Meet Kelsey, Jewish Organizer of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / January 10, 2024

The GatherDC blog strives to present a holistic portrait of the DMV’s Jewish community, sharing a wide variety of Jewish voices and perspectives. If you have a 20- or 30-something to nominate as our Jewish Person of the Week or for a Spotted in Jewish DMV feature, please email us!

Kelsey and I meet one crisp, sunny morning at Big Bear Cafe, where I was excited to hear about her work as a true organizer of Jewish life in the DMV: Reverse Tashlich, book clubs, environmental advocacy, and more. Competing to hear one another over a lot of Olivia Rodrigo [Editor’s note: vampire appeared in the author’s 2023 Spotify Wrapped Top 5; he can’t complain too much], we chat about all that, plus independent bookstores, the DC food scene, Queer Jewish representation in contemporary literature, environmental stewardship as a “partnership with the Divine,” and one way to (accidentally) start a kitchen fire!

PS: Kelsey is the Young Professionals Liaison for the Social Action Committee at Adas Israel Congregation — if you would like to be in touch with her, reach out to us and we’ll connect you!

Kelsey sits atop a structure near a shoreline.

Samuel: Thanks for coming out this morning, Kelsey! What brought you to the DMV?

Kelsey: I’ve been here a long time! I moved here for college in 2010, stayed for grad school, got a job…and now I’m here. I have a community here, which is really nice. This is home. 

Samuel: What’s made you stay long enough to feel that way? 

Kelsey: There are a lot of very smart people here who care about the world. The food scene here is wonderful – Thip Khao is my favorite restaurant in the city. DC’s also very lucky [because] we have all these indie bookstores.

Kelsey poses in front of an intricately decorated building on vacation. Samuel: I live a few minutes from Lost City Books; it is financially dangerous to be so close. 

Kelsey: Lost City is the best. Loyalty Books is also great, over in Petworth and Silver Spring. Solid State on 14th Street is really good. 

Samuel: How has your Jewish community evolved over time? 

Kelsey: I wasn’t super involved when I first got here. Right before Covid in 2020, I started taking an in-person class to reconnect – I felt drawn to [Judaism] in a new way, especially as an adult figuring out what my values were. Judaism reflects the things that I had come to believe on my own, and I could see it as a built-in value system. I joined Adas Israel, and that’s been one of my two big communities – the other one being the Edlavitch DCJCC, where I’ve done Shabbat Clusters

I think DC is very lucky; we have a lot of Jews, and we have a lot of opportunities for meeting other people. I have friends in New York who don’t have anything like the Shabbat Cluster model or GatherDC, those opportunities to connect and meet new Jews.

Kelsey inside a religious building.

Samuel: What’s really resonating for you Jewishly right now? 

Kelsey: I think a lot [about] our partnership with the Divine. I’m on the Green Team at Adas Israel, which is all about environmental stuff. We have this covenant with the Divine – it’s our role to steward the land while we’re here on this planet. We have responsibilities. 

Another way I connect is through text study. Having a havruta and talking things through has been huge for me; if you study alone, it’s just an echo chamber. 

Kelsey sits in front of a display of Jewish tenets, in Hebrew and English translations. Samuel: You organized a “Reverse Tashlich” during the High Holidays this year. What inspired that, and what was the experience like?

Kelsey: Tashlich is when you symbolically cast your sins into a body of water before or on Rosh Hashanah. There’s an organization called Tikkun HaYam, or Repair the Sea, and they have been [organizing] this Reverse Tashlich initiative. Instead of, or in addition to, “regular” Tashlich, you also do a waterfront cleanup of trash. It’s really fantastic, especially in DC where our rivers are full of trash – not only from DC, but also from Maryland. It’s a good way to see different parts of DC.

This year, we held it in Anacostia Park, and were able to collect eleven or twelve full bags of trash. We also did “regular” Tashlich afterwards, but used stones [Editor’s note: Many people throw bread crumbs], which is supposed to be better for the environment. It was a really nice union of the traditional Jewish [practice] with modern values, while also feeling like you’re doing something for the city. 

Samuel: You stay pretty busy – you also mentioned that you were leading GLOE’s book club.

Kelsey: It’s nice to have the opportunity to [curate] the books that go on our list, and to read books I’ve been wanting to get to. We read Bad Jews by Emily Tamkin. We read The Golem of Brooklyn by Adam Mansbach. It was a good, nuanced look at how marginalized groups handle threats of violence – do you become violent in reaction, or are you becoming what you’re standing against?

Kelsey sits in the middle of a road at sunset.

Samuel: You mentioned earlier that DC is lucky to have a large, vibrant Jewish community with so many opportunities; I’ve heard people in the past say the same about the LGBTQ+ community in the DMV. How have those communities and identities overlapped for you? 

Kelsey: I’ve been very lucky; my Judaism and my queerness have never really been at odds. There’s such a strong history of Queer Jewish icons. Judaism is so much about action and living your values, and that’s something that Queerness requires you to do, too. [Those identities] enrich each other.

There have been a lot of books coming out [recently] with great Queer, Jewish representation, which is great. There have been some great Queer, Jewish movies – like Shiva Baby. It’s good to get that visibility, helping people recognize that Queer Jews have always been here – and there are a lot of stories to tell. It’s all about the people, right? It’s hard to be Jewish alone. It’s hard to be Queer alone. Both the Queer community and the Jewish community need community.

Samuel: Okay, a couple quick ones to close. What’s something you’re feeling proud about?

Kelsey: I have a Bookstagram; I like to feature Jewish books and queer, Jewish books. There’s an online Jewish magazine called Niv Magazine. After writing for them last year, they approached me and asked me to write about my ten favorite books of the year. I was extremely honored that they asked me. 

Kelsey high atop a hill on a motorbike. Samuel: What’s something you’re bad at? 

Kelsey: I’m really bad at cooking. I really like making Jewish food, but it often doesn’t work out well. I tried making honey cake for Rosh Hashanah a few years ago. It was very liquid-y and dripped over the edge of the pan in the oven, fell to the floor of the oven, and caught on fire. Also, it didn’t taste good. It was both a fire hazard and just…not a good honey cake.  

Samuel: You can invite three people to Shabbat dinner. Who are you bringing and why? 

Kelsey: The first one is Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. He’s a vegan, Orthodox rabbi who donated his kidney to a stranger. He and his family have hosted refugees in their house. To me, he’s the epitome of living your Jewish values. I’d also bring Melissa Broder. She wrote Milk Fed, which is probably my favorite book of all time. I am obsessed with that book; I wrote an article for Hey Alma about it. It gets at difficult mother-daughter relationships, eating disorders, reconnecting with your Judaism, being a Queer Jew…I just love that book. Finally, I’d invite Berel. I read a story about him and how he left his shtetl, came back, and was accepted as a trans man. I’d like to invite him and hear everything about it. 

Samuel: Last one. When Jews of the DMV gather…

Kelsey: They eat!

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