Ilana Kowarski is someone who acts with purpose. She doesn’t hem and haw about her drink – it’s a medium hot mocha, regular milk. Ilana’s probably the admin of your favorite Facebook page. She might be the founder of that philosophy discussion group you joined. She’s not resting on her laurels. She’s already planning the next thing. Read on to find out what it is.
Samuel: To start this in the most DC possible way…what do you do? You mentioned you started a new job.
Ilana: I’m a journalist! I just switched from higher education to legal journalism, specifically focusing on competition law that guards against monopolistic behavior by businesses. It’s a wonky beat but I’m excited to learn something new and have an intellectual challenge. With MLex, it’s been fun to see the rationales for why regulators do things the way they do them. This is a real period of change as changes that have been brewing in the Biden administration come to fruition – so there is a lot for me to write about.
Samuel: What brought you to reporting as a career?
Ilana: I’ve always liked storytelling – reading, experiencing stories (I like theater, too). I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was a first grader. My first grade teacher, who I loved and still love to this day, told me I was a good writer and…that validation just set me on a career path. I fell in love with stories in general.
Samuel: How did you end up in DC specifically?
Ilana: I grew up in Ellicott City, Maryland. I wanted to have the cosmopolitanism of an urban environment but also to be close to family and that sense of familiarity. DC was a perfect fit.
Samuel: How has Judaism and Jewish life in DC been showing up in your life recently?
Ilana: I was grateful, when I moved to DC, to live in a place that already had a vibrant Jewish community. That included a lot of Jewish people who were close to me in age – the last place I’d lived in Central Florida had fewer Jewish people and I didn’t know many Jewish people even close to my age. I felt a little isolated. I was delighted, moving to DC, that there was an existing community I could join.
Samuel: How has that feeling changed over time?
Ilana: Initially, it was mostly about socializing. But eventually, I started posting my own events – partially because I wanted fun things to do and cool people to do those things with but also for community service. I worked with Junior League, doing community service in a secular venue, but also brought those ideas back to my Jewish engagement, where I felt there was a gap. Where I saw gaps, I started to create those things myself.
Samuel: What do you feel is different about community service in a secular versus spiritual space?
Ilana: I’ve done both, and I enjoy both. In a spiritual space, you’re creating a haven for people, a place where they can fill up their souls. Also, everyone has a baseline of some sort of common identity. They might not be the same denomination, but they have this connection to Judaism in common. With secular volunteering, you’re dealing with people from all walks of life, all different worldviews, and you’re helping everyone. They’re different kinds of assistance; one is about building up somebody’s spirit, and the other may be about offering more practical advice or resources without assuming a particular belief system.
Samuel: Whether it is the Open Doors Fellowship, or the Facebook groups you run, you have a role in the Jewish DMV that’s already active, involved, and creative – so what’s the next step?
Ilana: One thing I’ve gotten through ODF is connection to other people who are doing the same kind of work [in the Jewish community]. That’s not only validating – to know you’re not the only one out there trying to do something – but it’s also practically helpful. You can do things with a team that are harder to do by yourself.
Samuel: What’s something you’d like to see change in DC?
Ilana: Georgetown needs a Metro stop. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but it should happen. I love Georgetown and I want it to be connected to everywhere else.
Ilana inside the Hirshhorn!
Samuel: What’s something about DC you’d like to keep the same?
Ilana: I want to keep the large number of free museums. One of the ways I decided on journalism was because I like arts reporting. I love the arts. Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum [Editor’s note: this exhibit is free but you need a timed pass!] is just an overwhelming immersive experience.
Samuel: You talked about this idea of “filling your soul” – what’s filling your soul right now?
Ilana: I really do love the holidays. I’m looking forward to the celebrations. I’m also proud of this transition in my career. It was something that I needed to do. I have a sense of peace and that I’m starting the new year off on the right foot and with a new adventure.
Samuel: A lot of people, whether it’s in their early twenties just out of college or maybe a bit further into their lives and careers, go through times where they need to shift tracks. What advice would you give to people embarking on those new adventures?
Ilana: You need to find the intersection between what you love, what you’re good at, and what other people need. Most of us have to make a living – but we also don’t want to hate what we’re doing or do something we’re terrible at.
Samuel: What would you tell young people thinking about higher education as a path?
Ilana: People need time to do the introspection to figure out what it is they want to do. People who are dissatisfied with their educational choices, a lot of times, it’s partially because they were getting external feedback or strong pressure from someone who wasn’t themselves to make a certain choice. Or, they were dissuaded from pursuing their passion because of external discouragement. Ideally, it needs to be a self-directed process. Personal autonomy is important.
Samuel: If you could invite any three people to your Shabbat dinner, who’s coming?
Ilana: I’d invite a comedian, just to keep things fun. Which one is not that important to me, I just want a bit of humor. Maybe Hasan Minhaj. And then Lin Manuel Miranda. He seems really nice, in addition to being super talented. And then I’d want a cool, futuristic scientist. Someone who could tell me about all the inventions they expect and give me hope for the future. An inventor. But it needs to be someone who’s a nice human, too.
Samuel: Are you just saying not Elon Musk?
Ilana: He might be an interesting dinner guest. But he’d have to stick to science.
Samuel: Lin Manuel Miranda – are you an In the Heights or Hamilton person?
Ilana: In the Heights. Hands down. The music is better.
Samuel: That’s the right answer. We could talk about it forever. But I want to get you out of here on time, so could you finish this sentence for me? When Jews of the DMV gather…
Ilana: Jokes are made, and happiness ensues.
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