Seekers and Celebrations: A Goodbye Chat with Rabbi Ilana

by Samuel Milligan / June 5, 2024

A few weeks ago, Rabbi Ilana announced that she would be stepping away from GatherDC to pursue an incredible opportunity with Georgetown University. One recent Thursday morning in the GatherDC townhouse, Rabbi Ilana and I sat down to look back on her time with Gather, chat about what Jewish community-building may look like in the future, and memorialize some of her favorite moments from the last five years. Enjoy!

Ilana at the front of a happy hour, talking with a friend.

Samuel: It’s been a few weeks since you announced you were stepping away from Gather. At least for me, it’s beginning to feel more and more real and immediate. How are you feeling?

Rabbi Ilana: It’s surreal! On one hand, five years is not the longest amount of time in a person’s life…but the past five years at GatherDC have felt so full. We’ve gone through so much together! Not only did a lot of major, life-changing events happen, including an unprecedented global pandemic, an insurrection in our city, and October 7th, but this was also my first job out of rabbinical school, so it has been additionally formative. Early on, it was the first time I had to show up and say “Hi, I’m Rabbi Ilana” and figure out what that actually meant. This will forever be the place where that happened. In some ways, I don’t know what it will be like to be a rabbi anywhere else. It’s going to be different. I’m excited about my next steps, but my heart will always be with Gather.

Samuel: What’s something you’ve honed during this time that you know you’ll be carrying forward?

Rabbi Ilana on her first day of work at GatherDC.

Rabbi Ilana on her first day at GatherDC.

Rabbi Ilana: I don’t think we coined the term “relational rabbi,” but that’s truly what Gather has made me. I understand the power of relationships in creating community, in teaching Torah, in crafting rituals. You can get to a certain level of depth and meaning by having trust in a relationship, and Gather emphasizes that in all the work that we do. I’ll forever take that with me as something that is at the heart of a rabbinate and at the heart of a Jewish community. 

Samuel: When you think of the people who make up the Gather community, what do you think of?

Rabbi Ilana: They’re not a monolith – a typical Gather community member could have any kind of Jewish background, and other identity, professional experience, or interests. But the common thread between most folks at one of our learning cohorts or retreats is that they are “Seekers.” They are people who love to ask questions about the world and society, and how Judaism can seriously help them navigate that. As a rabbi, that makes the work just so enjoyable and rewarding. 

Samuel: What is something you’ve had the chance to do here that you’d like to see continue even after you’re gone?

Rabbi Ilana: A couple things. The first is that we’ve gotten into a rhythm of offering learning experiences well in advance of Jewish holidays. Preparing for a holiday, which I love, is part of the celebration. If you want to have a meaningful experience of any Jewish holiday, you can’t wake up that day and show up…it takes some forethought. We’ve leaned into asking our community members to put thought and planning into what they want to get out of their holiday experiences, planting the seed that they have more agency and options around doing Jewish things than first meets the eye. That all creates a much more courageous experience of the holidays and I love that we’ve set that tone of experiencing the holidays as seasons of growth and reflection rather than standalone days. 

Samuel: Making meaning out of something has to be an intentional act. 

Rabbi Ilana: That’s one thing. We also have prioritized pastoral care, listening, and providing guidance for people. All rabbis ideally do that, but I really love how I’ve had the space and time to reliably offer that to community members at Gather. It’s one of the best things I’ve gotten to do. We’ve created a culture of accessibility and approachability when it comes to Jewish 20s and 30s having a spiritual leader and organization to turn to when in need.

Rabbi Ilana leads Alternative Yom Kippur in 2019.

Rabbi Ilana at Alternative Yom Kippur in 2019.

Samuel: What do you think the work of building Jewish community is going to look like ten, twenty, thirty years from now?

Rabbi Ilana: Obviously, we are in a really hard moment when it comes to being in community. It makes sense that we’re withdrawing into bubbles of people with whom we feel ideologically aligned. When we feel overwhelmed, we want to feel like the way we’re seeing things is valid and that we’re not alone. But, when you truly welcome people to think out loud and lean into what they have yet to learn, even as they’re navigating uncertainty and fear, people are way more inclined to welcome a diversity of viewpoints and feel more invested in the people around them. 

That’s where I hope we’re going. That our communities feel braver to name hard or sad things, and understand that we’re not actually benefiting when we retreat. Ultimately, engaging with each other will allow us to move forward, to build new and brave things together, to be constructive when things feel like they’re falling apart – and to show up for each other in times of joy. The joy is only fuller when you’ve gone through hard moments together. 

Samuel: That idea – engaging with new or unfamiliar ideas – feels really essential to how you see your work as a rabbi. How do we create spaces where people feel inspired to be the “Seekers” you talked about earlier?

Rabbi Ilana: You can name that as a dynamic you want in the room – it gives people permission to show up in a way that’s different from how they feel they have to show up in other spaces. It’s an invitation, but it’s also a challenge…a challenge most people want to accept. Plus, having open-ended, brave discussions with deep thought and disagreement is something that’s already inherent in Jewish tradition. It’s part of our legacy. Rabbis have always done that. This is how we’re meant to engage with Jewish wisdom; it’s what Gather is successfully able to offer in our Jewish learning cohorts, our retreats, our fellowships, and, heck, any time we gather people together. 

Rabbi Ilana and Noa Nir at Beyond the Tent Summer 2022.

Rabbi Ilana and Engagement Director Noa Nir at Summer 2022’s Beyond the Tent Retreat.

Samuel: What are some things you’ll miss about Gather?

Rabbi Ilana: First and foremost, the people! I admire my colleagues so much and have had the best time working alongside them. Second, I’ll miss gathering with our awesome community members at our beautiful townhouse for study sessions and meals, or talking with them about their Jewish journeys while petting goats on Beyond the Tent. I’ll miss the seriously good swag we have – I have to make sure I take a “chai-drate” water bottle and extra “Oy vey, I’m cute” baby onesie on my way out. I’ll miss causing good trouble over our Alternative Yom Kippur celebrations. And, honestly, I’ll miss contributing to the incredible 20s and 30s ecosystem of the DMV. 

Samuel: What are you most excited for in this next chapter at Georgetown?

Rabbi Ilana: I’m excited to bring what I’ve learned and done here to a campus setting. Students always have their own pressures and demands on their lives, and Judaism and Jewish community can help them through that. Learning, thinking about the work you want to do in the world, creating community for the first time outside of home, being in a new place. There’s a lot that comes with all that. Having a space to bond over something that is not just your classes or professional aspirations is such a need, so I’m looking forward to creating that welcoming, joyful, comfortable space for people.

And, at the same time, Judaism asks us to push ourselves, learn, grow, and to experience new things. That’s something I also hope to bring to Jewish college and grad students. I want people to feel at once at home in a Jewish space and like there’s a lot that they don’t know – and that’s a good thing. On a completely different note, I’m excited to explore new coffee spots in and around campus.

Rabbi Ilana at tashlich in 2020.

Tashlich 2020

Samuel: Creating those welcoming, joyful spaces and those challenging, brave spaces – those are not separate things. I feel like you’d argue that they’re actually the same thing, and that each is necessary for the other. 

Rabbi Ilana: That’s right. I love that.

Samuel: Last one. When you think about the GatherDC community, what words come to mind?

Rabbi Ilana: Earnest. Smart. Passionate. So kind. Powerful.

Samuel: Is there anything else you want to say before we go?

Rabbi Ilana: I feel so grateful for everyone who has invited me into their life in some way. I truly believe that being a rabbi is a privilege – the way that people open up and are real and honest with you. I always think: You don’t have to do that! So I am grateful for the way people have trusted me and been with me on this journey.

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