Meet Austen, Jewish Abrahamic House Resident of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / April 24, 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!

I meet Austen one early spring morning at Abrahamic House, where we sit down over doughnuts and coffee to chat about Austen’s journey to the DMV, interfaith community-building, how to counteract loneliness in America, and alternative transportation options to get to DCA!

Austen during Sukkot.

Samuel: Hi, Austen! I’m so excited to chat with you today. First thing: what brought you to the DMV?

Austen: I’ve been a journalist since graduating from University of Michigan. I started at The Wall Street Journal in New York, then in Chicago, then DC to be a national economics reporter. So, for a job. A close friend had actually told me about Abrahamic House when I was living in Chicago. I thought it was really cool, but wasn’t looking to move…then, in the fall of 2022, I was moving to DC, looking for housing options, and I happened to come across that old text. 

Austen making a mocktail.This idea of building community, building friendships, and hosting events – I thought it was a perfect way to superdrive my social life. It threw me into the deep end immediately, so I was able to move from this great community in Chicago right into the Abrahamic House in Dupont Circle. 

Samuel: How would you explain Abrahamic House to someone unfamiliar with it?

Austen: Abrahamic House is a community where people of the Abrahamic faiths live together and host events for young professionals and people of all ages in the DC area. Currently, the residents are me; my roommate, Daud, who is Muslim, from Afghanistan, and a master’s student at Georgetown; and my roommate Alex, who is an architect, and Catholic. We live on the second floor and host events on the first floor. The idea is that we’re bringing people from our communities together to meet one another, get off their phones, and really engage in person.

Samuel: Where did your interest in Abrahamic House – and the mission of interfaith community-building – come from?

Austen: I spent a lot of time in Jewish communities in New York and Chicago. I realized that so many people are eagerly looking for community, friends, and meaning in their lives. They want a place to meet people, gather, and learn about the world. At the same time, I was also learning a lot about the loneliness crisis here in the US, which people have been talking about for 30 years now. For me, it was really cool to have an opportunity to not just think about these issues of community and loneliness, but to also have an active role in helping people find their place in society. Religion is an answer for a lot of people; helping people lean into their religion, their traditions, and their culture can help people find a community for themselves.

Austen, Daud, and Alex during Sukkot.

One of the biggest values of Abrahamic House is that, regardless of which religious tradition you come from, we can learn from each other. You can hopefully learn to appreciate other traditions, but also appreciate your own tradition even more. That’s been one of the most exciting parts of the house: helping people reengage with their own and other people’s faiths.

Austen in a Wall Street Journal hat.At the end of the day, everyone who comes is really eager to get to know about someone else. I think that can only happen in person, over the dinner table or around our living room. It’s that person to person contact. One of our core values is to fight antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of discrimination; we do that by getting to know people better and seeing them as full humans. Not perfect, not bad, but who they are, existing in this world.

Working on these issues is something I’ll be doing more of. I recently left The Wall Street Journal and am launching my own Substack, where I’ll be focusing on issues of community and helping people think about how they can build better communities, both in their own lives and on a volunteer or professional basis. How do you create these spaces that bring people together? How do you create your own community? How do you build up a community that you care about?

It’s called Weekly Ties, a play on the concept of weak ties and how, in almost every religious tradition, there is some sort of weekly gathering. With this new platform, I’m hoping to take my experiences of Abrahamic House, and my time in Chicago and New York, plus the reporting, research, and interviewing skills I built in my 20s, and apply all this to a new chapter. 

Samuel: That’s incredible – congratulations on the new project! Thinking about how Abrahamic House has impacted you, how do you feel your personal Judaism has changed since coming to Abrahamic House?

Austen lighting a menorah.Austen: Being in a space where you’re constantly asked to explain the most basic parts of your faith, you really have to be on your A game. Whether I’m leading a Purim play, or a Passover Seder, or even just a simple Shabbat dinner, people are asking really good questions. Why are there two candles and not four candles? Why are there two challahs instead of one? There’s been so many times where I call up a rabbi or community leader before or after an event to ask for help – how do I answer this? What does this mean?

I’ve also realized that there are real differences in our religious traditions, but there’s also so many beautiful similarities. We’ve done some great programs around the idea of fasting. And, we also actually lean into our differences. I thought that one of our best events of the year was called “Sacred Sips.” We designed three mocktails, and had a conversation about alcohol and how it is really hard to be someone in their mid-20s who, because of religious faith or personal [reasons], doesn’t drink. We had a lot of Muslims and Mormons who came because both faiths traditionally don’t drink. It was interesting to lean into those differences, talking about, for example, drinking wine on Shabbat, and how that’s viewed as this super good thing. For us, it’s actually better to talk about those differences and raise them up, as opposed to hiding or papering over those differences. 

Samuel: What else is resonating Jewishly for you right now?

Austen: More recently, I’ve been leaning into some of the more observant spaces in DC. I’ve been going to DC Minyan, Kesher Israel, and Mesorah DC. It’s been transformative, praying in a community and making my Judaism a core part of my life every week. By really focusing on Shabbat, it allows us to engage every single week. They say Shabbat has kept the Jewish people going over the centuries, and I’m eager to be a part of that.

Austen working the grill!

Samuel: Alright, a few quick ones to close. What are you feeling proud about right now? 

Austen: Abrahamic House continues to bring people from really diverse backgrounds together. Right now, it’s really tough in the world to do that. Since October 7th, it’s obviously been very challenging for our Jewish and Muslim community members. We have people who come to the house who have family in Gaza; we have people who come to the house who had friends killed on October 7th in Israel. The most important thing for us is leaning into the joint humanity of each other, and bringing people together as friends. We’re not going to be able to solve this crisis by hosting a Shabbat dinner, right? But hopefully we can allow someone to see the full humanity of someone else and to learn to empathize just a bit more. I think the war has only underlined the importance of interfaith engagement. 

Samuel: What is something in the DMV that you think more people should know about?

Austen: You can actually bike to Reagan Airport. I’m a super light packer; one of my favorite things to do is just take a backpack, get a DC Bike Share, bike across the bridge, and then the Mount Vernon Trail goes straight to the airport.

Austen and friends cutting a Christmas tree down.

Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner. Who are they? 

Austen: In keeping with the theme of the house…it would be hard to arrange the meal, but I think I have to go with Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. I think that would be a great dinner. 

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

Austen: They are eager to meet and engage deeply.

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