Hailing from Brooklyn, this recently ordained rabbi is ready and eager to take GatherDC by storm. Get to know the remarkable, soulful, passionate Ilana Zietman and welcome her to the Gather team!
NOTE: If this interview piques your interest, tune into our Instagram this Friday at 12pm for our first ever AMA (Ask Me Anything): Rabbi Edition. You’ll be able to ask Rabbi Ilana your most pressing Jewish or Jew-ish questions via our Insta-story, and get her honest answers.
Allie: How did you wind up living in DC?
Ilana: I grew up in the greatest borough in the greatest city in the world – Brooklyn, New York. I stayed in NYC through college and then decided to be adventurous and try living somewhere else. I applied to Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps in DC, and ended up staying for a couple more years. I left five years ago to go to rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Boston, but I always had it in my mind that I would be back.
Allie: When did you know you wanted to become a rabbi and why?
Ilana: Around the time of my bat mitzvah. I was really excited to read from the Torah and lead prayer services at my synagogue, but the rabbi of my community didn’t play much of a role in the process, nor was there any space to talk about what becoming a bat mitzvah was supposed to mean. I started thinking that if I became a rabbi, I could do things differently.
After that, I sought out opportunities to keep growing in my Jewish identity and began to see that Jewish tradition is not simply about observing ancient customs, but is about learning how to live a more mindful, loving, and meaningful life with ourselves, others, and the world around us. Jewish tradition became something I wanted to share and bring into conversation with people from all walks of life, and I thought that I could do that most deeply as a rabbi.
Allie: What are you most looking forward to in your new role with GatherDC?
Ilana: Building relationships with young professionals across the city and seeing how we can continue to make Jewish life in DC appealing and substantial. At the end of the day, Jewish tradition and communal life must embrace who we are, even as it challenges us to think about how we might want to change and grow.
I hope to create opportunities for honest conversations about our Judaism and Jewish lives. I’m also excited to facilitate learning opportunities for us to ask what being Jewish means and how it can add value to our lives. Also, getting to lead an alternative Yom Kippur experience (and maybe other holidays) at a beer garden or other non-traditional space…how can I not be excited about that?!
Allie: What do you hope to achieve in your rabbinate career?
Ilana: I’m not exactly sure where my rabbinate will take me, but what I do know is that as the world changes, so will my rabbinate. No matter what, I hope to be part of people’s lives in meaningful ways and to foster communities where people feel like they can show up as themselves.
Allie: What is something that people might be surprised to know about you?
Ilana: I love our national parks! I will probably always choose to go camping in a national park for vacation than go on any other kind of trip. Last summer, my husband and I rented an RV and camped all around Alaska. It was so fun and beautiful. We also got to eat the halibut we caught ourselves for almost a year afterward!
Allie: If you had a totally free day in DC, how would you spend it from start to finish?
Ilana: I would start the day walking around Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown. It’s one of the most beautiful garden spaces I have ever been to. I would next visit the foodie haven of Union Market for lunch and then visit one of DC’s many (gloriously air-conditioned) museums. I especially like the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American History. To relax at night, I’d binge-watch some great television like Parks & Rec, Great British Bakeoff, Broad City, and most recently, Big Little Lies.
Allie: I hear you recently discovered a love of making pottery! Tell us about that.
Ilana: I started taking pottery classes last summer, and have found a great studio in Georgetown where I’m continuing to learn. I love feeling like a kid again by playing with clay and getting messy at the wheel, and there’s nothing more satisfying than mastering new techniques that lead to making functional pieces. I hope to get good enough to make all kinds of things, maybe even Shabbat candlesticks or a seder plate for Passover. For now, I’m still figuring out how bowls work.
Allie: What is your favorite Jewish holiday and why?
Ilana: In my opinion, Sukkot brings together some of the best parts of Judaism – wacky rituals and important life-affirming themes.
Sukkot, meaning booths or temporary shelters, gives us the opportunity to connect to food and land and to find a sense of gratitude for the world that sustains us, and at the same time asks us to face the fact that no matter who we are, we are vulnerable to nature and the vast unknown.
During Sukkot, there’s really nothing like sitting in a decorated sukkah at night, looking up at the stars while sharing good food and conversation. Plus, while eating or sleeping in these unconventional dwellings, we get to shake the lulav and etrog. So, I guess at the end of the day, I’m proud that Jews kind of invented the original shake shack!
Allie: Complete this sentence, When Jews of DC Gather…
Ilana: They ask big questions and get a thousand different thoughtful and creative answers.
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