I meet Francis on Zoom one afternoon over his lunch break. Though we only chat for half an hour or so, it feels like we’re catching up, not introducing ourselves to one another. We talk about Philadelphia, about fandom, about ice cream and Shabbat and community leadership and art and couponing. “Imagine the bulk of this interview is just me giving grocery store advice,” Francis says, laughing. That’s an interview I’d happily read, to be honest – but we end up covering much more.
Samuel: Hi, Francis! Good to see you again. What’s your journey to DC been like?
Francis: I’ve lived in DC for a little more than a year. Before that, I lived in Philadelphia.
Samuel: No way! I’m from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Were you there long enough to get infected with Philly sports fandom? Or were you able to avoid that? [Editor’s Note: The Phillies, Union, and Eagles have all been runners-up in championships this year. It’s been rough].
Francis: I got a little bit of the “Go Birds” attitude. I still love Gritty. I lived [in Philadelphia] during the pandemic, though, so it was hard to really get connected.
Samuel: Sorry, I interrupted. I got excited.
Francis: You’re good. Before that, I lived in Atlanta, and I’m originally from Long Island, born and raised.
Samuel: I know a lot of people, particularly early in the pandemic, felt disconnected from the places they lived. So, how has the process of getting to know DC gone for you? How has it compared to your experience in Philly?
Francis: It’s hard to say what the Philly Jewish community actually looked like under normal circumstances – it was the pandemic! But it felt like shuls were very isolated from each other. Maybe because of the pandemic, there weren’t as many ways to contact folks or get connected on a deeper level. Whereas in DC, it feels like everybody’s connected with each other. Everybody is working with one another in some capacity. And despite learning about so many Jewish resources here, I feel like I haven’t scratched the surface. I’ve seen what’s going on in the District, maybe, but then you ask: What’s going on in Silver Spring? What’s going on in NoVA? There’s so much here, and so much that I still want to learn.
Samuel: Why do you think the DMV has that kind of connective spirit?
Francis: My guess is that, because the DMV has so many people moving here from other places, there are folks who want to try different synagogues or community resources before settling on one. Clergy leaders have noticed this and, instead of saying it’s our way or the highway, those leaders are much more open to the idea of people who you only see once a month when there’s a service for younger people, or people who go to Sixth & I and Washington Hebrew Congregation. It’s not conflicting – it’s just based on what type of services people like best.
To the credit of community and clergy leaders, there’s been recognition that us quote-unquote “young folks” seek a lot of different types of community, services, and resources. When I first moved here, one of the ideas I heard most from shuls was: You should find community that’s right for you…and if that’s not us, that’s okay!
Samuel: You mentioned this role that community leaders play. As an Open Doors Fellow, you’ve worked to become a leader yourself. What has that been like?
Francis: My capstone for ODF has been compiling resources that are at the intersection of Jewish identity and trans identity. There are some resources and places that are accessible for Jewish folks but maybe trans folks don’t feel comfortable. There are also organizations that are very trans-friendly but not fully cognizant of what it means to be Jewish or observe Shabbat, for example. When I first moved here, it was a bit of a headache navigating and finding resources for things like religious involvement, medical care, or even just social support. I’m hoping to create this resource that’s meant as a step for people in that intersection [of Jewish and trans identities]. There are resources out there, but they often stop with just one piece of identity.
The goal with this guide is to meet folx at those intersections, and for it to be a fluid document where it can be updated when there’s a new resource available.
Samuel: In your experience, what makes community leadership effective?
Francis: Being an effective leader means meeting folks where they’re at and actively listening. Not just hearing, but listening. Especially if you want to be a leader reaching out to marginalized communities, it’s important to do your research and know that you’re still learning. Even for me, I don’t fully understand the trans experience. I couldn’t speak on, for example, what non-binary people feel, because I’m not non-binary. I’m not a person of color, so I’m not going to fully understand the intersectionality of being trans and a person of color. Once I recognize and acknowledge that, I can open myself up to learn, to listen to what community members have experienced, and to be able to identify resources that actually work or are actually relevant, as opposed to just naming the first thing I can think of.
Samuel: I love that idea – we can’t be good leaders if we aren’t open to new ideas, new approaches, new perspectives. You need that growth mindset. Is there anything particular in your Jewish life that’s taken on special meaning recently?
Francis: I got a mezuzah last week from Myzuzah and had a ceremony to place it, which was very meaningful to me. It’s a great reminder that I should dedicate myself to building a more Jewish home, both internally as a person and externally in my space.
Samuel: That’s very interesting! I meant to follow up earlier, by the way – where in DC have you ended up?
Francis: I recently moved to NoMa. It’s great – it’s got a quirky little community feel, and I have a lot of access to supermarkets. I’m really into food shopping, coupon-clipping, all that stuff. I’m happy to be close to a lot of options.
Samuel: I love grocery shopping. I’m not sure if that’s a widely held sentiment.
Francis: It’s not!
Samuel: What’s your grocery strategy? What’s the process look like?
Francis: I think the key is being a member of the saver programs. They really make a difference. It’s also useful to lean towards store-brand items. A lot of the time, they really are of the same quality or even better than some name brand stuff.
Samuel: What’s your favorite store brand version of something?
Francis: Kroger had their own brand of chocolate fudge ice cream. It was amazing. But I’m mad now because there are no Krogers nearby. I miss Kroger. It feels weird to say, but I do.
Samuel: Alright, so I know something you want to change about DC – you want Kroger here. What’s something about DC that you wouldn’t want to change?
Francis: I’m actually glad there’s a height limit on buildings. Part of me misses skyscrapers, but I love that I can see the sunrise and sunset from my apartment. It’s this gorgeous riot of color.
Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner – who are they?
Francis: I would invite some top notch composers to discuss my favorite classical piece: The Rite of Spring. Classical music, for me, is really calming and soothing. In the hecticness of the year, and work, and shul, and this thing and that, it’s something that helps ground me and connect me to nature.
Samuel: How else do you stay grounded?
Francis: I say a prayer every morning when I wake up. Just being grateful that I got to get up in the morning.
Samuel: Final one: When Jews of the DMV gather…
Francis: It’s never a dull moment.
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