Tiny, Battered, but Never Broken: “Big Sonia” Film Review

The documentary “Big Sonia” opens with a little old Eastern European woman in a car marveling at the “bog mindling” beauty of nature in everything. The cute outset is quickly contrasted with the film’s overarching question: If something terrible happens to a child, does it affect her for the next 70 years?

Photo courtesy of Gloria Baker Feinstein

Sonia, the film’s protagonist, is shown pondering this question on a radio show – the tattooed number on her arm peeking past the sleeve of her chic red blazer. But it’s the film’s director, Sonia’s granddaughter, who answers this pivotal question by splicing together the endless, endearing moments of the golden-hearted 80-something’s everyday life with depictions of the horrors her grandmother faced as a Jewish teenager in 1940s Poland. The obvious and unequivocal conclusion to the above question is, absolutely.

Photo courtesy of Gloria Baker Feinstein

Sonia works six days a week at her tailor shop, named after her late husband, in a midwestern mall that’s on its last legs. The camera follows her commute, as the mall’s adoring security guard ushers her on walks from her premiere “no parking” parking spot and perusal of the shopping mall’s empty halls. Despite being the final occupants of the mall, Sonia’s shop continues to thrive.Throngs of decades-long regulars flood in and out, each greeted with hugs and kisses and showered with compliments. We follow Sonia further as she navigates the world behind her leopard-print steering wheel cover on her car, visiting family, running errands, and picking up only the freshest bigmouth buffalo prepared specially for her by yet more adoring staff. This makes for a fine gefilte fish Sonia joyously brings to the Rosh Hashanah table.

But Sonia’s life certainly hasn’t been all charm and adoration.

Interviews with her children reveal that, although their mother never talked about the Holocaust, they could sense a darkness in their parents, both of whom were survivors. Sonia buried her story until she saw a skinhead on TV denying the existence of what she endured. Sonia then wills herself to recount the trauma of being sniffed out by Nazi dogs while hiding in an attic and transported to a concentration camp at 14 years old. She speaks about permanently parting from her father and brother shortly thereafter. She speaks about the beatings and torture, starvation and fear, and being forced to spread the ashes of her people as fertilizer. And she finally opens up about watching her mother walk off to the gas chamber. Sonia persevered through all of this, only to be shot through the chest on the day of her camp’s liberation.

She recovered, she moved to America, she built a new life, she got married, she raised a new family, and she built her beloved store.

Photo courtesy of Gloria Baker Feinstein

Sonia’s physical survival is inexplicable, but the crux of this film lies in her soul’s resilience. To lose so much and be able to rebuild is a story of unconquerable will. And she carries that message to schools, where young victims of personal trauma find empathy and inspiration in her ability not to hate, even the Nazis. And to prisons, where she gains respect of grizzled inmates because Sonia, a sweet, sub-five-foot old lady, is tougher than they can ever imagine. Your hardships can be overcome, she teaches.

She lost her entire family. She built a new one. She lost her husband. She carried on his work. And finally, she lost her tailoring shop when the relic mall of middle America was deemed for demolition. Her reading of the notice that her lease was terminated was one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the film. Yet, in her late 80s, Sonia rebuilds an entire new store – and that store thrived, too.

Sonia says she survived the death camps in order to tell the story of the Holocaust. But throughout the film, her grace, wisdom, and wit; her beauty and charm; her charity and love; and most of all, her resilience despite tragedy after tragedy, show that there’s more to the reason she survived.

Although the film makes no mention of it, Sonia survived to tell the story of the Jewish people. Tiny, battered, but never broken – and always big.


See “Big Sonia” this Saturday, check out other screening dates/locations, or request a screening for your organization/movie group.




About the Author: Max Bluestein is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. He is a full-time government flack and part-time research consultant on security issues. With whatever time is left, he’s a writer, traveler, gym-rat, and charity fundraiser. Also husband. Definitely husband.





The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Spotted in Jewish DC: Hill Country BBQ’s Passover Brisket

When you think Passover food, Texan BBQ is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But, local DC BBQ joint, Hill Country BBQ, has somehow magically combined these two forces to create a mouthwatering, traditional Texan BBQ brisket ready-to-order for Passover.

Get the lowdown on this seder-worthy dish from Hill Country BBQ’s Chef de Cuisine, Dan Farber, and Director of Operations, Chris Schaller.

Allie: I hear you have some delicious brisket on sale for Passover. What makes this brisket special?

Chris: Our founder, Marc Glosserman, grew up in the BBQ capital of Texas, where central Texas BBQ is a true celebration of the quality of meat. Our brisket reflects this, and is made with a heavy rub of cayenne, salt, and pepper, and then we soak it over Texas post oak wood from 13-15 hours. By the time it comes out, its very tender, melts in your mouth.

Allie: How can I get this brisket at my Passover seder?

Chris: You can order it online here, pick it up at Hill Country BBQ, or we can do drop-off catering whenever possible – depending on the amount.

Allie: What’s your favorite Passover food?

Dan: Hmmm that’s a hard one because isn’t all Passover food really amazing? 🙂 I would probably say a delicious brisket of course, and a good, flavorful matzo ball soup with the perfect consistency matzo balls (somewhere between floater and sinker). I don’t mind gefilte fish and I can tolerate matzo when it’s served with some butter or as matzo pizza. Of course, in the morning you can’t pass up matzo brei!

Allie: Do you have any other foods at Hill Country you suggest for Passover?

Chris: We serve a healthy amount of lamb, and some great sides like cucumber salad, mac n’ cheese. These can all be ordered for delivery to a Passover seder.

Allie: Is there a discount GatherDC readers can get on the brisket?

Dan: We are happy to extend a 10% discount for GatherDC-ers, just mention this article when ordering.


Check out our 2018 Passover Guide for more DC restaurants with seder foods, Passover recipes, and much more.






NOTE: The brisket at Hill Country BBQ is not kosher.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Finding Your Shabbat Squad

I’ve been working at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center (EDCJCC) for the past few years as the Director of EntryPointDC, the 20s and 30s program based out of the center. When I started this role, I decided to change up one of our signature programs, Shabbat Clusters – small groups of young adults who we bring together to meet for monthly potluck dinners at each other’s homes and restaurants.

Originally, the Shabbat Clusters groups were based on age and location, and/or if you were single or part of a couple. In 2016, we added interest-based clusters such as outdoors, arts, 30-somethings, and foodies. Each group was also assigned a Shabbat Cluster Coordinator to help the group decide who would host dinner for the month, and be there as a resource for welcoming others to their home and learning about Shabbat rituals. Groups became larger so members had a chance to connect with different types of people. By the end of 2016, we had 285 young adults registered for the season, with new Shabbat Clusters forming every spring and fall!

As someone who has been a part of this program as both a participant, and a staff member, I have discovered that Shabbat Clusters is an incredible way to make new friends, reflect on your week, create Shabbat traditions, throw an awesome themed dinner, and even find your next bae. Check out some of my favorite Shabbat Cluster memories before signing up for the chance to create your own. 

Top 5 Shabbat Clusters Highlights of the Past 2 Years

1) The chilly winter evening when the 30-somethings Shabbat Cluster group hosted an Oscars-themed Shabbat, complete with a photo-booth and themed ice-breaker of sharing your favorite Jewish TV/movie moment, actor, director, or commenting on the week’s Torah portion (and potentially earning an Oscar for this!).

2) That time when two Shabbat Clusters didn’t have enough space at each other’s homes for dinner, so they wound up hosting the dinner together at the EDCJCC – and found these awesome tablescapes and stuffed mini pumpkins for dinner.

3)  That day when we received this awesome email:

I am writing with exciting news! Our cluster was formed through the DCJCC in April 2015. Though we’ve lost a few members to grad school and new jobs in other cities, we continue to meet regularly.  Over the years, we’ve had a Hanukkah Shabbat gift exchange, and gotten together for birthdays, Passover seders, Rosh Hashanah lunch, Yom Kippur Break-Fast meals, Halloween parties, Hamentaschen baking, EDCJCC’s Everything But the Turkey community service project, a singalong Shabbat, and a show at the Kennedy Center (“Kinky Boots”). In September, two of our members (Jennifer Bronson and Douglas Robins), who met through Shabbat Clusters, got engaged and are getting married this summer!

P.S Doug and Jen got engaged over a Shabbat meal that Doug made from scratch. After the proposal,  they danced around the apartment to Bruno Mars. #Shabbatposal

4)  That spring afternoon when the outdoors Shabbat Clusters and the 20’s-something Shabbat Clusters came together for Shabbat lunch in the most creative space: The National Portrait Gallery Kogod Courtyard.

5)  When Lisa Zingman and Hilary Bernstein combined forces to be co-coordinators of their Shabbat Cluster not once, but THREE times. These two amazing ladies already have 15 people signed up to re-join their group for the next year! #winning #Shabbatsquad


One of our taglines for Shabbat Clusters is “Find Your Shabbat Squad” – and I think that these 5 highlights reflect the idea that coming together for Shabbat is about meeting new friends, celebrating Shabbat your way, creating new traditions, and making lasting memories.

Want to learn more about Shabbat Clusters? Visit the FAQ Page and register for the Spring 2018 Season. The season kicks-off this Friday, but rolling registration will be open until June (or until spots are full).


About the Author: Stacy Miller is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. enjoys entertaining her large Jew crew at her home and is currently the Director of EntryPointDC, the 20s and 30s program of the Edlavitch DCJCC. She represents all things Northern Virginia as the Founder of NOVA Tribe Series and is a former GatherDCGirl of the Year Runner-Up. Most importantly, she wants you know she LOVES this community a-latke.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Words & Ideas: 1:1 Interview with EDCJCC CEO Carole Zawatsky

On March 15th the Edlavitch DCJCC will host, as part of the Words & Ideas program, a discussion on “Compassion, Love and the American future” featuring Rabbi Shai Held in conversation with Martha Nussbaum, world renowned author and philosopher. This will be the first event of the series that I will be able to attend, and I am very much looking forward to it! I studied philosophy, so it’s always exciting to listen to  contemporary thinkers expressing opinions on today’s issues.

While checking out the Words & Ideas program, I discovered several amazing events and got curious about the history and goals of this initiative. I also started to wonder: are words more important than ideas? Or vice versa?

To curb my curiosity, I spoke over the phone with EDCJCC’s CEO, Carole Zawatsky.

EDCJCC CEO Carole Zawatsky

Daniela: Can you tell us something about the Words & Ideas program and how it got started?

Carole: Edlavitch DCJCC has a wonderful and rich history of doing intellectual programs at a very high level and I, together with our Board of Directors, wanted a new program this year, that really focuses on vital issues that are relevant throughout the community, featuring writers, artist, scientists, and thinkers.

Daniela: Last October, you had a Words & Ideas 3-day-symposium. How did it go?

Carole: It went very well and addressed the issue of “how we age”. It was called “Getting Older, Getting Bolder” because, like many other people turning toward their 60s…I don’t feel older, I feel bolder! The experiences we encounter in life make us much more comfortable speaking out, and using our experiences in positive ways. I wanted to do something that would address age from a very positive prospective.

Daniela: On March 15th the program will feature Rabbi Shai Held in conversation with Martha Nussbaum. What will they be talking about?

Carole: This upcoming event is with Martha Nussbaum, one of the most prominent philosophers, and an incredible writer for The New Yorker. We will be looking at compassion, which is definitely a relevant issue in everyone’s life.

Daniela: Why is it important to focus on and talk about contemporary issues through a Jewish lens? In other words, do you think that programs such as “Words & Ideas” are particularly significant nowadays?

Carole: As a community we have shared values, shared concerns. We think about the finite resource of our environment, the finite resource of our time, getting older–they are universal concerns. All faiths and religions have something to say about these universal issues. But looking at these topics through a Jewish lens brings the values of Jewish tradition to bear on issues that are important for us, and which we think about together. One of the most wonderful ways to learn about any faith is to see its best values shining forward.

Daniela: Last question – Are words more important than ideas, or vice versa?

Carole: I love that question!! Both — words, and ideas, can bring you up and tear you down. I think that the word is the expression of the idea but I would love to hear what other people think!

My dear readers, since we would also love to hear your opinion on Words & Ideas – please let us know what you think and leave a comment below.





About the Author: Daniela Enriquez is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. Daniela is Italian and comes from the only Jewish family in Palermo (population: slightly higher than DC). Things she likes about America include: the price of clothing, Internet coffee houses and ice rinks. Among the less desirable things are: the obsession with air conditioning, American “espresso,” and root beer. Feel free to contact her for advice on real Italian food in DC!



The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

PRO-TIPS For Hosting Your Own Shabbat

I was a completely nervous wreck when I threw my first Shabbat dinner this past summer.

Growing up, Shabbat dinners were not a tradition my family took part in, so I was unaware of all of the customs and traditions that are a part of this holiday. I started attending Shabbat services and dinner regularly with Hillel in college, and soon began to see the beauty in this weekly holiday. Ever since then, I’ve chosen to make Shabbat dinners a regular part of my life.

When I threw my first dinner this past summer, however, I didn’t know where to start. I ended up putting way too much pressure on making sure every part of the night was perfect. The first dinner that I threw helped me realize that as much as I wanted to make it perfect, it was ultimately about enjoying the company of my loved ones, rather than whether or not I cooked a four-course meal.

Since then, I’ve hosted many dinners, both by myself and with others. I have been able to pick up a couple of tricks here and there to help throw a great Shabbat dinner. Read my tips below.


Don’t Invite People Who Only Know Each Other

It might be easy to want to only have a specific group of your friends at your first dinner, such as your work friends or the friends you made from your kickball team. It makes it easier on you, as the host, and easier on them, as the guests, because everyone knows each other. But, I really encourage bringing people together from different parts of your life. Your friends will enjoy meeting all the other special people in your life and you will enjoy the dynamic you create by bridging the gaps between your different worlds. If you have concerns about logistically bridging those different worlds, try to make sure that everyone at the table knows or has something in common with at least one person in the room.

Do Invite People Who Aren’t Jewish

Yes, Shabbat might be a Jewish holiday, but that doesn’t mean that non-members of the tribe can’t enjoy it as well. I find that friends of any (or no) religion can all appreciate coming together for a meal, good conversation, and the chance to unwind. As someone who didn’t grow up around a lot of Jews, I really enjoy sharing my culture and my background. Just make sure you encourage them to ask questions at any point during the night.


Don’t Be Afraid of Store Bought Food

Yes, homemade Jewish food is the absolute best thing in the world! Nothing says a “warm, inviting home” like your mom’s homemade matzo ball soup or that challah recipe that your grandmother taught you how to make as a kid. However, the likelihood of you pulling off an entire home-cooked meal after you get off of work on Friday and finishing it before your friends arrive is “meshugana” (crazy). Just worry about making one or two main dishes. For everything else, go store-bought; the food will be just as good – I promise.

Do Suggest People Bring Items That Will Help Shrink Your To-Do List

Most guests will ask if they can bring something to dinner. While your first thought is probably “no” or “bring whatever you want,” you’ll be better off responding with specific suggestions from your own list. You don’t want to end up with 26 hummuses and no dessert. Wine is always great, and it is what most people will default to. But if someone offers to bring paper products? Take them up on it. Your co-worker wants to make a dessert? Even better. You won’t have as much pressure on your shoulders and you’ll be able to focus on your main dishes.


Don’t Think The Night Has To Be Super Serious and/or Traditional

If I’ve learned anything from all of the Shabbat dinners that I’ve hosted and participated in it’s this: everyone does Shabbat differently. For example, while I say the prayers and light the candles before every Shabbat dinner, others might choose to forgo that part of the evening. The differences can even be more minute than that, like putting salt on your challah or not (I do for what it’s worth). Part of the beauty of Shabbat dinner is that you can make it yours. Whatever you choose to do, own it — people will just be glad to be there and be part of a special evening.

Do Enlist the Help of Organizations That Serve This Exact Purpose

If you are still feeling overwhelmed after reading this entire post or you just aren’t quite ready to tackle hosting Shabbat dinner all on your own, enlist some of the organizations that solely focus on making hosting Shabbat dinner easier. OneTable and Moishe House Without Walls are two organizations that provide up to $150 credits/reimbursement subsidies to help young adults host dinners. I have personally used OneTable, and it has allowed me to host high-quality Shabbat dinners without feeling like I’m breaking the bank.


Leave comments below to talk about your own pro-Shabbat hosting tips.




About the Author: Bryna Kramer is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. She is originally from the small, southern town of Danville, Virginia. She’s been in D.C. for just over four years, as she moved here in 2013 to attend American University. When she is not busy covering the Wizards on a nightly basis or hosting her own podcast, Meet Us At Molly’s, you can find her binging television or brunching her way through the city. Follow her on Twitter.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rogue Rabbi to host alternative Purim experience in a Synagogue

Rabbi Aaron Potek, GatherDC’s infamous rabbi and provocateur, is pushing the envelope yet again.

Rabbi Aaron Potek

Potek announced earlier this week that he will be hosting an alternative Purim experience this Wednesday night…in a synagogue.

It’s a risky move for someone who works with Jewish 20s and 30s, many of whom don’t connect to synagogues. But Potek thinks the idea just might be crazy enough to work.

“We were originally looking to host this in an abandoned warehouse or something hipster like that,” he said. “But then we realized that synagogues were just as abandoned and even more unexpected. I mean, honestly, where’s the last place you’d want to celebrate Purim?”

Some Jewish leaders are calling this the most innovative program to happen in DC in years. “You look at the landscape here – Hannukah Happy Hours, Shabbat Happy Hours, Happy Hours for Immigrants’ Rights, or even just generic monthly Happy Hours… it’s literally all Happy Hours,” said Mordy Goldstone, head of OJO, an outdated Jewish organization. “It takes real vision and out-of-the-box thinking to come up with something as genius as this.”

But others, specifically from the religious community, are less enthusiastic. Observant Jews typically celebrate Purim in a bar or at a festive party – eating and drinking in complete and total excess. Potek’s new idea is a serious departure from tradition.

“God clearly thinks Purim must be celebrated in a bar,” said Avi Frumstein a religious Jew and apparently God’s spokesman. (God did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“Rabbi Potek has crossed a line here and his ordination should be revoked,” continued Frumstein. When pressed on whether that response was perhaps an overreaction, Frumstein doubled down. “My seemingly random, zealous passion on this insignificant, meaningless issue is actually just my way of overcompensating for a lack of passion about my insignificant, meaningless life.”

Potek seems to have embraced the controversy behind his initiative.

“I guess I am trying to challenge what it means to be religious, which is not only about drinking and partying,” he said. “You can be religious in a synagogue, too.”

When asked why she planned to attend the alternative Purim experience in a synagogue this year, Pam Scherzer said it sounded “exotic.” She elaborated, “I’m into alternative spirituality – for example, my friends and I all do yoga, which is basically like a workout class, but with a smack of Sanskrit. But I’m even more into telling people that I’m into alternative spirituality. So I’m looking forward to telling people that I went to this so I can sound cool and different without actually being too different because I’m uncomfortable with difference.”

So what can people expect at the event itself?

“No costumes, no groggers, no hamantaschen,” Potek said. “Those are all distractions from a holiday that’s meant for adults. We’re going to read from the scroll of Esther – about an ostentatious, vindictive, womanizing ruler – and see if we can find any modern-day parallels.”

That goal may be overly ambitious for a population that seems perfectly content with an un-compelling, childish, kitschy Judaism. But maybe, just maybe, a few people will move past the conversation about the location of the event and actually engage with the content of the holiday.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are not even those of the original author. They are totally made up – Happy Purim!

Announcement: Happy Hours to be called All-Emotions Hours

“Happier” times. What about the angry or surprised times?

In response to feedback from our community, we will be changing the name of our monthly happy hours to “all-emotions hours.” We regret our role in reinforcing systemic emotional inequalities by perpetuating the happiness hegemony, and we hope this change will encourage people of all emotions to feel more comfortable in our spaces.

Our happy hours were intended to be open, inclusive spaces where people of all emotions could be hit on by creepy men. Names matter, and the name “Happy Hour” clearly privileges happiness over other feelings like sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. When people leave feeling disgusted, we want them to know that’s totally OK.

We were surprised to learn that there are more than five emotions, a misconception that persists due to the constant exclusion of lesser-known emotions in movies like Pixar’s “Inside Out.” We were then surprised – again – to learn that “surprise” itself is one of those lesser-known emotions. These emotions have been so marginalized in our society that we didn’t even recognize it within ourselves. Clearly, then, we weren’t honoring it within others.

Sure enough, looking through photos from our past happy hours, we realized that not a single other emotion besides happiness was represented; we’re ashamed and embarrassed that every single photo featured people who were smiling or laughing. 

Moving forward, we will make sure we photograph people experiencing the full range of human emotions.

Originally, we thought about highlighting a different, underrepresented emotion each month – e.g. September’s Sad Hour or April’s Angry Hour. But then it was pointed out to us that this still would be favoring one emotion over all the others. To truly break the happiness hierarchy, we needed to make space for all emotions at every hour.

So long Pharrell.

We are also becoming increasingly sensitive to the role of our implicit biases in all of this. One additional change that will take effect immediately will be changing the music that is played. We will never again play “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake, nor any song from Uncle Kracker’s album “Happy Hour,” even though “Smile” is a pretty great song and – be honest – you haven’t heard it in a while and kind of want to hear it again.

We have also set up monthly “open meetings” to help us better reach out to all emotions, though so far only the emotions of “pissed,” “righteously indignant,” “bored” and “gassy” have been represented. And if you’re thinking, like we were thinking, that “gassy” isn’t an emotion, then maybe you should think about whether you really want to be policing what is and is not a legitimate emotion – a lesson we had to learn the hard way.

To reiterate – no one emotion is better than any other emotion. We may not validate your parking, but we validate whatever emotion you’re feeling, even if it’s anger at our not having validated your parking. Also, to reiterate – we don’t validate parking.

We acknowledge that some may feel that all of this change is happening too fast, while others may feel that we’re not going far enough. (It’s been pointed out that “all-emotions hour” still privileges the hour over other units of time.) Still, we hope this is a step in the right direction, and we appreciate your patience as we grow together through this learning experience.

See you at next month’s all-emotions hour!



The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are not even those of the original author. They are totally made up – Happy Purim!

How to Celebrate the Spirit of Purim Across DC!

Jewish-holiday-wise, Purim is sneaky. It creeps up in mid-February or March every year, just as we’re reeling from our second try at New Year’s resolutions, and are already thinking about Passover. (Mark your calendars – Purim starts on Wednesday night, February 28th!)

For those who need a little refresher as to what this holiday is all about – I’ve got you covered. Purim celebrates the story of the Book of Esther, when the Jews were saved from Haman’s evil plot. You may have heard it called  “The Jewish Halloween” because of the awesome costumes worn to celebrate the holiday. It’s also the holiday when we shake rice-filled water bottles and make triangular hamentaschen cookies  (plot twist: fill them with nutella?).

There are four core mitzvot (commandments) for celebrating Purim:

  • Reading the Book of Esther
  • Sending Mishloach Manot (snack goodie bags for neighbors and friends)
  • Eating a festive meal (with plenty of adult beverages for those who choose to partake)
  • Giving gifts to the poor (Matanot Le’evyonim). This mitzvah is our expression of gratitude for when Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai saved the Jews from being killed.

In my view, the last I listed – Matanot Le’evyonim, or gifts to the poor – is rarely emphasized in our general understanding of Purim. The Purim spirit is one of fun, filled with costumes, community parties, delicious Hamentaschen cookies, and general positivity and merriment. This year, I challenge us to put a bit more focus into the Matanot Le’evyonim mitzvah – to not just satisfy the mitzvah by giving to charity, but to truly carry over the positive spirit of joy and celebration that is Purim into acts of service.

These four mitzvot are all part of the Purim holiday! Here’s how to participate in all four – check out these happenings across DC to bring you closer to the Purim spirit!


Megillah: Reading of the Book of Esther

Listen to the Megillat Esther (the book of Esther) read aloud. When you add in maracas, rice-filled water bottles, plastic “noisemakers” from Party City, and enthusiastic booing for good measure – fulfilling this mitzvah is much more fun than it sounds.

You can hear the megillah reading at:


Mishloach Manot: Make gift bags for friends, family, and neighbors

If you want to send mishloach manot (gifts of food), make sure to include hamentaschen! (This may be controversial, but the best flavor is definitely poppyseed.) Get a head start on these gift bags with:

Spread the joy of hamentaschen to all: consider donating hamentaschen you bake to local senior centers like Congregation Etz Hayim did this past weekend at the Culpepper Garden senior living facility in Arlington.


Seudat Purim: Have a festive meal

This is the one mitzvah that everyone seems to remember as “it’s a mitzvah to get drunk on Purim!” Although this injunction does tell Jews to “drink until you don’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai” – what it is saying, on a deeper level, is to find a way to look beyond our rational minds, and tap into our deepest, faith-based self – and, of course, to have lots of fun! However, for those of us who aren’t big into drinking – you can still celebrate this mitzvah with a delicious meal (filled with foods symbolic of the Purim story), and by letting go of stress and totally relaxing into the spirit of the holiday.

Celebrate this fun mitzvah by:

Consider providing a seudah or feast for others – collect cans or non-perishable food at your Purim meal for a local food pantry! See what places like So Others May Eat (SOME) need. In the truest millenial fashion, consider having guests purchase items in need off of Miriam’s Kitchen’s Amazon Wishlist.

Photo courtesy of The Jewish Federation

Matanot Le’evyonim: Giving back to those in need

Incorporating the spirit of service into the other Purim mitzvot can also help in bringing the spirit of Purim joy to the mitzvah of Matanot Le’evyonim!  This Purim mitzvah invites us to help at least two people and to provide enough food for a full meal. Go bigger than our typical mitzvah to give tzedakah, or charity, and bring the joyous Purim spirit to this mitzvah!

There are so many ways to infuse Purim joy into service work. Some may choose to give traditional tzedakah gifts, but others may prefer to give their time, energy, and skills. Read this article for more ways to give back across DC.

However you celebrate, wishing you a chag Purim sameach – a happy and joyous Purim!





About the Author: Shira Cohen is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you! When not writing about volunteer opportunities in DC, she works in student life and disability services at a local law school. Originally from Charleston, SC, Shira loves DC Library $1 book sales and District Taco.



The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Two Disabled Cousins Slash Friends: Beyond the Tent and Into the Metro

Kenny and I entered the Metro car at 8:30 on a Wednesday night after happy hour – and then some – at Carving Room in Chinatown. The Yellow-line train heading south was sparse. One woman wearing a pinstripe suit sat in the first row on the far side, and one man wearing a solid green necktie tied in a full Windsor knot read a paperback from his seat behind her.

“Aren’t you going to take that?” Kenny said, pointing to the open row just to my right knee as I walked in. Those were the seats above which was a blue sign of a person in a wheelchair.

I laughed. I had the kind of anything-goes camaraderie with Kenny, also known as my Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin. We’d just spent two-and-a-half hours volleying ideas about hosting a podcast. The podcast’s working title: “Two Disabled Cousins Slash Friends.”

Okay, so the title may need more work.

Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin has an obsessive disorder that can limit his activities. Ask Kenny and he’ll accurately state that his cousin Ben (that’s me) has many disorders. The most obvious is physical: I use crutches when I walk long distances. I call them my quadsteppers.

My quadsteppers and I fell into the row adjacent to the one reserved for disabled individuals, which Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin took. His joke led me to think of my interaction from twelve hours earlier. I began sharing this story as our train accelerated towards Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter station.

That morning, I had entered the Metro car at Gallery Place. A blonde woman sitting in the disabled row stood, I assumed because she saw me. I continued standing and holding the pole with my right arm and holding my quadsteppers with my left. I was then, always have been, and may forever be too stubborn to accept that offer. The blonde remained standing and facing away from me, at least until I exited two stops later at Union Station.

“She was probably too embarrassed to return to her seat,” Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin said after I finished telling the story.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhear,” Pinstripe said. Strangers on the Metro never spoke to each other, except to offer disabled persons seats. This was exciting. “It reminded me of something that happened a couple weeks ago after we got that little bit of ice. A man was pushing himself in a wheelchair on the sidewalk behind me. I spotted black ice up ahead. I turned to him and suggested he roll towards the edge of the sidewalk to bypass the black ice. He didn’t say anything. When he reached the black ice, he just rolled right over it. Even I wouldn’t step on it!”

“It’s possible he was upset with you for making that suggestion,” I said. I understood that feeling. I used to get filled with rage when someone offered me his or her seat. Now, I appreciate the gesture. Just don’t insist twice.

“I feel bad now!” Pinstripe said. Behind her, Reader looked up and chuckled. This was the liveliest Metro car I’d ever been in. Also, now I had a captive audience and four stations until my and Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin’s stop at Crystal City.

“Here’s a hypothetical,” I said. All three looked at me. “This is based on the Jewish retreat I attended this past weekend. Well, I should clarify it was more like a retreat for Jews who aren’t really Jews. Well, I should clarify that. We’re Jews, but some of us just don’t do traditionally Jew-y things.”

Reader was cracking up at this point. “I grew up Catholic. I get it,” he said.

“Me, too!” Pinstripe said.

“And I grew up as a Jew doing Jew-y things,” Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin said. “Go on.”

“So we were on this retreat discussing what Judaism is, and what it means to be Jewish. The topic for one of the breakout sessions I attended was forgiveness. Judaism has a lot of rules, so of course there are specific ones to determine what is an acceptable apology and acceptance of that apology.”

“You and your rules,” Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin said. He was referring to my self-imposed rules on when I’m allowed to eat carbohydrates, how I only drink each kind of beer one time ever, how I must interact with at least one stranger every time I go out…rules for pretty much everything in my life. Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin loves ribbing me for my rules in front of others.

Pinstripe and Reader looked confused, and there wasn’t enough time left to explain both that and my retreat. I ignored Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin.

“Back to my hypothetical. As I understand the Jewish rules on forgiveness, if you did harm to another person, you must gather three of that person’s friends and, in their presence, apologize to the person whom you harmed. At that point, you have done your duty as the apologizer and the burden is off you. The burden is then on the person receiving the apology to forgive you. If that person doesn’t forgive you, then he or she is now the sinner. One could argue that by standing, the blonde woman from this morning was offering me an apology on behalf of the randomness of the world giving me bone cancer. I didn’t accept her seat, which meant I didn’t forgive her. She was probably offended by that. Forgetting about the three-friends rule: does that mean the burden is now on me to apologize to her?”

The implications of my hypothetical were severe. A woman offers her seat, and you decline: you must apologize. Someone murders your loved one and apologizes for it, and you don’t forgive that person: you must apologize to the murderer.

What followed was an eleven-minute discussion on Judaism. Not the kind of Judaism that requires rituals or excludes gentiles, but rather the kind we discussed on my Beyond the Tent retreat: the deeper-thinking kind of Judaism. The kind of Judaism that is relevant, active, and meaningful. The kind of Judaism that focuses on spirituality, culture, ethics, wisdom, and community.

By the time Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin and I said goodbye to our new deeper-thinking Metro friends, I realized that Beyond the Tent had affected me. I now think differently. Before, I thought someone who committed an unkind act was simply not cool, but now, I realize the ripple effect could cause real harm and that offender should apologize. Before, I looked down at offenders who didn’t apologize immediately. Now, I consider that asking for forgiveness and forgiving may take time, despite what the rules of Judaism state, and I am in no position to judge when that period of time ends. And, instead of holding someone who twice offers his or her Metro seat to me in contempt, I’ll consider the courage it took to make that offer. Of course, I still won’t accept the seat.

I don’t yet know how much Beyond the Tent will impact my life; I may never fully be conscious of that. Ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Consider this reason why: During our first small-group session, my facilitator asked us to write what we wanted to get out of the retreat. Why were we there?

I’m a writer. I’ve learned tools to overcome writer’s block. And yet, for two minutes I sat there unable to write anything. Why was I there? All that came to mind was that I met Rabbi Aaron, liked him, appreciated his passion for this retreat, wanted to support him, and accepted his offer to apply for Beyond the Tent without even considering what I wanted out of it.

And there is my answer: I had nothing I wanted to get out of Beyond the Tent. I had no expectation. I accepted the adventure with an open mind and came out changed in ways I may never know.

That got me thinking: What if we approached many opportunities in life this way?

Instead of interacting with others with an expectation that it will end with you inputting digits into your phone or a new friend to drink IPAs with, or with sex, why not simply let that interaction simply be.

Instead of wanting to get something specific out of an adventure you’re excited about, just do it and then the only possible direction is up, not down. Instead of waiting for someone to offer a Metro seat a second time so you can fill with rage, just appreciate the gesture as it arrives, each time it arrives.

Just pretty please, don’t ask me three times.



About the Author. Benjamin Rubenstein  is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you!  Benjamin is the author of the Cancer-Slaying Super Man books. You can subscribe to his quarterly newsletter, Words by ruBENstein.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

“Strange Fruit” – Remembering the Civil Rights Movement

I was a bit disappointed this past November when I was unable to see the Edlavtich DCJCC’s Washington Jewish Music Festival (WJMF) show by Levine Music, “Strange Fruit: Music from – and inspired by – the Civil Rights movement”. The tickets for this show sold out too quickly for me to get one, and people who attended told me it was a big success. So when I saw, last month, that the EDCJCC was offering a second performance on January 29th, I immediately decided to check it out AND got the chance to speak with one of the musicians involved!

The “Strange Fruit” concert was a powerful and intense experience from the beginning to the end. Energetic songs and freedom chants were sung, heartbreaking poems and motivating speeches were recited. The audience was taken to the 1960s and back by the rhythm of the instruments and the amazing voices of the musicians. By the end everybody stood, sang and clapped to the rhythm of “We Shall Overcome!”

A few days before the performance, I had the pleasure of speaking with internationally acclaimed opera singer and star of this show, Mr. Charles Williams – who has performed at renowned venues such as Carnegie Hall, Wolf Trap, The Smithsonian, and the Kennedy Center. Williams led the “Strange Fruit” show with songs, recited classic poetry, and even read a portion of Martin Luther King Jr’s Nobel Prize speech. We talked about the two performances at the EDCJCC, freedom riders, the civil rights movement, and the difference with today’s movements for social justice.

Daniela: “Strange Fruit” had already been performed and had such a big impact that the EDCJCC proposed an encore. Were you expecting such a big success?

Charles: It was very exciting, and we were very overwhelmed by the reception. We’d love to do it again, and in other places, but there are about 7 people in the show and it’s difficult to get them all together. When composer, educator, and one of the leading musicians Chris Brown (no, not that Chris Brown) – and the people at the EDCJCC suggested we do it again, we all agreed and we’re really looking forward to it.

Daniela: Tell us about this project. Why did you decide to present it as part of the Washington Jewish Music Festival?

Charles: Chris Brown spoke with the people at the WJMF, and thought it was a wonderful idea to open the show during the WJMF because it has a lot to do with racism, and the Jewish people have had their share of racism – it was a natural. During the Civil Rights era, there were so many people of all religions and ages that were very much a part of it, including a lot of Jews. Martin Luther King Jr. had a very special talent because he was speaking the truth and people knew it. He forced Americans to get on the right track.

Daniela: What about the musical selection? How did the set list come together?

Charles: In 1961 the freedom riders travelled to Washington, DC and to the deep south. Some of them were attacked, and some of them were killed. We chose some of the freedom riders’ songs that I suggested, and as well as some of the other songs from the era that were being sung by the students.

Daniela: What makes a song like “Strange Fruit” a protest song, and how big of an impact did that song have when it first came out?

Charles: “Strange Fruit” was written in 1939 by a white, Jewish school teacher Abel Meeropol who was a member of The Communist Party. He wrote it as a protest poem exposing American racism and particularly the lynching of African Americans. Then, Billie Holiday wrote music to it. It became an anthem, a very important song of the civil rights era.

Daniela: Do you think that today’s “resistance” movement can be compared to the civil rights movement? What’s the role of music in it?

Charles: You can compare today’s “resistance” movement to the civil rights movement, but there is one significant difference. During the civil rights movement, people sang. Everybody – Catholics, Jews, Black people, and White people…they sang.

Nowadays, people are not singing. Even during the Women’s March, they were not singing. Music is extremely powerful, and if you do music while you are resisting, that becomes very powerful and it’s difficult to disregard it. I think that’s what is missing with these movements, like the Women’s movement and Black Lives Matter. They could sing the music from the civil rights era! They are missing an opportunity, and it won’t have as big of a success without the music. Music and love are the most powerful forces on earth!


About the Author: Daniela Enriquez is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. Daniela is Italian and comes from the only Jewish family in Palermo (population: slightly higher than DC). Things she likes about America include: the price of clothing, Internet coffee houses and ice rinks. Among the less desirable things are: the obsession with air conditioning, American “espresso,” and root beer. Feel free to contact her for advice on real Italian food in DC!


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.