Building Community with a Listening Heart

by Noa Nir / June 11, 2024

GatherDC’s Engagement Director, Noa Nir, reflects on this year’s Open Doors Fellowship, how to build communities that address a shared need, why listening is essential in leadership, and the ongoing work of this year’s Open Doors fellows!

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

When we think about bringing people together, it’s easy to think about the what first. So many of us have thought, at some point or another: What I really need right now is to join a book club. Or a pickleball group chat, a volleyball team. I need to take this one poetry class, and everything will click into place. 

That cause-and-effect-style of thinking is how we approach so many decisions in our lives! What’s much harder – but, ultimately, more impactful – is bringing people together in a way that satisfies an underlying communal need. When we find ourselves thinking that we need to join that book club, it’s helpful to ask: Why? The motivation may be a desire to meet with a consistent group of people, chances to make new friends, or social accountability for reading goals. Maybe the underlying need isn’t even something that a book club would provide, and requires deeper exploration. We think we’re looking for a book club…when really we’re seeking a space to discuss Jewish concepts and big ideas with similarly inclined peers. 

We can’t always express what we truly need into words on the first try. But, when we have community organizers and leaders who listen deeply to the needs of others, we can build truly sustainable, supportive, and meaningful communities that fulfill what we’re really looking for.

For the past ten months, seven Jewish 20- and 30-somethings laid the foundations for exactly those kinds of communities through their work with GatherDC’s Open Doors Fellowship. Launched in 2015, the Open Doors Fellowship has trained and supported 71 Jewish 20s and 30s to be leaders and conveners in Jewish DMV life. This year, in monthly meetings, the fellows honed their skills in listening and leadership, built one-on-one relationships over coffee with 25 other Jewish 20- and 30-somethings, and explored what it really means to form (and be a part of) a community. As their time together ended, fellows planned, presented, and implemented Capstone projects – the creation of new spaces and opportunities for Jewish 20s and 30s to gather.

Kari participates in a discussion during the ODF retreat.

One fellow, Kari de la Viez, walked into the GatherDC townhouse last August with a strong idea of what she might want to create for her Capstone. But, as the months passed and Kari moved through the fellowship – exploring how to identify and address community needs while building sustainable, meaningful relationships with other 20s and 30s – she noticed that her fellow Maryland residents were actively seeking opportunities to connect with the Jewish community…but couldn’t quite find the right opportunities, the right places, and – most importantly – the right people.

Kari decided to pivot away from her initial Capstone idea and meet that need head-on. She created a “Maryland Meetup” group, intentionally inviting people to join based on the conversations she’d had with her Montgomery County community. Today, they’ve met twice already, gathering nearly a dozen Marylanders in Kensington and Fulton to meet each other, grab coffee, and begin to form the kind of community that more and more Jewish 20s and 30s are seeking: an intentionally hosted and curated experience featuring familiar faces and chances to forge new connections. 

Kari’s arc typifies the approach GatherDC has taken to our own community-building. When we begin to plan a learning cohort, holiday how-to experience, or even a Shabbat dinner, we don’t design the program first, then recruit prospective attendees. We form genuine relationships with folks in our community, identify patterns of need, and create experiences that meet our people where they are. As one attendee of Kari’s Maryland Meetup said:

I want to thank both Gather and Kari for the [capstone]. Being in Maryland, I see a lot of events in Baltimore and DC but nothing really new [in Montgomery County], and Kari has really been perfectly filling that void…I was able to reconnect with old friends and meet new people, as well.

In the last decade, we’ve seen again and again how the key to forming lasting connections is to be deeply in relationship with one another, approaching Jewish 20s and 30s with an open, listening heart – and being ready to adapt to the immediate, and often unanticipated, needs of our friends and community. Kari’s project, as she initially envisioned it, may very well have met a need in the Jewish DMV community. However, by allowing the conversations she had over coffee to shift her perspective and priorities, she was able to design a capstone that she would never have been able to imagine without first investing in relationships with people in her own neighborhood.

During the Open Doors Fellowship’s first session, we always examine a quote from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Discussing King Solomon, he writes:

Solomon’s wisdom lay, at least in part, in his ability to listen, to hear the emotion behind the words, to sense what was being left unsaid as well as what was said. It is common to find leaders who speak, very rare to find leaders who listen. But listening often makes the difference. (Sacks, 2013)

Noa, Petal, and Maxwell at the Gather townhouse.

This year’s cohort of seven Open Doors Fellows has once again taken these core GatherDC principles of community-building to heart, already engaging 120 people through their ongoing work: 

  • Petal Grower connected with folks who’d had transformative spiritual Jewish experiences through a retreat or a cohort, but found themselves yearning to continue their spiritual growth. Through 28 daily reflection prompts and three in-person discussions, participants engaged with questions about God, religion, spirituality, culture, and divinity – and how those beliefs were or were not reflected in their Jewish practice, finding an enduring and sustainable spiritual practice in just a few minutes a day.
  • Adam Maidman noticed a lack of weekend experiences designed for Jews who do not observe the Sabbath and are otherwise busy during the week, and therefore struggling to find space to connect with Jewish individuals. In response, he created a WhatsApp group for new-to-the-DMV 20-somethings. With over 40 members in the chat, they’ve visited a farmers market together, and have summer plans for kayaking and visiting museums.
  • Emily Wiggins took her pre-existing interest in food and food science and tailored it to the community she began to encounter through coffees with community members, a group of Russian-speaking Jews. They gathered in early May for a facilitated discussion on texts written by a Soviet Jewish food historian and an American Jewish chef from the South. 
  • Maxwell Thompson’s Jew-ish Music Initiative is bringing together local Jewish musicians and aspiring music-makers to learn, jam, and engage with their Jewishness through song. Building his group through personal invites and advertising through GatherDC’s newsletter, Maxwell wants to create a dual opportunity for people to get to know one another: personally and musically.
  • Hearing that stress, burnout, and sadness in the wake of October 7th were weighing heavily on the folks with whom she got coffee, Elyse Bressler organized a free, accessible Wellness Fair, featuring small group conversations and guided creativity-focused activities. Six attendees used the chance to form a group chat and plan on attending future Jewish DMV events together. 
  • Sam Robinson chatted with 20s who wanted to get involved in DC’s strong social athletics scene, but were put off by the attendant drinking culture. She’s organizing a sober and sober-curious kickball team this summer, with plans to kick the season off (ha ha) with a Shabbat gathering. 

Each successful project follows a similar pattern. When we want to create a self-sustaining, truly meaningful community-within-a-community, the start is not an idea for what to do. The start is an openness to hear what people really want and need. 

If you are interested in learning more about these projects or connecting to this year’s Open Doors Fellows, reach out to our Engagement Director and Open Doors Fellowship facilitator, Noa Nir. Applications for the 2025 Open Doors Fellowship will open in Fall 2024!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.