Meet Stephanie, Jewish Embassy Tour Expert of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / May 1, 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!

Stephanie and I meet one spring afternoon at The Block Foodhall to chat over boba tea about her community-building process, how she got involved at Magen David Sephardic Congregation, integrating new traditions into her Jewish practice, and the gameplan for a perfect DC Embassy Day!

Stephanie inside Uruguay's embassy.

Samuel: What brought you to DC? I understand you’ve been familiar with GatherDC for a while now. 

Stephanie: I heard about the monthly happy hours, so I [decided to] drive in from Baltimore after work, just to see what they were like. My first was at the now-defunct Buffalo Billiards in Dupont. It had about 400 people, and I was like: This is my place! Look at all these Jews! And they’re all young professionals, and all want to meet each other. I knew that if I kept coming to these and decided to move to DC, I’d already have my community and friends. By the time I moved, three years later, I think I’d only missed two happy hours. 

Samuel: That’s quite a commitment to make that commute. 

Stephanie in front of a painted background.Stephanie: I love going to events, and there are so many events in DC with all the different Jewish organizations. It’s the community aspect. You’re with like-minded people in relatively similar stages of life, and what they’re looking for in terms of their careers, or personal lives, or area they’re living in…just by being Jewish, you already have a connection, and that’s huge. You’re inevitably going to find connections through your Judaism. 

Samuel: Right now, you’re involved with Magen David Sephardic Congregation – tell me about that community!

Stephanie: Magen David is a Sephardic synagogue. I knew about Magen David when I was first living in DC because they had a Shabbaton [Editor’s note: typically a weekend retreat of learning and celebration] for young professionals and also had a belly dancing class one time. When I first moved from DC to Rockville, I was going to Aish of Greater Washington because they were Ashkenazic like me – I was used to the davening style, the singing, the tunes, all that. But I started meeting people in their early and mid-20s who were Sephardic and going to Magen David, where they serve a community lunch every Shabbat, and I was like: I have some friends who go here, and I wouldn’t have to make Shabbat lunch plans…let me check that out!

I just appreciated how warm and welcoming everyone was at the synagogue. It didn’t matter if you were a part of the synagogue officially as a member, or a regular [attendee], everyone was just nice. Who doesn’t want to feel that way when they go anywhere, but especially at a synagogue? At Magen David, people are excited to see a new face. It feels good to be seen and noticed like that.

Stephanie below a sukkah.Plus, our community is so international; it really caters to everyone and shows the diversity of Judaism, which I love. Everyone has a different experience with how they grew up with Judaism – it’s cool to learn about everyone else’s experiences and why they’re so connected with their Judaism. 

Samuel: It’s interesting that, when you talk about what draws you in about Jewish community, you cite both being among like-minded people and being among people whose backgrounds are so different. 

Stephanie: It is a seamless interlock. Even if you’re looking at Ashkenazis, in an Ashkenazi shul, everyone is still bringing their own experiences to the table. What’s really interesting, when you forget about the terms, is: What connects you to Judaism? What is special and important for you? I’m so connected to my Judaism and always have been. To be surrounded by it in my “regular” life is so important. 

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

Stephanie: Last year was my first time experiencing a full Magen David Mimouna, which is the Moroccan Jewish party that celebrates the end of Passover. The night that Passover ends, you have this huge party with all different Moroccan desserts made of things you can’t eat during Passover. People dress up in traditional Moroccan attire, and everything is decorated, and it’s all so fun. Growing up in the Ashkenazi world, I didn’t know about Mimouna – the goal after Passover was over was just to turn the kitchen back over and ask when we could eat bread again. But [Mimouna] is another way to realize that not every Jew observes everything the same way. It gives you an appreciation for the history and why certain Jews from different areas approach Judaism differently. 

Stephanie in a dress below orange awnings.Samuel: As you’re experiencing all these new traditions and rituals, how have you approached integrating them into your own adult Jewish practice? 

Stephanie: First of all, it’s fun to just learn about ways that other people do things. Part of growing as a person is being exposed to things out in the world – even as I appreciate the familiarity and comfort of the foods and traditions I grew up with. You can pick and choose. I like this, so I’m going to add that to my life. I’m going to take part of this, and add it to my life. I refuse to let go of kugel – I love that. But now I get to be intrigued by other ideas, too. 

Samuel: A few quick ones to end. What does your dream DMV day look like? 

Stephanie: Embassy Day in DC is my favorite day of the whole year. Because I keep Shabbat, I have to plan the day out in advance because it’s on Saturday. I have to make sure I have my souvenir passport ready to go. I have my map planned out with all the embassies that have posted that they’ll be participating. I cross off all the embassies that I’ve been to – which is over 60 now – and then come up with the best route to walk to get to all the ones I haven’t been to. I coordinate with my friends in advance with our meeting time, starting spot, and route. If you haven’t gotten it by now, I’m Type A; I love organizing and details and keeping everything in order. 

So, we’re usually in line at the first embassy by around 9:00 a.m., even though the event doesn’t start until 10:00 a.m. It only officially goes until 4:00 p.m., but you can sometimes sneak in a few more after that if the embassies are still open and increase your souvenir passport stamp count. Then, I go home with all the stuff I’ve collected over the day. Once Shabbat is over, I’d go out to dinner at True Food Kitchen and then dance at La Catrina in Bethesda. That’s my ideal day. 

Stephanie below an ornate arch.Samuel: What is something you’re obsessed with?

Stephanie: The Body Worlds exhibit. I actually changed my major in college because I wanted to take anatomy and physiology classes, because you had to be a Health Sciences major to take those. I’ve seen the exhibit six times; it’s just so fascinating. 

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

Stephanie: I would invite my great-grandmother, who I am named after and didn’t have a chance to meet. She’s German, so it would be really meaningful to speak with her about her life and my Bubbe’s life. The whole family, thank goodness, moved from Germany to New York right before the Holocaust. It would be meaningful to learn more about that family history directly from someone in the family. 

The second person would be Marlee Matlin. She’s a deaf, Jewish actress who advocates for deaf inclusion. You need people who speak up like that because you may not think about [deaf inclusion] if it’s not part of your everyday life; we need people like her to draw that attention. 

The third person would be the lead singer of one of my favorite Israeli bands, Synergia: Ron Hoffman. I saw them in concert in Israel and he was the only one of the band members I wasn’t able to meet afterwards. At my Shabbat dinner, he could lead us in song with his amazing voice. 

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

Stephanie: Jewish geography is definitely happening!

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