Pockets of Divine Time: Meet our 2023-24 Open Doors Fellows!

by Samuel Milligan / January 31, 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!

GatherDC’s Open Doors Fellowship (ODF) is an immersive 10-month experience that brings together and trains Jewish young adults who live in the DMV to become leaders, conveners, and facilitators of Jewish life. We connect with this year’s cohort to chat about their visions for the Jewish DMV, how community is like a musical ensemble, what it means to be a leader, and why forging a strong community is so important!

The Open Doors Fellows sit together on a couch in Gather's townhouse.

Bottom row (L to R): Adam, Kari, Noa Nir, Emily
Top row (L to R): Maxwell, Petal, Samantha, Elyse

Samuel: What led you to the Open Doors Fellowship?

Emily: I moved to DC almost three years ago and was craving a connection with Jewish community. I found Gather, got involved, and got connected with Noa, who gave me a lot of resources for connecting with the Jewish community. So, the wheels started turning…if Noa can do this for me, then I would love to do it for other people!

Maxwell: I found out about the Fellowship through Noa after attending the GatherDC Mini Gatherings [Editor’s note: Applications for 20s Mini Gatherings are open now!]. It sounded like a great opportunity for me to develop leadership and community-building skills.

Petal: It’s an amazing opportunity to connect to a community beyond the small enclaves of people I know already. Also, the idea of doing a capstone project is so unique, and I have aspirations of Jewish leadership in my future, so I thought this would be an amazing way to dip my toes into those waters.

Four ODF fellows sit in the townhouse, engaged in text study.

Kari: It’s hard to think – what was I thinking before [beginning], versus what am I thinking now? It’s been fulfilling in ways that I didn’t even anticipate. I was so excited about the multifaceted aspects; [the fellowship is] about improving our own connections with communities while also impacting other people and their relationships with their Jewish community, or even communities they don’t have a relationship with yet. That really resonated with me.

Adam: I was interested in getting more involved in the Jewish community and learning how I could play a bigger role in the DC community by working with and getting to know different community members.

Sam: I actually sought out GatherDC before I moved here, and my move aligned with the application process, so this is my first real foray into DMV Jewish life. The “why” has evolved as we’ve done our coffee chats. That’s been beautiful to watch. As a group, it’s been fun to see us open up and stay in touch outside of the fellowship.

Petal and Maxwell chuckle together. Samuel: As people who want to be future conveners of Jewish life, why is community-building compelling for you? 

Petal: Being Jewish alone is really hard. Identifying a way to practice that feels authentic, feeling connected, finding support, weathering the rest of the world…doing that by yourself is really difficult. The times where I’ve been disconnected from the Jewish community, I’ve been disconnected from my Judaism, period. Building community is a key catalyst to developing a more Jewish life. 

Kari: As someone who has struggled to find “my” community, I understand how not having a community impacts your identity, your day-to-day, and your sense of self. Having a community is like having a home. You feel like you can come home, but if you don’t have a community, you feel like you’re floating. Where do I put myself, my identity, my feelings? The beauty of community is security in knowing you’re just one small link in a big chain.

Elyse: Building a community has always been essential for me, especially when moving to a new place. Knowing that you have a safe space, free of judgment, where you can be surrounded by friends who will support you at all times is imperative. I have always had a passion for helping others connect and focusing on inclusivity in all shared spaces, particularly in the Jewish DMV, therefore efforts related to community building help me more effectively cater to those interests. 

Text study with the ODF fellows.Emily: I lived in the same place for ten years and got to know the Jewish community really well. It felt like the Jewish community came to me. Then, uprooting my life and moving to the DMV…[i]t’s just a completely new place for me, and I think that probably resonates with a lot of people coming here. I’m an extrovert, so I’m thinking: Why don’t I just lead by example, get involved, and have people feel like they have a person and place that they can go to and trust in? I want to go to events with people who are afraid to go alone. I want to connect people in a way that helps them foster their own Jewish community. 

Samuel: What does that “leading by example” look like? 

Petal: Showing up – there’s no community if there’s no coming together. There’s many different avenues through which we show up for other people but, without that, community falls apart. 

Emily: I’m thinking about my unique set of Jewish interests, and how those might not match what other folks are interested in. Sustaining community might be hard for people who don’t see themselves in certain backgrounds or labels. Sustaining community means understanding what people want. 

Sam: It’s less about “I’m here” and more about recognizing who else is in the room with me, and how there are many different lived experiences of Jews from all over. Growing up in South Florida looked very different for me than it might have even from the kid around the block. It’s about putting others first, knowing when to step back and let someone else have space to say what they need.

Having a good time at the townhouse, as everyone laughs.

Samuel: As you’ve talked to people around the DMV, what have you learned either about the Jewish community or yourselves? 

Maxwell: I don’t know that people are always satisfied with what’s offered. People are looking for more unique spaces to meet that intersect with their Judaism. 

Elyse: One thing I’ve noticed is people expressing a desire for friendship and connection in places where they can show up authentically. It’s important to support and respect each other; we’ve all had different experiences with Jewish identity. 

Adam: One thing that I have learned is that everyone is interested in getting involved more in the DC Jewish community. People like the different Jewish events that happen around the city, but some of them only happen once a month. The people I have chatted with are interested in doing activities within the Jewish community that happen on a more frequent basis, so they are able to get to know and build relationships with different community members.

More text study with the ODF fellows!Samuel: You’re all working on capstone projects for the fellowship. What are your visions of a fully-realized Jewish community, and how are you building toward that vision? 

Emily: It’s incredibly idealistic, but I think a fully-realized Jewish community is one where everyone’s intersectionality is recognized. I’ve started thinking a lot about food…I’ve toyed with the idea of a short seminar series where people talk about food and Judaism as an identity and culture. 

Petal: My vision of a fully-realized Jewish community is one where space has been made for everyone. People come to the Jewish community in so many different ways, and they should be able to show up and not feel pressure to homogenize. One thing that’s come up a lot in my conversations is the difficulty of maintaining a consistent connection to Jewish life when it’s “just you” – how can we create pockets of divine time when we can feel connected to Jewish life, even by ourselves? 

Kari: Everyone should feel like they have a home. In a fully-realized community, people wouldn’t be afraid to show up alone, or afraid that they’d be judged or not accepted. They’d feel that the community at-large is a safe space, but also be able to find niche, smaller groups that feel most comfortable. For my capstone, I want to do something with sign language interpretation and / or increased access to sign language services.

Elyse: I want a community based on kindness. I’ve heard from people who attended events where they weren’t talked to or didn’t feel included. With my project, I’m hoping to focus on mental health and how we maintain awareness within our social interactions and community-building. The more we learn about emotional wellbeing, the more we can understand it and work together to better build community.

Laughing during discussion.

Adam: I want to create events that happen on a more frequent basis, so people have more opportunities to meet and get to know community members. However, I want these events to be low stress in the sense that it is not a big deal if you cannot make it. I have talked with people who love the idea of a book club, but wouldn’t sign up for it because they are cautious of the time commitment. The community that I am working to foster is one that is always available and welcoming to all and provides community members flexibility to see what works best with their schedules.

Sam: I don’t think a community can ever be fully realized; but, we can build core values of kindness and inclusion. That’s what outlasts all of us, whether we stay in the DMV for the rest of our days or eventually leave and take that community-building toolkit elsewhere. That’s so central to all of our projects: are we equipped to not only make ourselves community leaders, but also to pass that on to other people?

Maxwell: I’m thinking about community as musical ensembles. Not everyone wants to play in a big symphony. Some folks want trios or duets. A realized DMV community has the space for folks to find the kind of ensembles that nurture them Jewishly.

ODF fellows engaged in discussion.

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