues of justice, inclusion, and social responsibility were common touchstones of conversation. Before long, she found that simply talking about politics wasn’t enough. “I’m a control freak,” she says, laughing. “I want to make things better.” Thus, at the age of ten, Lara started volunteering for political campaigns. Art, faith, and activism are central to Lara’s understanding of who she is, and she finds her sense of purpose where they intersect.

Lara’s Jewish faith is a cornerstone of her life. In Durham, her synagogue is both a site of purposeful work and an inspiration for the future. She loves being a mentor to the young people she teaches in Hebrew School.
Working with children gives her hope that a more just society is possible, and she believes education is an essential form of activism. Deeply influenced by Durham’s grassroots organizing community, Lara is as comfortable at a protest as she is in front of a classroom.

Lara’s commitment to building just communities is rooted in faith and history. An aspiring Rabbi, Lara draws inspiration from the educators, artists, freedom fighters and other “trouble-makers” trying to build a world without racial violence. She connects the experiences of diverse groups working against institutionalized racism, whether in Durham, Standing Rock, or Ramallah. After her first year at Duke, she deepened her personal understandings of grassroots organizing during a Kenan Summer Fellowship in Alabama and South Africa. She notes, “I’d say the orienting question of my life has been: What is the relationship between personhood and peoplehood?” How do we form communities of abundance and justice, when our communities are stuck within cycles of violence?

For Lara, writing and performance are critical ways of sharing stories, multiplying perspectives, and planting seeds for a better future. Her summer fellowship culminated in a showcase of local poets performing pieces on race, ethics, and justice. Through diverse, thematically linked work, she tried to fully honor the stories she had heard—an impossible task in her estimation. Since then she’s worked to cultivate experiences in which people are able to tell their own stories. A key instance of this has been Bull City Dignity Project, a documentary theatre project Lara co-directed with Institute support. Lara, her co-directors, and a team of Durham-area high school students collected oral histories from a variety of sources to tell multilayered, complex stories about Durham’s civil rights legacy, LGBT+ and faith community, and the history of gentrification.

After a four-year tour at Duke that found her frequently erasing the lines between the university and the wider community, Lara hopes to call Durham home for a little while longer. She feels called to continue to nurture and advocate alongside people in this place before she continues to Rabbinical School.