Hensch is the kind of person I can’t wait to chat with again. I want to ask them more about the concert posters hanging on their apartment walls, their favorite DC public pools, their budding interest in woodworking. That’s the beauty of a good conversation; it leaves you excited for the next one. For now, Hensch and I connect over Zoom one early summer afternoon to chat about working with Keshet, journeying to (and away from, and then back to) the DMV, and finding green spaces in the city!
Samuel: What brought you to the DMV?
Hensch: During college, I was an intern in DC for the Human Rights Campaign. I really loved DC on that initial visit, and had a sibling living in the area who showed me, post-college, how great the city can be. I was in the Midwest and North Carolina for a while, and then a job popped up at Hillel International. I was like: Yes, please, get me back in DC! Ever since I interned, I’d been looking for opportunities to get back in the area.
Samuel: What marked DC as a place to which you wanted to return?
Hensch: I had that intern mentality of: Let’s get to know the city as much as we can. Let’s say yes to every opportunity, every happy hour. DC is not that big of a city, yet there’s so many wonderful opportunities and things to do here. It’s non-stop. I like the energy of being able to do whatever you want, from going to a farmer’s market to seeing a really well-recognized speaker for free at a local library. Just…how does this exist all in one place?
Samuel: What does your ideal DMV day look like?
Hensch: I’d stop by the Bloomingdale Farmer’s Market in the morning and grab fresh fruit or something else that’ll be a fun snack for the day. Then, I’d go to Banneker and meet some friends for the afternoon. This is a Bloomingdale excursion; I’d go to Crispus Attucks Park to maybe set up a hammock, people watch, and say hi to some neighbors. Then we’d probably go to Red Hen – get some yummy pasta and drink some orange wine – or go to El Camino, which has some of my favorite Mexican food, and the folks who work there are just so wonderful.
Samuel: I heard you’re a big fan of both plants and green spaces – how do you fulfill that interest, living in the city?
Hensch: For that, I have to blame my wonderful partner. During the early pandemic, we gathered as many plants as possible to fill our hearts and souls. I think NASA says that if you have 26 plants in a certain space, you’re recirculating new, fresh air through all those plants. So we have all the plants, and my partner did the deep dive with me, which helped.
Also, I love the National Arboretum and Kenilworth Park – those two sets of parks are like the coolest thing in DC, but they’re a little hard to get to, so they feel like a special treat.
Samuel: What do you do with Keshet? How did you get started there?
Hensch: I’m coming from our Education and Training department at Keshet. My role is Associate Director of Cohort Learning, specifically, and our Education and Training team is one of our biggest teams at Keshet. I love learning in cohort spaces, and a lot of the work I’ve been doing in the Jewish community is on disability inclusion and LGBTQ+ inclusion while also bringing in more intersectional lenses of racial equity.
I have always wanted to work for or with Keshet in some capacity. Every time I’ve needed something or reached out for a resource, they’ve really met the moment.
My undergrad was at the University of Cincinnati. Often, they would have rabbinical students from Hebrew Union College come to my local Hillel. One of them happened to be a very out, queer rabbi (or soon-to-be rabbi) and I was like: Wow, you’re the first person I’ve seen that focuses on this topic and answers a lot of those interesting questions around Judaism. What does the Torah say about gender? How do we talk about sexual identity? That was a big eureka moment.
So, anyway, back to Keshet. We work on LBGTQ+ inclusion in Jewish life. Our focus is on what youth, especially, need in these spaces. We’ve expanded into community mobilization in the past few years, which is needed because of the current anti-LBGTQ+ legislation out there. We’re asking: How can we get the Jewish community to mobilize and show up to speak out against this really bad legislation, as well as to understand how it will impact us as Jewish people in a community?
Samuel: Operating as an advocacy and education organization, how do you keep faith in the work when there’s so much institutional – whether that’s political or state or whatever – power in direct opposition to the world you envision?
Hensch: A lot of our role is to demystify and get strong information to people about why the Jewish community needs to care when it comes to anti-LBGTQ+ legislation, whether that’s the legislation that people are talking about in Florida and Texas or bans on trans-affirming care in Missouri. It’s important for us to be in good partnership. LGBTQ+ people are part of our Jewish communities. As Jewish people, as a minority group in the United States, [this legislation] disenfranchises us, too.
I think a lot of people would be surprised – these conversations are not just happening with 20- and 30-year olds who are pretty progressive and already care or have skin in the game. A lot of the work is talking to older generations – who have the historical context to know where this lands, where it’s headed – and getting them mobilized. They have loved ones they care about, and these older folks don’t want to see them forced out of Florida, for example. They want to make sure everyone’s able to thrive in the Jewish communities they’re in. Our Jewish values push us into social action; at the end of the day, we have a responsibility to take care of each other.
Samuel: Keshet talks specifically about creating LGBTQ+ affirming spaces. What does that look like to you, and what are the indicators that an organization or cohort is going to be able to create that kind of affirming space?
Hensch: When we’re developing affirming communities, we’re trying to understand who our co-conspirators in this work are. We can get lost in the term “allyship” and lose the definition of what it means to be an ally. We want to make sure people are able to walk the walk and keep themselves accountable for what LGBTQ+ people want to see in creating an affirming community. Not just performing being an ally when you know there are queer people in the room and never outside of that context.
Being an affirming community also involves work on institutional change. Programming, policies, and culture. That might mean having HR policies that protect employees who come out in the workplace. If someone is being misgendered consistently at work, it’s not just interpersonal – “Oh, you’re misgendering me, whoops!” – it’s a workplace issue.
Samuel: What are the obstacles to young, queer people feeling valued and seen as community members?
Hensch: I hear from many Jewish organizations that they feel like they have already “done the work” and are very inclusive. Look at what we did during the peak marriage equality years – love is love, right? So we must be fine!
But, how are we moving past that and actually creating a place of belonging for LGBTQ+ people? How do we make sure that young people, who are thinking about pronouns and gender identity and gender expression, don’t have to check that part of themselves at the door because someone else doesn’t fully understand the language they use to identify themselves? Personally, as a non-binary person, if I show up at your congregation and there’s no gender neutral or all-gender bathroom, I probably won’t stay there very long because I can’t access the space freely and openly.
Samuel: Obviously your work is in a Jewish nonprofit space, but how does your Judaism show up outside your professional life?
Hensch: It’s something I’ve had to balance. I feel very Jewish in my 9-to-5 (though it’s never actually just 9-to-5) but sometimes feel tapped out, honestly. I want Judaism to be a more holistic process within my life. What I’ve always loved, growing up in the Reform community, was the way you could tell there were different translations and ways to talk about all these things we shared communally. Projects where I’m able to dive deep into learning are the best way for me to connect to Judaism. I get excited talking about aspects of Judaism that are seen as “more traditional” in maybe less traditional ways.
Samuel: What are you feeling proud about right now?
Hensch: I’m about to tour summer camps across the United States and Canada to do trainings with summer staff. I love this part of my job; camp is where my heart is with Jewish community. As a kid, summer camp was a place where I could feel really connected to the Jewish community. I’m proud that so many camps want to create affirming communities for their campers and staff.
Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner — who would they be?
Hensch: One would be Alison Bechdel, the author of Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home. I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was younger, so I think Alison would be awesome. Second, Roxane Gay. I think she’s wonderful and is one of the reasons I stayed on Twitter longer than I probably should have. Then I have an amazing DEI practitioner, Lily Zheng. All of those people in one room would be my favorite Shabbat, and all three of those people could handle that middle seat at the table that keeps the conversation going.
Samuel: Finish the sentence: When Jews of the DMV gather…
Hensch: The wildest stories get told.
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.