By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Over his 33 years, Michael Munoz has always been a little different, rising and falling and rising again through adversity and challenge, until he has made a career of helping others get beyond their own limitations and narrow-mindedness.
Munoz grew up in Windsor and West Hartford, in a home that celebrated Jewish and Puerto Rican cultures. His mother, Marcey Ginsburg, had been raised a practicing Jew in West Hartford and asked her fiancé, Bob, to convert to Judaism before they got married.
Their son was born with a serious illness that carried a bleak prognosis. “My parents were told that if I lived, I would likely be ‘mentally retarded,’ the term used at the time,” Munoz says. “My mom says that, despite not having been religious in some time, she did the only thing she knew to do: she prayed. She made a promise to God that if I lived, and was relatively ‘normal,’ she would raise me Jewish. So the day I came home in second grade with a slip that said I was being placed in the ‘gifted and talented program’ at my elementary school, my mom immediately took me down to the synagogue and signed me up for Hebrew school classes.”
Munoz attended a Hebrew school in Windsor for a few years, until his parents discovered and joined Kehilat Chaverim, a chavurah Munoz describes as “a creative, diverse, and welcoming community” in West Hartford. Munoz celebrated his bar mitzvah there in 1992 and continued to attend holiday services and an occasional Shabbat service.
“But my faith was most firmly cemented when I took part in the inaugural Birthright Israel trip in January 2000,” he says. He is still involved with Kehilat Chaverim.
As a student in the Windsor school system, Munoz found it difficult to fit in. “There weren’t many Jews and even fewer Puerto Ricans in town at the time, and I often felt like I wasn’t ‘Jewish enough’ or ‘Puerto Rican enough’ to be comfortable with the few individuals from each group who went to my school,” he says. “I felt there was a need, mostly from others, for me to choose to which side I would align myself, and yet I felt a tremendous pride in both aspects of my identity and I still do.”
But the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was bringing its “A World of Difference” anti-bias educational program to Connecticut, and at age 12, Munoz was among a group of students asked to give feedback on some early videos being considered for the curriculum. As a teen, the star athlete developed nerve damage in his right arm, putting an end to any dreams of a career in professional sports, and adding “disabled athlete” to his life experience.
At 17, Munoz attended the ADL Southern Connecticut Conference (SCC) training session at Quinnipiac University, returning to the event two years later as the youngest-ever facilitator.
He was a UConn sophomore at the time, and ADL Connecticut education director Marji Lipshez-Shapiro asked him what he wanted to do after graduating. “I said, ‘The only two things I’m passionate about are sports and diversity,’” Munoz recalls. “Marji said, ‘Well, why don’t you combine the two?’” Munoz graduated from UConn in 2001 with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies, and kept refining his skills with ADL.
“The first time I talked publicly about my disability and what it meant, I was 20-years old and running an ADL program, and I was in tears in front of 100 high school kids,” he says. “Over the course of 18 months, I had gone from being able to throw a baseball 85 miles per hour to not being able to throw one 90 feet. But subsequently, I’ve been able to talk to lots of kids about my disability, and just about every time that I do, at least one kid will come up to me afterward and say, ‘You know what? I identified with that.’”
After UConn, Munoz worked in a job promoting diversity at ESPN, then became director of diversity at Mass Mutual. Now 33, the West Hartford resident is assistant director in the Americas Inclusiveness Office at Ernst & Young (EY), helping oversee diversity and inclusiveness for all of EY’s 62,000 employees across North and South America, the Caribbean, and Israel.
“I’ve known Michael a long time,” says Lipshez-Shapiro. “I remember being at his bar mitzvah and thinking how his unique background provides him with a special voice to talk to others about respect and inclusion. Since then, I have watched him blossom into a top-notch trainer who helps us spread our message to more than 20,000 students each year.”
Munoz finds that his work in the corporate world echoes what comes up in workshops he leads with teens. “A lot of times we’ll have conversations in my office like, ‘Gosh, I wish we could have gotten to these adults earlier in their lives,’” he says. “In essence, I think that’s what we’re doing at ADL. We’re trying to create an atmosphere that by the time these students get to the corporate setting, they’re more inclusive and they’re more welcoming of other people’s ideas, experiences and differences.”
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