Judy (Joseph) Burger has seen a lot of the United States—much of it by accident. At age eighteen, she got lost hitchhiking to a communal farm in Illinois and ended up in California! She has also lived on Washboard Way off of Dead Dog Drive in Atmore, Alabama. Along the way, she attended art school, painted a portrait now on display in the Helen Keller Museum, earned a degree in graphic design, raised a family and visited hundreds of prison inmates. Oh, and she also befriends people by bringing them matzah ball soup.
Yes, she’s Jewish.
Raised in a Reform Jewish home in the Chicago suburbs, Judy is the second oldest of five children: four girls and a boy (in that order). Her family did not regularly attend synagogue, but Judy’s brother Mike was bar mitzvah and Judy remembers doing a Purim play with the youth group. The Josephs regularly observed Passover and Hanukkah with the extended family.
Although Judy recalls saying a prayer before bedtime as a child, God did not seem real to her. To Judy, it was just a matter of which religion you were born into. “In my mind,” she says, “you were either Jewish, Catholic or Christian.”
Of more interest to her was drawing and doodling—almost always of people’s faces.
“The beauty of the face is what I’m drawn to,” says Judy, who as an adult has sketched (from photographs) Martin Luther King, Jr., Julianna Margulies, Robert De Niro, Gloria Swanson, Carly Simon and others.
Her art was her anchor through the high school disappointments of not making the cheerleading squad or finding the perfect boyfriend. She was excited about leaving home for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but by the second semester her pursuit of an art degree had lost its luster.
She searched for satisfaction through boyfriends, philosophy and dabbling in drugs. “I became a mess,” Judy says. “I wasn’t really mature enough to go away to school.” So she dropped out and moved back home.
When Judy’s Jewish friend Joann told her that her brother was at a communal farm where “they lived like Pilgrims,” something clicked in Judy’s soul. She decided to check it out.
Although Judy knew the farm was in Freeport, just a couple of hours west of Chicago, she never got directions from Joann. Judy and her sister Robin tried to hitchhike to the farm, couldn’t find it, kept on going and wound up in Berkeley, California! There Judy and Robin took a trip of a different kind—with LSD. Although it had no effect on Robin, Judy nearly died. The emotional and spiritual impact was almost as bad.
“I felt a strong, evil presence pushing me into a dark hole,” Judy says of her drug-induced trip. “Even though I didn’t believe in the devil or hell, I somehow knew that the devil was that evil presence and the dark hole was hell.”
The girls called their dad, who wired them money to fly back home. Judy was still in a mental fog and experiencing delusional thoughts. But she remembered the farm. This time (with directions) she went without her sister and lived there for a year. The head of the kibbutz-like community was a pastor who led the group in Bible studies. Judy learned about Yeshua (Jesus) and came to believe in him as the Jewish Messiah. When the pastor and his wife prayed for her, the mental fog lifted and the delusional thoughts ended.
As she continued to study the Scriptures, she called her parents and told them what she believed.
“They thought I was meshugge,” recalls Judy. When she returned home, they took her to the rabbi to deprogram her. “But I was set free from that darkness [her LSD effects],” she says, and the rabbi could not convince her that Jesus wasn’t the reason.
Judy attended the Art Institute of Chicago for a year, then moved in with some girlfriends in DeKalb, Illinois. There she met Jeff Burger, who she married in 1978. Judy gave birth to their first child, Aaron, a year later, and their daughter, Amy, in 1981. The Burgers moved to Atmore, Alabama, where Jeff worked as a state prison chaplain. Because Jeff is legally blind, Judy drove him to the prison and accompanied him on hundreds of his visits with the male inmates. While in Alabama, she completed a degree in graphic design from Faulkner State Community College.
After six years, the Burgers moved back to Ohio where Jeff continued to serve as a state prison chaplain. Judy still visits prisoners with him. There aren’t many Jewish people in the small Ohio town where they live. But Judy loves to make matzah ball soup and bring it to the Jewish people she meets, including her podiatrist and a friend in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Her most famous “soup friend” is sculptor Alfred Tibor, a Holocaust survivor whose artwork is displayed in nearly 500 private collections and museums, including the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem. Tibor, now in his 90s, lives in Columbus, Ohio.
Tibor says of his work:
I feel that “art for art’s sake” is not enough. I want to create sculptures that both express and evoke human emotion. As a Holocaust survivor, I believe that my life was spared to do my work so people may enjoy it. . . . the human aspect of the piece is what is being expressed to the viewer—that there is beauty and value to be found in all our lives . . .” Source
Judy has certainly found that to be true. Her many activities have made her less prolific with her art than in younger days, but she still finds time to display her work in local galleries and visit schools to teach young children to draw.
Her hitchhiking days are over, but she has a dream that will take her further than Berkeley. “Before I die,” she says, “I’d like to become an Israeli citizen.” If she does, she’ll have plenty of neighbors with whom to share her matzah ball soup!