In Preparation for Rosh Hashana – A Poem

Post-Selichot, and pre-Rosh Hashana, I find myself in a particularly reflective mood. We have collectively entered upon a time of introspection, but it is also a time where we are under a lot of pressure to come up with answers: Will you forgive me? Will next year be better? Am I a good enough Jew?

In Preparation for Rosh Hashana

I stalk the neighborhood looking for a calmer mood,
but only find gas stations.
Sitting on the corner of Harvard and 11th,
I realize that I’m staring at the helix of the streetlamp
like I’m some kind of bug
in plausibly desperate search of a soul,
or a blind pilot
against a sky still blue and lace
when the world expects grey.
How do you say, ‘I’m sorry for all the shampoo bottles
I threw away with half an inch of soap left at the bottom,’
and ‘I’m sorry that sometimes
when I give food to homeless folks on the street
I feel a little too good about myself,’
like I can collect points
to use next time I’m accidentally racist or something.
How do you say, ‘I’m sorry.’
for 28 years of not volunteering on Christmas?
I’m sorry I don’t call my mother more often,
that I’m no longer vegan,
and that I was ever seventeen.


It’s honey we want
but all that’s here is wine-
turned-to-vinegar from dinner last week
and we walk – to shul
     -to the bus
eyes taut and open and looking up
in an orbital plea
as we step by step make the patterns
of the days of our lives
made of days
made of patterns.
It’s honey we want
but no one was married
or maybe God wasn’t invited to the wedding.


I’ll wash my hair in clover, wear a white dress,
beat my chest,
and cry.
With tired eyes closed, trust me
trust me I’ll sing songs I don’t understand
not because I am supposed to, but because
I need to.


And I’ll walk, drawing patterns behind me
of yesterday and last year
and hoping that tomorrow,
maybe tomorrow vinegar will be honey.

Why do we gather the Jews?

“So, why did Gather the Jews hire a rabbi?”

I’ve been asked this question at just about every coffee meeting I’ve had since starting this job. Of course, I’ve been asking myself the same question, and I don’t yet have the full answer. But in classic rabbinic fashion, I think the answer might begin with another question. It’s a question I’m much more interested in, yet no one has asked me.

“So, what’s the point of gathering the Jews?”

On the surface, the answer seems obvious. Of course Jews should gather. We’re one big family. We’re a tight social club, where the password to get in is a correct answer to Jewish geography. We’re a people with a shared language, history, and experience.

But is that really true? We don’t have a shared language, except for maybe a few Yiddish words that “goyim” know too. We’re completely disconnected from our poor, immigrant, came-to-America-with-nothing history. And our shared experience, if there is one, pretty much amounts to a love of summer camp and a hatred of Hebrew school. A few clicks on Facebook could connect me to people more similar to myself.

Without any substantial commonalities, this “tight social club” has a very arbitrary list of who’s in and who’s out that can easily lead to exclusivity, insularity, and even xenophobia. Do I really care about hanging out with people who have blood that resembles my own? And if there’s more to us than that, please tell me it’s not just self-referential jokes about us being cheap and having complaining mothers.

Others, in an attempt to avoid the challenge of our disunity, give a more practical answer for why the Jews should gather. It’s not about current community. It’s about continuity. The more Jews hang out together, the more they marry each other, the more they have Jewish babies, and the more our people survive.

Even if this were true, it still begs the question: to what end? Why do we care so much that the Jews survive? Is it because Hitler tried to kill us? Is it because our grandma would be really disappointed? Are those guilt-based reasons really compelling enough to make people care about Judaism?

This focus on the future distracts us from our central question, the question I want to explore with others in this new position. Our obsession with Jewish continuity has prevented us from dealing with the present reality, which ironically is a sure way to prevent Jewish continuity. Judaism has become a box that we pass down from generation to generation. We’re so worried about making sure the box gets to the next generation that we forget to open it. Or we’re too scared that we’ll find nothing inside, and then it will have been passed down for nothing.

Friends, it’s time to open the box. It’s time to ask the question of the Wicked Child on Passover night – why does any of this matter? It’s a scary question, especially for Jewish professionals like me who have made a career out of whatever is inside. We might find nothing of value. But at least then we won’t keep passing down a worthless box. At least then we can move on and look elsewhere for meaning.

For now, though, I’m OK with rummaging through it a little more. My hope for this new year is that others take the risk to dig with me. Maybe together we can find some hidden treasures inside.

Jewish Techie of the Week – Sam


Sam with Tiffany and David also Open Doors Fellows

Meet Sam! He was an Open Doors Fellow Cohort I and a coder who created the Gather Now app, an events app that pulls from the Gather the Jews Calendar. Sadly he will be leaving DC soon but learn all about his next adventure below!

Jackie: What first brought you to DC?

Sam: College! I moved out to DC in the fall of 2006 to start my freshman year at American University. My intention was never to stay in DC however after 4 year of undergrad, a year of grad school, and 4 years working in DC it has really started to feel like home (sorry Mom and Dad, I know you would like me to move back to Chicago).

GatherNow_withSubtext_512x512 (1) (1)Jackie: Can you tell me about your experience in the Open Doors Fellowship?

Sam: Being an Open Doors Fellow was an absolutely amazing experience! Through the fellowship I had the opportunity to meet so many extraordinary people and it helped empower me to play a more active role in shaping the Jewish community. As part of my capstone project I developed the Gather The Jews events app called Gather Now. The app is still being beta tested but it will be released in the coming weeks for download through the app store.


Sam working on the Gather Now app!

Jackie: You are leaving us shortly, can you tell us about the amazing opportunity you will be taking in Israel?

Sam: I will be moving to Tel Aviv in October to be a 2015-2016 Israel Tech Challenge Fellow. This fellowship takes a handful of Jewish software engineers from around the world and brings them to Israel for 10 months to work in some of Israel’s most elite high tech startups and companies. I’m very much looking forward to living in Tel Aviv and having the opportunity to learn from some of Israel’s best engineers. But I’m definitely going to miss DC a lot.

Jackie: I know that you are a candy fiend and love both Bubble Tape and Dum-Dums, but if you had to pick one, which would it be?

Sam: Oh definitely dum-dums! The flavor selection with dum-dums is unbeatable however I was really bummed with the recent news that the raspberry lemonade flavor will be canceled. It’s a big loss for the lollipop community.


Sam at the Moishe House With Out Walls Ba_ Mitzvah Party with Sasha another Open Doors Fellow [far right].

Jackie: What is your favorite Jewish Food?

Sam: Definitely bagels. Specifically Everything bagels with tomatoes and chive cream cheese. My apartment is actually located right next to an amazing local bagel shop so I basically have a bagel everyday; I’m kind of addicted.

Jackie: What is your favorite way to spend Shabbat?

Sam: I’m happy doing anything as long as it involves lots of food and friends or family.

Finish the sentence: When the Jews Gather…

Sam: Fun will be had!


Can I Ask Someone Out on Rosh Hashanah?

As the seasonal drink of choice shifts from an iced coffee to a pumpkin spice latte (with real pumpkin!!), and with the High Holidays upon us, it’s time to deal with a question that might arise: Can I ask someone out on Rosh Hashanah? 

What I mean is this: What if you see a good-looking gal (or guy) at services?  Would it be sacrilegious to start a conversation and potentially ask for his or her contact information?  I’d venture to say no… but use plenty of caution and respect.

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a new year, and we’re supposed to fill it with something sweet, like apples and honey.  But should this “something sweet” be limited to the food variety?  Should we deprive ourselves of one type of sweet new year to maintain respect for the other one?

I used to have a friend (we’ll call her Danielle) who moved to Baltimore from DC for work and didn’t know a single person there, in both senses of the word.  Rather than driving down to DC to join me at services as I had suggested, she decided to attend the services there by herself.  She sat on the seat second from the end.  Just as the service started, a guy (we’ll call him Jonathan) sat down next to her, also by himself.  They exchanged pleasantries between prayers—name, job, the usual—and that was that.  Jonathan wanted to ask Danielle out, but he was afraid that it went against all social and religious norms to do it in the synagogue, and this time on the holiest of holy days (Yom Kippur).  So he waited a week, got creative, looked her up, and asked her out.  Facebook tells me that they are now married with two kids.

Now, I’m no religious guru (far from it… do I smell bacon??), but my thought is this: Would G-d want us to stop ourselves from “going for it” on the holiday?  While no one could ever know the answer to this question, what I recommend is that if you think someone might be worth talking to after services, it doesn’t hurt to strike up a conversation and end with some form of, “I really enjoyed talking to you.  If you’re up for it, let’s be in touch after the holidays.  May I get your number?”  A lighter alternative would be to ask for the other person’s card… an easy peasy way to exchange information without using the antiquated “What’s your number?”

As we internalize the spirit of the High Holidays and try to enjoy the year 5776, remember that it’s okay to start off on a bold and exciting foot, and maybe a date in the new year.  L’Shanah Tova!


This article, with minor changes, also appeared in JMag, the official magazine of JDate.

2015/5776 High Holiday Guide

This is the guide from 2015! Be sure to check out the one from 2017 here.

The coconut provides a nutritious source (2)

Erev Rosh Hashana—Sunday, September 13

Rosh Hashana (1st Day)—Monday, September 14

Rosh Hashana (2nd Day)—Tuesday, September 15

Kol Nidre—Tuesday, September 22

Yom Kippur—Wednesday, September 23

Other Resources:

  • High Holiday ticket exchange! Have high holiday tickets that you are not using? Enter them here and check out what tickets are available here!
  • EntryPointDC High Holiday Tickets – Many of the congregations in the area sell their tickets through EntryPointDC, get your tickets today!
  • 10Q – 10 Days. 10 Questions.
  • Jewels of Elul – Daily inspiration every day of the Jewish month of Rosh Hashanah (Elul)
  • Educational materials – from AJWS
  • My Bubby – offering a 20% discount off their honey card of the month. Just enter the code “sweetrosh” upon checkout by August 31.
  • JSSA – Support JSSA volunteers as they deliver baskets of traditional holiday items and food to Jewish families and individuals who are unable to afford these items on their own.
  • Jewish Food Experience – Top 10 Recipes for a Scrumptious Year

Jewish Teacher of the Week – Joanna


Meet Joanna! This Chicago native has been in the District for two years now. She is a teacher in Fairfax and Pure Barre enthusiast! Want to recommend an outstanding leader to be featured on Gather the Jews? Nominate them at

Jackie: What first brought you to DC?

I am celebrating my two-year anniversary here in DC. I moved here from Chicago and deciding to make the move was a big decision for me. I was at a point where I wanted a change. I was looking for a new job and my mom had passed away two years prior and a new experience just seemed like what I needed. I moved here really not knowing anyone except my brother. I absolutely love it here and have made amazing friends. I love exploring the city and there is definitely more for me to continue to explore.

Jackie:You are a teacher, what is your favorite part of your job?

I am going into my 9th year of teaching. I am currently a K-6th special education teacher in Fairfax County. There are so many reasons that make me love what I do. The look on my students’ faces when they finally get a concept after days of teaching is very rewarding. Every day is different for me, kids always seem to know how to put a smile on my face, especially with all the funny comments and compliments I get everyday. My friends always appreciate the priceless stories that I have for them about what happened during my day.

image4Jackie: I hear you are keeping Pure Barre in business, where is your favorite studio and do you have pointers for beginners?

I am definitely keeping Pure Barre in business. My recent accomplishment this past week was reaching my 250th class. My favorite studio I go to is Pure Barre McLean. I work in McLean, so I like to stick to my morning routine before work with the 6am class. This summer I have taken advantage of sleeping in a bit and going to class a bit later. For those of you wanting to try Barre and have hesitation, my words of advice for you are that this workout is probably going to be different than any other workout you have done before, so do not get discouraged if you are not an instant pro. You are going to feel muscles that you didn’t know existed and you will be sore, but give it a chance and you will be just as addicted as I am.

Jackie: Can you tell me about your work as a member of the NOVA Tribe planning committee?

image1NOVA Tribe was the first organization I began participating in when I moved here two years ago. Not knowing anyone, this was a way for me to meet friends. The friends that I have made through NOVA Tribe are real meaningful friendships. My decision to be part of the planning committee stems from wanting to help others that are new to the community or that have lived here and want to start participating in the Jewish community to build friendships. Being able to sit with the committee and discuss our ideas allows us to tap into all our resources as individuals and come together as a committee to create the best event possible to provide a meaningful experience for everyone in NOVA Tribe.

Jackie: What is your favorite Jewish food?

I went eating gluten free about three years ago, so some of the Jewish foods I used to eat I definitely do miss eating. One of my favorite Jewish foods of all time is my mom’s kugel. I remember coming home from college and she had it waiting for me to eat. Also, if you are ever in Chicago, matzo ball soup from The Bagel is yummy!

Jackie: Who is your favorite Jew? My favorite Jew is definitely my mom. She passed away 4 years ago and I miss her more and more each day. She has made me the person I am today. She was the strongest woman I knew. She was always there to cheer me on and give me the encouragement when it was needed the most. She taught me to set my mind to something and give it my all.

Finish the sentence: When the Jews Gather…

… They create memories

Notes From the Recently Observant

I don’t believe in God.

I believe in rainbows, and shooting stars, and the bright, full moon.

I believe in the power of thirty voices in a living room swelling together into something like magic.

I don’t believe in God, but I believe in love. I believe in beauty, and too often in pain. I believe in life and in hope. I live like I mean it.

When I was young, synagogue was my favorite place. We never went there enough for my taste, and perhaps that was because I had a habit of staring at the Eternal Flame until I saw stars, or because something about the echoing boom of my father’s voice singing Lecha Dodi always got to me. Maybe I was spoiled because Olam TIkvah started in my mother’s basement and all of the older people knew me. Maybe I felt at home there because when I was a small child, I could run up onto the bimah and dig my hands deep into Rabbi Klirs’ pockets for hard candy without getting scolded. Often I found a large, heavy arm wrapped around me and I became part and parcel of service-leading. I wasn’t very good at it — my mouth was full of candy.


My grandfather, Arnold Smokler carrying the Torah donated to Olam TIkvah by his father’s shul in about 1965. Ask me about the story of Grandpa (Arnie) and PopPop (my other grandfather, Robert Grossman) and the transportation of this Torah to Fairfax, VA from Boston, MA. It’s funny, I promise.


The years went on, and my parents became less practicing. We shifted away from synagogue, and as I aged into my teenage years, extracurriculars took over my time. For a very long while, my Jewish practices lay dormant. I didn’t go to a university with a Hillel. And when I moved to New York, I didn’t have the chutzpah to walk into a big shul to go to services alone. I built up a fairly fulfilled secular life, and injected Jewishness into it where I could. I had a Passover seder at my apartment each year which all of my Jewish friends from work attended, and a number of non-Jewish friends as well. I hosted Shabbat once or twice a year when people came in from out of town. If someone got married in Crown Heights, I would go, but Chabad was not really my scene.

When I moved back to The District about two years ago, I found a world of Jewish opportunity, and put down roots. At first, I went to a Moishe House DC event here and there. Then it was High Holiday services at Adas Israel and Sixth & I, and eventually, I found my communities, my minyanim, and my Jewish spaces where I felt at ease. (Tikkun Leil Shabbat, Segulah, MHWOWDC, DC Jews on Bikes, etc.) I finally found the places where I could almost, almost hear my father’s voice in the crowd during Lecha Dodi.

I recently started turning my phone off on Shabbos. If I can walk to where I’m going, I do. I do these things not because I have decided to become shomer Shabbos, but because I tend to feel more refreshed and more ready to address the hard edges of The Rest of the Week when I allow myself a break from the emails, a time-out from Facebook, and tell myself that the world will not end if I don’t reorganize my calendar every 45 seconds.

Screenshot 2015-08-25 at 11.34.57 PM


It is pretty difficult to untie yourself from technology when everyone else around you is plugged in. It is also difficult to be an island. For many years, I longed for a community but didn’t quite fit in wherever I settled. Because I was not fulfilled during the week, perhaps because I was a little unhappy, turning off my phone on Shabbat and being alone with myself wasn’t relaxing; it was simply lonely.

When I moved back to D.C. from NYC and found a home here, I bought into tradition alongside friends who also have their phones off, and friends who don’t. However, every week there are lovely people who I know I will spend Shabbat with. Part of finding my happy place here was finding the right people. Now, I look forward to being alone with myself on Saturday afternoon, after walking home from shul and singing showtunes at the top of my lungs with a few other people, oblivious to the rush of the traffic down 16th Street. Now being alone with myself is a break from the day, and a time for reflection, rather than 25 hours of loneliness.

I am a member of a number of independent minyanim (the equivalent, for me, of joining a synagogue), run a havurah group, organize for a Jewish community outreach program for young professionals, am active in a Jewish social justice organization, I practice Shabbat pretty fully and am either at services and a potluck, at a friend’s place, or hosting myself. I took a vacation this year to (what a few friends affectionately call) “hippy Jew camp” where I was, on more than one occasion, brought to tears during davening (recitation of prayers). I would say that I am fairly observant.

There is a collective oversoul, and spirituality in the oneness of Jewish practice that drives me to weave myself into this fabric that is the complex, culture-religion we call a people. For me God does not play a part, but if I walked away from religion tomorrow, I do think I would be left with a gaping hole in my heart. I’m not a different person than I was before I became more observant. I manage my time a bit differently, I make more of an effort to breathe and to let go of the harshness of each week in favor of letting the good stuff in, and I make more of an effort to be a productive member of the communities which I am part of, but those are core values which I always held dear.

Screenshot 2015-08-25 at 11.44.07 PM


Jewish Comedian of the Week – Dana

FleitmanHeadshotJackie: What brought you to DC?

Dana: I came to DC for undergrad at American University. Since I was pursuing a degree in international relations, I felt like it was the place to be. I’m originally from California, so I get a lot of questions about why I would ever leave the Bay Area, why I haven’t moved back and what’s wrong with my choices in general.  But while I do miss my hometown, I also really do love DC! It suits me. I think it’s a beautiful city and love how it’s super accessible, there’s always something going on and you meet so many young, smart, liberal people. I was here before the Columbia Heights Target, you guys. That makes me an old-timer by young professional standards.

After college, I worked at a consulting firm for the Federal government and focused on teen pregnancy prevention, which got me really interested in relationships and sexual assault. That transitioned me over to Jewish Women International (JWI), where I work now.


Denver3FleitmanJackie: What is your role at JWI?

Dana: I am the Senior Manager of Prevention and Training Programs at JWI, the leading Jewish organization working to end violence against all women and girls. Essentially, I create and manage educational programs about preventing intimate partner violence (i.e., dating abuse, domestic violence) and sexual assault. Much of my work has been focused on campuses – for example, I authored the Safe Smart Dating program, a co-ed workshop on sexual assault and dating abuse for college students in the Greek life system. Through a series of discussions, scenarios, news stories, live text surveys and video, the program helps young people define and identify dating abuse and sexual assault as well as build skills to be active bystanders at school and in their communities. I’ve been able to travel across the country to present the program to students and provide trainings of trainers for adult professionals and student leaders.

I’ve also written programs on teen dating abuse, bystander intervention and healthy masculinity and manage a webinar series for professionals in the field of domestic violence.

dana halloweenJackie: How did you first get into stand up comedy?

Dana: I always did super hip activities like mock trial and speech and debate and love being in front of people, so I think it’s something I always wanted to try. A few years ago, my parents generously gifted me a stand up class at the DC Improv for my birthday. That was a ton of fun and the performance went well, so I just started hitting open  and stuck with it. Now I perform in shows pretty regularly and even produce some of my own, including fundraiser shows for JWI and themed shows for Fourth of July and Halloween. I talk about groundbreaking and edgy topics like my cat, eating and dating. It’s an interesting transition from my day job – which is all women and very PC — to the comedy world, which is not those things. The comedy scene in DC is strong and thriving, and you can catch very talented local comedians any night of the week.


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Jackie: Where is your favorite place to hang out in DC?

fleitman5Dana: A sunny afternoon in Malcolm X Park is hard to beat. Especially when people bring their dogs. Hey, people reading this! Bring your dogs! Bring them everywhere! Thanks.

Jackie: Who is your favorite Jew?
Dana: That is tough. Mel Brooks is up there. So’s my sister. Also, Jesus. So there’s a range, I’d say.

Jackie: What is your favorite Jewish food?
Dana: Hot corned beef on rye. One time I saw someone order a turkey on white with mayo at the deli in front of me. I was like…did I just witness a hate crime?

Finish the sentence: When the Jews Gather…
Dana: they will discuss who is and who is not Jewish. Oh, and they’ll have a good time.



Stamp Your Passport: Learn About International Travel and Service Opportunities for Young Jewish Professionals

In 1999, a small group of American college students boarded the first Taglit-Birthright bus in Israel. Today they are part of a network of 500,000 young Jewish adult alumni that have experienced the gift of Birthright.

Washington’s own Rachel Cohen Gerrol was on that first bus. Today she serves as a board member of the Birthright Israel Foundation. She staffed the first Jewish Federation of Greater Washington Birthright Alumni Leadership Mission, in which I participated. The next annual delegation of Washingtonian alumni of Taglit-Birthright will be heading back to Israel this fall (October 24 – November 1).

DC is a very international city. You can’t get lost in Dupont Circle without accidentally walking by an embassy. But DC offers far more than visiting an international territory and sovereign land of another nation just at these embassies. It offers more than scrolling through Expedia or Hotline before booking a flight from BWI or IAD to head overseas. Many organizations provide opportunities to travel the world and many are some of our community’s best kept secrets.

I hope every Jewish young professional between 18-26 reading this blog strongly considers applying to attend Taglit-Birthright, but what you may not know is that your options are only getting started with Taglit when it comes to seeing the world and servicing it through your own flavor of tikkun olam.

The headquarters of Peace Corps are down at 19th Street and L Street NW. According to, “as a Peace Corps Volunteer, you work directly with communities on their most pressing issues while gaining a competitive advantage in today’s global economy with international experience, cross-cultural understanding, and fluency in a foreign language.” The length of service is two years and if you are considering applying to volunteer with the Peace Corps, you should start the process about nine months before your target date to head abroad.

So if Taglit is 10 days in Israel and Peace Corps is two years, what is in between and what other opportunities are available to you as a young Jewish Washingtonian reading Gather the Jews?

JDC honorary executive vice president Ralph I. Goldman famously said many years ago that “there is a single Jewish world: intertwined, interconnected.”  So, what is in-between? JDC Entwine is one of the hidden gems that is in-between.

Programs are designed for 20 and 30 somethings. You can participate in a Global Jewish Service Corps for 4-8 weeks or one year or shorter Insider Trips for Young Professionals. The 2016 program schedule will be made public soon. And the application period for the next one year service program will also be open soon.

JDC_Flyer2015 shorter programs included India (Jan 18-27), Morocco (Feb 8-16), Turkey (Mar 1-8), the Philippines (Apr 26 – May 4), Greece & Bulgaria (Jun 21-29), Georgia (Jun 28 – Jul 5), Argentina (Aug 2-9), Rwanda (Aug 30 – Sept 8), Cuba (Sept 3-7 / Sept 17-21), Sarajevo (Sept 30 – Oct 7), Morocco (Oct 7-15), Ethiopia (Oct 11-20), India (Oct 18-26), China (Fall 2015), and Argentina & Uruguay (Dec 6-14).

Today, JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellows are servicing the needs of local communities in Argentina, China, Estonia, Ethiopia, Germany, Haiti, India, Israel, Latvia, Poland, Rwanda, Turkey, and Ukraine.

We share a common history. We share a common religion. We share common traditions. We may identify in different ways – secular, reform, orthodox, modern-orthodox, Lubavitch, etc – or we may be Ashkenazi or Sephardic, but we are intertwined and interconnected.

Jewish young professionals in America may be Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or other.

Jewish young professionals in America may be tall or short. Probably short.

Jewish young professionals in America may have different views about Israel’s leaders and the policies of the Israeli government.

Some may stay kosher and others perhaps enjoy a BBQ bacon cheeseburger at Five Guys (or Shake Shack).

But all are Jewish and all are welcome to apply to JDC’s programs.


On July 20, JDC Entwine’s East Coast Director Jen Berman was in town for an event with the most creative name of anything I’ve seen in awhile at the Hillel International office in Chinatown. “From Shtetl to Selfie” highlighted the work of JDC in Eastern Europe and provided an updated on the crisis in Ukraine. It was one of a series of opportunities that JDC Entwine will be delivering to Russian speaking Jews based on their work and partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

“Until I discovered JDC Entwine, I wasn’t involved in the Washington, DC Jewish community. Through JDC Entwine, my Judaism has once again become a central part of my life. Learning about JDC’s international work, and making friends through Entwine with a diverse group of young Jews in my local community and around the world, makes me excited and proud of my Jewish heritage,” said Jessica Nysenbaum, co-chair of the JDC Entwine network in DC.

If you are looking for a different kind of service opportunity or a different kind of way to head back to Israel, JNFuture just began to promote an innovative program this winter. While your office may be closed and other families are celebrating Christmas (and some of your friends may be partying like it is 1999), you can be volunteering in southern Israel. From December 26, 2015, to January 3, 2016, the JNFuture Volunteer Vacation to Israel is taking place.

JNF is advertising this trip as “an incredible opportunity to volunteer in Israel and do something you would not do on an ordinary trip. Join JNFuture and other Jewish young adults, ages 25-35, for a week of community service in Southern Israel and connect to the land and people of Israel in a meaningful way.”

The trip is free to attend, but will require participants to fundraise or friend-raise $1,800 to participate.

Masa Israel Journey offers over 200 study, internship, and volunteer opportunities all over Israel lasting between five and twelve months for young Jewish professionals between 18-30.

An August 4, 2015, Times of Israel story said “Masa is now shooting for an annual 20,000 participation figure.”

In a recent “You Should Know” column in the Washington Jewish Week, DC’s Tami Wolf, described how “After grad school, she wanted to work in museum education, but her life and career took a different turn when she participated in the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program. She lived in Netanya for 10 months, extending the trip to study at a Jerusalem yeshiva.”

Wolf said, “There are no words for Masa, at least for my Masa experience. It is one thing to visit a place, and it’s another thing to really get the chance to live there and become a part of the community and get to know the kids in school and about their lives and their families.”

With 200 programs you could basically find any kind of program that would best meet your interests.

But if your interests may lie outside of Israel or of service, perhaps you should look at the Germany Close Up or on an upcoming B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project Mission.

Germany Close Up – American Jews Meet Modern Germany is a youth encounter program for Jewish North American students and young professionals. The program was established in October 2007 and is currently administered by Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste e.V. (Action Reconciliation Service for Peace) in cooperation with the New Synagogue Berlin – Centrum Judaicum Foundation.

Germany Close Up has been a popular program from a number of DC young professionals and friends. I’m personally planning to attend one – hopefully in 2016. It is funded by a grant from the German Government’s Transatlantic Program to “encourage German-Jewish-North American dialogue as well as to strengthen the involvement of the North American Jewish community in transatlantic relations.”

JDC Entwine had such demand for its Cuba trip in 2015 that they opted to hold two. Another opportunity to visit Cuba to learn about the Cuban Jewish community and support the Cuban Jewish community comes with B’nai B’rith International. The 172 year young organization has an upcoming delegation planned for December 12-20.

The B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project has been building personal connections in Cuba for nearly 20 years. Leaving from the Miami airport, the delegation will visit and support the Jewish communities in Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Santa Clara, and Havana.

Additional private travel and private Jewish travel programs are also widely available and can be found on the Google and through many synagogues.

Are you a Bad Jew?

When Aaron calls everyone a Bad JewOn Tuesday night, at my debut event since becoming the rabbi for Gather the Jews, I just wanted to make a good first impression. And then I called everyone in the room a Bad Jew.

Let me explain.

I was asked to speak on a panel with Rabbi Aaron Miller of 2239 and Sarah Tasman of InterfaithFamiliesDC about “Bad Jews.” It’s obviously an extremely loaded term that can cause a lot of hurt. Given that, my thoughts could have gone like this: “Calling people ‘Bad Jews’ is bad, Jews.” Not wanting my debut to be so boring, I decided to ponder the phrase a bit more.

I realized that the term is so hurtful because it is often misunderstood as a moral judgment or a ruling on someone’s status as a Jew. There are interesting conversations to be had about what makes someone a bad person and what makes someone a part of the Jewish people. But the term “Bad Jew” is a judgement about the way someone expresses his or her particular Jewish identity and thus is irrelevant in those conversations. Calling someone a bad Jew is not the same as calling someone a bad person, nor is it the same as calling someone not Jewish.

The challenge with the phrase “Bad Jew” is that it assumes a standard for what Jews should (or should not) do or believe. The question then becomes: what is that standard, and to whom does it apply?

According to the Passover Haggadah, the Rasha, the wicked child, the “Bad Jew,” is one who questions the meaning and relevance of Judaism. Today the phrase is often used to convey a lack of strict observance around ritual laws like keeping kosher. These standards reduce Judaism to a closed-minded and detail-oriented religion and can make one want to write off the very idea of defining standards. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people, afraid of sounding judgmental, say: “It doesn’t matter what you do – all that matters is that you’re Jewish.”

But by eliminating any standard for Judaism, we reduce Judaism to an ethnicity or a descriptive attribute, like having brown eyes. Without anything to aspire to, it becomes a stagnant identity that doesn’t inspire personal growth. We also eliminate the conversation about what it means to be Jewish. If we can’t express opinions about different forms of Judaism, if there are no red lines, if there are no shared beliefs or practices – then we relegate Judaism to the private sphere and lose the idea of “the Jewish people.” Perhaps the one thing left to connect us is our ability to discuss and argue about what we think it means to be Jewish.

This is why I called everyone a Bad Jew. I want all Jews, including me, to see themselves as Bad Jews – as having their own personal, aspirational standards for what it means to be Jewish. If you’re content in your Jewish life, you’re doing it wrong. What if every Jew felt there was something about their Jewishness they wanted to work on? “I’m a Bad Jew” could simply mean: “I’m not satisfied.”

With this approach to Judaism, we might even start to develop some objective standards for the Jewish people more broadly. At the very least, we’ll be able to engage with others who do have such standards. Through this lens, the term “Bad Jew” becomes an opinion about Judaism instead of a personal attack. When someone says: “I think you’re a bad Jew because of X” or “I’m a bad Jew because X…”, we can choose to hear: “My understanding of Judaism is X – what’s yours?” If someone thinks you’re a bad Jew because you don’t believe in God, that means he or she defines Judaism as a religion. If someone calls you a bad Jew because you don’t support Israel’s policies, that means he or she defines Judaism as a national movement with a specific political position.

We don’t need to agree to an objective standard (and knowing Jews, we won’t). But we should have our own personal standards and even collectively wonder about broader standards for each other. Together, we can explore what Judaism is and should be. These encounters will both enrich our personal Jewish identities and help us feel a part of, and not apart from, the Jewish people.