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13 Nov 2019

Know Your Neighbors: Meet Julie Hirsh, a Role-Model Parent, Animal-Lover and Nonprofit-Outreach Expert

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Gab, Yanet, Julie and Robert. Gab, Yanet, Julie and Robert.

Julie Hirsh says she doesn’t understand why people would want to know her life story—but she’s underselling herself: From a career as a fitness trainer to her current work for Jewish Family Services of the Desert, the Indio resident has taken a fascinating route to where she is now.

“I was born in Berkeley, and my parents owned a toy store,” says Hirsh, now 55. “It was fun and unique—no plastic, all hand-made toys from around the world. They sold it when I was 10, and we moved to upstate New York, where they were from, into an old Victorian house on 200 acres. My folks fixed it up. … My uncle lived up there, and although we had visited him in the summertime, my folks had forgotten how cold it was in the winter.”

The family moved back to Northern California, specifically Sonoma County.

“My dad was an entrepreneur, and kind of a genius,” says Hirsh. “He would get bored very easily, so anything he did, it was full speed ahead. For example, he was interested in gardening, so he got a horticulture degree. But the toy store was still in his blood. He decided to make cute, whimsical wrapping paper with toy images, and he created posters; we had thousands around the house all the time. Then he got into woodworking and carving. Any hobby had the possibility of becoming a business. My father’s message to me was to put my dreams to work. Whatever I had an interest in, I shouldn’t let it be out of reach.

“My mom became an international folk-dancing teacher and created her own career at a junior college in Santa Rosa. Her message to me was to never give up on doing what I wanted to do. She taught me about tenacity.”

Hirsh received her bachelor’s degree at UC Santa Cruz in community studies, with an emphasis on social change and activism. “Actually, as far as the activism, although I was raised in the Berkeley area, and I remember the riots (in the 1960s), I was too young to have participated,” Hirsh said. “I was into physical fitness, at the time when aerobics was the thing, and I fell in love with it.

“I was living at home, and my mom said that if I got a job, I could move out, so I started looking. As a starving student, I got paid to work out, and then became a fitness professional for 27 years. After that, I went into physical therapy as an aide for about nine years.”

Hirsh felt she was working too much; she decided she wanted a normal job and to enjoy life with her husband, Robert, now of 21 years. “We were always talking about doing this or that and ‘when we retire,’ so we moved to the desert in 2009,” she says. “We’d had a timeshare here for a couple of years, and had experienced how hot it is in the summertime. In 2009, we decided to look at houses, just for fun.”

As was the case for so many of us who settled in the Coachella Valley, that’s all it took.

“My first job was with Agua Caliente, and then I moved on to the Desert Recreation District,” Hirsh says. “I was doing fitness as a personal trainer as well as teaching classes. I’m still focused on being fit; I work out every day, but now, it’s just for me. My husband, who works for the Desert Recreation District, is an avid pickleball fan.”

In 2012, Hirsh joined the staff of Jewish Family Service of the Desert, a nondenominational agency founded on the Jewish principle of “healing the world,” wherever in the world one may be. JFS has served social-service needs of the valley for almost 40 years, providing mental-health counseling, food assistance, support groups, services specifically focused on seniors, and youth programs targeted toward at-risk children. Hirsh oversees community outreach.

“I do presentations so people can know who we are, and I oversee the volunteers, including recruitment and training,” she says. “We drive people to medical appointments, have a ‘friendly visitors’ program for those who are isolated, and we provide social activities for holocaust survivors.”

Hirsh also describes herself as an animal-lover, with four cats “and a few strays who live outside,” she laughs. Turning serious, she says: “I’m committed to helping make shelters no-kill and finding safe places for animals who need homes.”

Hirsh had a child before she married. “I didn’t let my parents know I was pregnant until I was about six months in, because I knew it wouldn’t go over well. Something in me said, ‘You’re going to be a parent,’ and not because I don’t support choice, but because that was my choice.”

Her child, Gab, is now 29. As Hirsh describes it: “Gab doesn’t identify as only female. I was the one who opened the conversation with Gab about identity. I had a feeling by the time Gab was in the fourth-grade that it didn’t feel like Gab was in the right body. Gab came out as gay while in college, and now Gab and Yanet have been together for quite a while, living in Long Beach.

“Robert is accepting and loving, no matter what. He just rolled with the punches. I’ve learned about pronouns. It’s not necessary to say ‘he’ and ‘she.’ It’s ‘they’ and ‘them.’”

What advice would Hirsh give to her own young self? “Be a good person. Treat and respect others as equals and individuals. Take the time to make informed decisions. And accept your child, no matter who they feel they are, or how they are comfortable identifying themselves.”

If anyone ever had a story to tell, one that could make a difference to others, it’s Julie Hirsh.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

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