OPINION: Who Counts as Jewish?

Disclaimer: 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.

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Who counts as Jewish?

To non-Jews, this might sound like a bizarre inquiry, but everyone within the faith knows the thorny politics that surround this question. And, as is often the case, if you ask this question to two Jews, you’ll get three opinions.

This question is more than just a political dispute. The answer essentially defines the purpose and essence of Judaism, as well as who gets to claim Jewish status. It’s a bitterly divisive question, and one that often leaves many people feeling hurt and excluded, if not downright irate. Please, for real, see disclaimer #3 at the bottom***.

In this article, I will first outline what I think are a few of the most commonly held opinions on the subject (see disclaimer #1 at the bottom*). Then, I will discuss what I feel are the strengths and weaknesses of each.

who is jewish

 

The Definitions

Genetics

From the standpoint of traditional Judaism, being Jewish means having a mother who was born Jewish, since tradition dictates that Judaism is matrilineal. It’s binary: either you have a Jewish mother (and she had a Jewish mother, who also had a Jewish mother…), or you’re not Jewish. The essence of Judaism, according to this theory, is genetic; nothing more, nothing less. This was the way things ran for thousands of years.

Religiosity

As the world (and Judaism) have evolved, additional modern approaches to the “who counts?” question have emerged. The next most traditional approach argues that being Jewish means being religious and following the laws of the religion. Praying every day, keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, etc., are what define and separate us from other religions. People differ in their opinions about which specific practices you need to keep and to what degree, but the basic idea is that the essence of Judaism is religious practice.

Feeling Connected to the Religion

The religiosity theory primarily hinges on behaviors and religious practices, but part of that is an implicit sense of feeling connected to the religion. This is another answer to the “who counts?” question: that Judaism is primarily about feeling connected to the religion, engaging with the religion, and being proud to be part of the religion. This is probably the approach that has the most variation among its constituents: for some, feeling connected means thinking about issues from a Jewish perspective and having discussions about Jewish topics. For others, it means being proud of being Jewish and being a vocal advocate for Jewish causes. For others, it means being religious and deriving meaning from religious practices (essentially an addendum to the “Religiosity” answer above). For others still, it’s some combination of the three. The key component of this approach is that the person’s spirituality and connection to Judaism are what matter, not their exact behaviors, practices, or familial background.

Cultural Judaism

Finally, many Jews subscribe to the “Cultural Judaism” approach, which focuses on the many pieces of Jewish culture that do not directly relate to specific religious practices or doctrine. Eating bagels, schmoozing, Israeli dance, and other activities define this approach. From this vantage point, being around other Jews and sharing in the common culture is the defining feature of being Jewish. This approach is perhaps the most common among American Jews today.

My Take

Now that I’ve outlined some of the most common approaches to the “who counts?” question, I’ll take a moment to provide my own personal musings on their relative merits:

 

Genetics

This is the least convincing and most problematic approach to me. First and foremost, it does not require any effort or devotion from the person; if you were lucky enough to be born to a Jewish mother, you get a free pass. This seems directly at odds with many core aspects of Judaism (especially traditional Judaism!), which emphasize the importance of hard work and dedication. In addition, it excludes a huge swath of Jews in a way that fails the “sniff test”: according to this theory, a practicing Jew who goes to synagogue, loves the religion, and constantly tries to build their Jewish community might not be considered Jewish. On the other hand, someone who hates the religion, feels no connection to it, and has no interest in raising a Jewish family, could be considered Jewish. While this is technically the answer according tradition, to me it feels inadequate and arbitrary.

On a more practical level, this seems like a strategically poor approach: the genetic theory primarily incentivizes marriage practices, with little focus on people’s religious practices or sense of connection and belonging. The question of whether intermarriage will shorten the lifespan of the Jewish religion is outside the scope of this article, but I would strongly argue that a world of genetically “pure” Jews with no connection to the religion is much less likely to keep the religion alive than a group of genetically diverse, but incredibly enthusiastic ones.

Religiosity

The religious approach makes sense on a basic level: Judaism is a religion, and religions are traditionally defined by beliefs and practices. If someone is born into a Jewish family, but their family does not engage in any religious activities, it seems like a misnomer to label them Jewish (unless you subscribe to the genetic theory).

From a pragmatic and self-preservation perspective, this approach makes the most sense to me. The people who are most likely to pass down the religion (and even, one could argue, the cultural aspects) are probably the people who are voluntarily engaging in Jewish practices in the first place. The religious approach is probably the simplest one that passes the “sniff test” for me.

The main problem with this approach is that it risks alienating a huge group of modern Jews for whom religious practice is not the defining feature of their Judaism. For many, religious practice might be a piece of their Jewish identity, but connecting with Judaism in other ways is their priority. Given how quickly Judaism (along with other religions) is shrinking, it seems like a mistake to cast out this massive group of people in pursuit of a stricter definition.

Connecting with the Religion

The “Connecting with the Religion” approach also makes a lot of sense to me, and it solves some of the inclusivity issues that go along with the “Religiosity” approach. Many Jews feel a deep connection with Judaism, whether or not they actively engage with the religious doctrine. This approach allows a diversity of practices and backgrounds to coexist under one roof; whether you connect to Judaism through prayer, discussion, Israel advocacy, or any of the other myriad options, this approach offers you a seat at the table.

From a pragmatic standpoint, this approach complements and mirrors the “Religiosity” one. It still focuses on people who are actively maintaining the religion, but allows for the inclusion of a wider slice of the modern Jewish pie. If you make Jewishly-focused people feel included, one would imagine that they’ll be more likely to keep up the practice (however they define it) and pass it down to their children.

The downside to this approach is that it has the potential to be a bit too permissive, since it essentially allows people to define Judaism however they want. While that may be good for the most part, there are certainly cases where it can go too far. As an example, many people define their Judaism primarily through the practice of tikkun olam, or healing the world. For many of them, though, this ends up simply being a commitment to charity that is not actually informed by the traditions of Judaism. While a commitment to charity is always a good thing, I think that this is pushing the envelope by ascribing a general, secular value to Judaism, simply because A) they subscribe to it and B) they also happen to be Jewish. At some point, it’s important for one’s Jewish principles to actually be rooted in specific Jewish traditions (however broadly defined).

Cultural Judaism

The “Cultural Judaism” approach is one that I find fairly unconvincing (at least as a complete explanation). First and foremost, it suffers from the same problem as the “Feeling Connected” approach above: if anyone can define what cultural Judaism means and no one can dispute it, then there are bound to be cases where people include things that seem too general and secular. Beyond that, this approach feels slightly too removed from the religious nature of Judaism for me. Specifically, I know many non-Jews (both self-defined and as defined by other Jews) who love many of the aspects of cultural Judaism. They sometimes joke that they wouldn’t even need to convert, because they love going to Bar Mitzvahs, eating bagels, saying yiddish words, etc. Saying that these people are genuinely Jewish fails the “sniff test” pretty clearly to me. If our definition of Judaism includes people who would never seriously consider themselves Jewish (and who very few Jews would consider Jewish), it cannot be the sole way in which we define Judaism.

That said, I think that cultural Judaism makes a lot of sense as one piece of what it means to be Jewish. Few Jews would deny that culture plays a role in their relationship with Judaism, even if they primarily define culture through religious practices like going to synagogue. If this is the case, any definition that wholly ignores the cultural component would seem incomplete.

From a pragmatic point of view, I think the “Cultural Judaism” approach has both pluses and minuses. On the one hand, the “Cultural” approach makes many people who would otherwise have little connection to the religion feel included. To not use this definition (at least partially) runs the risk of alienating those people enough to drive them away from the religion altogether. On the other hand, I think there is a strong argument to be made that Jewish culture (much like any other culture) has a tendency to fade over time, unless anchored to something more enduring. It boils down to the classic argument of whether to be prescriptive or descriptive, and I think there is merit to both points.

Conclusion?

So, where does that leave us? Obviously, I do not have the perfect answer to the “who counts?” question, and I would strongly argue that anyone would be hard pressed to find one.

My hope in writing this article is that it encourages Jews to engage in discussion around this question in a more productive way. I hope that people will think about not only their own perspectives, but also how those perspectives interact with other Jews and their experiences.

If we do this, I think we have a much better chance of creating a religion with both purpose and inclusion, flexibility and resolve; one that has the power to attract people from across the religious spectrum, and one that can outlast the ups and downs of external historical trends.

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*Disclaimer #1

This list is by no means exhaustive. If you or people you know have an approach to Judaism that does not appear in this article, that doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate! I chose to include these four approaches because they are the most common ones that I’ve encountered.

**Disclaimer #2

“It seems like sometimes you use the word ‘Judaism’ to refer to the culture/race, but other times you use it to refer to the religion.” That is correct! I find it hard to argue that Judaism is entirely one or the other, and I would have tied myself in knots trying to delineate which definition I was using in every instance throughout the article.

***Disclaimer #3

In writing this article, I sincerely did not set out to offend or upset anyone. That said, I know that it is hard to avoid doing so when discussing such a hot-button issue. I hope that if people take issue with parts of this piece, they’ll use that as inspiration to write their own articles or have discussions with friends in a respectful and productive way.

 

 

eliAbout the Author: Eli Feldman is the Research Associate to the President at The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-partisan non-profit that defends student and faculty rights on college campuses. Eli graduated from Yale in 2016 with a degree in psychology.  Eli is an alumni of GatherDC’s Open Doors Fellowship, from which he launched the Jewish Monthly Article Club (JMAC), a club for Jewish 20s/30s to discuss articles about a range of important topics. He is passionate about sports, music, coding, politics, free speech, Marvel movies, and tech.

 

 

 

Your DC Purim Guide: 2019/5779

purim

Raise your hand if…

  • You like to party
  • Eat sugary cookies filled with peanut butter/chocolate/raspberry jam
  • Dress in costume when its not Halloween
  • Enjoy libations guilt free
  • Scream really loudly about political figures you despise

Well, you are in luck…

Purim is just around the corner.

Since its been a full year (or more?!) since you last celebrated this glorious holiday, here’s a little refresher of the Purim story: An awful anti-Semitic man wanted to destroy the Jews. He didn’t. We partied.

If you want more of a history refresher, try going to one of the many Megillah-readings around DC (listed below) or watching this brand new investigative podcast, “Haman: A True Crime Story”.

 

There’s also a huge slew of other Purim parties, hamantaschen recipes, and gatherings across the DMV! Oh, and if we missed a Purim event – submit it here or email Allison Friedman.

However you celebrate, we wish you a chag Purim sameach – a happy and joyous Purim!

Sunday, March 10th

Saturday, March 16th

Sunday, March 17th

Monday, March 18th

Tuesday, March 19th

Wednesday, March 20th

Friday, March 22nd

Saturday, March 23rd

Monday, March 25th

hamantschen

Where to Get Hamantaschen

Purim Inspiration

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.

Spotted in Jewish DC: The Jewish Planner

Amanda Herring (former Jewish Shabbat Host of the Week) and Mo Golden met in graduate school and are both Jewish experiential educators. They wanted a Jewish planner, and it didn’t exist. So…they made one!

amanda planner

Allie: How did The Jewish Planner come to fruition?

Amanda: I was doing the JOFEE Fellowship and had just gotten back from my cohort training at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center. [During this training], I did so much cool learning about the Jewish calendar and how it connects to the agricultural calendar and the seasons. I love planners, but found that there was not a single planner out there that’s Jewish, easy to use, and pocket-size. Mo is a friend from graduate school and is an amazing artist and designer. She had used Kickstarter before, and told me, “we can do this!”

Mo: Amanda’s been making the content with the monthly teachings and dates, and I’ve been working on illustrations and design layouts. It’s been exciting to see how our skills complement each other’s, and how we are in different communities that are all really excited about this.

Allie: What are your dreams for future of this planner?

Amanda: That people will use this planner and give us feedback on it so we can adjust and make it even better for next year. In future years, we’d love to work with Jewish organizations to make specific planners for them.

Mo: I hope this planner can reframe the way we connect to Jewish education, and make people feel less marginalized and more cohesive. It can help people find more connection and meaning in the Jewish community.

Amanda: It’s one of those things that can bring a little bit of Judaism to your day, every day.

Allie: Where can I buy one?

Mo: We’re live on Kickstarter! [Pledge $30 or more to get a physical copy of the planner shipped to you.]

Allie: What do you want people to feel when they use this planner?

Amanda: Alignment. It’s not two separate lives that you’re living between work and Judaism.

Mo: A sense of belonging, connection, and centeredness.

jewish planner

 

 

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.

Meet Tali: Jewish Bot-Maker of the Week!

tali

Allie: How did you wind up living in DC?

Tali: I moved to DC last November from New York, but I’m originally from near Cleveland, Ohio. I got an exciting new job here and I was lucky to have friends in the area when I moved (shoutout to Ariella, Joelle, and to former GatherDC Jewish Person of the Week, Monica Arkin)!

Allie: What were you doing in New York?

Tali: In New York, I was focused on designing bots and AI at an incredible startup called Wade & Wendy. My portfolio includes ‘The ShaBot”, a bot you can chat with via Facebook Messenger that provides Shabbat times.

The ShaBot was discovered by the design team that I ended up joining at Capital One. I still can’t believe it, but by building my own things, I was eventually able to connect with designers and creatives that I respect a lot. It’s been an interesting experience working on Eno (Capital One’s intelligent assistant) for over a year now. I’ve loved working with the insanely talented people who challenge me to grow all the time on this team! I’m also excited to challenge the status quo of having female robot assistants (why is that a thing?) and to continue to build technologies that make people feel understood and in control of their finances!

Allie: What is you dream day in DC from start to finish, assuming money is no object?

Tali: Take a jog by the waterfront. Picnic with all the good friends I’ve made in DC by the cherry blossoms. Check out a museum. Taste a bunch of things at the DuPont Circle Farmer’s Market. Surprise someone with a speakeasy they haven’t seen before, and then end the night overlooking the city at the W Hotel’s rooftop.

tali college

Allie: What is a piece of wisdom or quote that inspires you?

Tali: “Be a rainbow in someone’s cloud,” from Maya Angelou. I love Maya Angelou’s writing and wisdom. The idea of being a rainbow in someone’s cloud is that when we take it upon ourselves to make someone else feel awesome, we all benefit. It’s based on the idea that people will forget what you said and what you did, but they won’t forget how you made them feel. So why not bring the light?!

Allie: What are your favorite ways to relax and destress at the end of a long work week?

Tali: White wine, a bubble bath, and some Adele blasting in the background before heading to a Shabbat dinner with friends.

Allie: What three things are at the top of your life bucket list?

Tali: Make Tina Fey laugh, climb at least one more mountain, and learn how to master baking challah.

Allie: Complete this sentence. When Jews of DC Gather…

Tali: We make so many mothers very proud.

tali

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.

 

Meet Evan: Jewish Oklahoman of the Week!

evan

Allison: How did you wind up living in DC?

Evan: I am originally from Oklahoma City. I was born and raised there. Then, I went to school at University of Kansas, and when I graduated I went to New York to work at URJ (Union for Reform Judaism). I was ready and excited to get out of the midwest. I was doing long distance with my girlfriend who was in DC, so when URJ let me start in a new role in DC, I moved down here. I just moved to DC this past summer. In the next couple of years, I want to go to rabbinical school.

Allison: What motivated you to want to work in the Jewish community?

Evan: I grew up in the Jewish community my entire life, but it wasn’t until high school when I went to URJ Greene Family Camp and got involved with NFTY (The Reform Jewish Youth Movement) that I was able to see Judaism as more than just showing up to religious school or synagogue. NFTY was where I found a community I cared about and got to talk about important issues.

Allison: What’s your favorite way to celebrate Shabbat?

Evan: I’m a very musical person, so I’d love to go to a a musical Shabbat service followed by dinner and dessert with friends. On Saturday, I don’t set an alarm so I can sleep in; I like to make Saturday a very chill day.

Allison: If you could invite 3 celebs to join you for Shabbat dinner, who would you choose?

Evan: Number one would be Barack Obama. Beyonce would be really cool. I might also have to say Rep. John Lewis.

evan

Allison: What’s at the top of your travel bucket list?

Evan: Number one is France. I really want to go. I also want to go to Africa, I still need to pinpoint which countries. I’m biracial and my dad’s side of the family is black and descended from slaves. I would love to be able to visit that country and learn more about those roots.

Allison: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

Evan: One of my favorite Jewish holidays is Passover because of all the delicious foods that come with it. I love the fact that we have an entire holiday that is celebrated around the dinner table and is educational and fun. I’m big on charoset and gefilte fish – which I realize is a polarizing food.

Allison: Describe your dream DC day.

Evan: I would get up early, make breakfast and journal. I would find friends to go to brunch with at Busboys and Poets. I would spend the afternoon walking around DC and get closer to the mall and the monuments. Maybe pop in to a museum or two. In the evening, I’d find a great dinner place like Little Havana. At night, my girlfriend and I would have friends over to hang out at our apartment.

evan

Allison: What’s something people might be surprised to know about you?

Evan: Growing up, I was in choir from 4th until 12th grade. In junior and senior year I was in show choir, which was just like Glee. We had singing and dancing competitions and wore sparkly vests.

Allison: What are your favorite musicals?

Evan: Hamilton. I saw it on Broadway last year! I also love Aladdin the musical, and Wicked.

Allison: When Jewish of DC Gather…

Evan: It’s exciting, comfortable, and new!

evan

 

 

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.

Meet Balaboosta: Jewish Cat of the Month!

Want to nominate your awesome doggy or cat to be featured? Email Sarah Brennan and let her know.

balaboosta

Sarah: What is your name?

Balaboosta

Sarah: Where did your name come from?

Balaboosta: My owner tells me that balaboosta is Yiddish for  a Jew who is the fearless emotional center of their family, who makes sure her table is not only full of gorgeous food, but also full of friends, compassion, and fruit. My owner wanted me to be a balaboosta to her and make sure she’s happy.

Sarah: What is your favorite way to spend a day in DC?

Balaboosta: Go to Busboys and Poets in Takoma Park and sit outside with my owner as she drinks her favorite $5 fresh-squeezed mimosa.

Sarah: What is it like to live with your owner?

Balaboosta: Well, first of all, I’m glad my owner is a vegan. She’s a really sweet, creative soul. She’s a bit clingy, but she’s a sensitive gal so that goes with who she is.

Sarah: What is your favorite food?

Balaboosta: My favorite food is smoked salmon (AKA: lox). I mean, come on! I’m a Jewish cat  – of course that’s my fav. My owner gets me smoked salmon from Yes! Organic Market or Whole Foods Market, and makes me my favorite cat sashimi.

balaboosta

Sarah: Who is your best friend?

Balaboosta: My owner Michele.

Sarah: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday and why?

Balaboosta: Tu B’shvat. It’s the New Year of trees which is the ideal holiday for a hippie cat like me. It’s also my owner’s favorite holiday because it celebrates her favorite things: fresh fruit, wine, and Israel – my favorite country! My owner tells me that there are lots of cats all over Israel.

Sarah: My biggest fear is….

Balaboosta: My owner being sad and not realizing that I’m always there for her. I’m a Balaboosta and that means  I take care of her!

Sarah: What is your spirit animal?

Balaboosta: A mouse. I’m sweet and shy and mousy.

Sarah: I get most excited when…

Balaboosta: There’s a simcha to celebrate, so my owner gets to see her family and dance around.

balaboosta

 

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.

Lindsey: Jewish Bra-Inventor of the Week

Lindsey Weiss created a bra made of magnets (it’s called BetterBra and hasn’t hit the market yet), is an epic painter, regular yogi, and skin care connoisseur. Oh, and this is all outside of her full-time job with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Let’s get to know this phenomenal woman.

Lindsey Weiss

Allie: How did you wind up in DC?

Lindsey: I’m originally from Dallas, Texas. I majored in Arabic and International Relations in college, and then spent a while in Dubai. Afterwards, I got a job in DC at AEI doing foreign defense policy. I always knew I wanted to end up in DC, and now I’m fixin’ to leave it so I’m pretty sad.

Allie: What?! Where are you going?

Lindsey: I’m applying to business schools.

Allie: What are you hoping to do with your business school degree?

Lindsey: Well, my day job is with AEI, but my night job is starting a company called BetterBra with my best friend who lives in San Francisco. My friend is now working on a presidential campaign, and I’m going to be taking over operations for the company. I have no business expertise or experience, and am learning as I go, so I knew that I needed to go to business school for this. I’ve started applying – so we’ll see where I end up.

Allie: What’s BetterBra?

Lindsey: It’s a bra that addresses breast asymmetry. 88% of women have some type of breast asymmetry, but there are zero bras on the market that cater to that. It uses magnets as support so it takes the weight off of your shoulder and back. The magnets either attract each other to create cleavage or repel each other to make separation, and you can lift the bra and move it using the magnetic fabric. Our whole supply chain is American made and women-run. It took off faster that we thought – we closed our second round of seed funding a couple of weeks ago, and are waiting for manufacturing to come in. We’re launching in April!

lindesy

Allie: What motivated you to start this?

Lindsey: I was feeling a little lost for a while because I wasn’t working towards a concrete goal. That made me kind of depressed, like I was wandering around with nowhere to go. The idea for BetterBra made me excited in a way that I hadn’t been excited in years. I felt like that was a sign I should be pursuing it. Also, I get bored easily and need to constantly be doing a bunch of things of once.

Allie: How do you have time to launch this company on top of a full time job?

Lindsey: I don’t sleep very often.

Allie: What’s your dream for the future of BetterBra?

Lindsey: For it to get acquired within the next five years. My big dream is to run my own venture capital firm that invests in women-run startups, specifically in developing countries.

Allie: What’s a quote or piece of advice that inspires you?

Lindsey: “I am a great believe in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” – Thomas Jefferson

Allie: What does self-care look like for you?

Lindsey: Waking up early in the morning to do yoga and Pilates. I’m also big on skincare, hair care, and painting. Also, I live right next to the zoo and love going jogging through the zoo and seeing the panda bears.

lindsey

Allie: Describe your dream DC day from start to finish.

Lindsey: I’m a huge fan of Shenandoah. If we left really early, I would drive there and hike Old Rag. Then, I would come back and go on a nighttime monument walk with my friends. Living in DC, we’re so lucky that we can see the Lincoln Memorial whenever we want. That’s crazy! People would kill for that. My parents lived in DC for 20 years and said that if you see the monuments at night and it doesn’t make you shudder a little, it’s probably time to leave. After that, I would then go to Barcelona on 14th Street and grab a few drinks with my friends. Nothing too crazy.

Allie: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

Lindsey: Passover. I have a lot of grandparents in Dallas – it’s a tribe. My uncle passed away last year and he was usually the one that led the Passover Seder. He was such a scholar. He taught me how to do the Seder, and last year was the first year that I led it. It was a very lukewarm experience. I still have my grandfather and uncle’s notes about preparing for the Seder. Hopefully I can pass those down to my children and grandchildren one day.

Allie: When Jews of DC Gather….

Lindsey: They make the most welcoming community!

lindsey


 

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.

Meet Rachel: Jewish App Creator of the Week

At the age of 26, Rachel Koretsky is – to put it simply – living the dream.

She is the CEO of her own company, just spent five weeks traveling in Israel with her boyfriend, and recently learned how to make the best matzo ball soup ever. Let’s get to know the #bosslady behind the app transforming fitness communities across the U.S. and Canada – upace.

Allie: How did you wind up living in DC?

Rachel: I went to American University and stayed here ever since. One of the main reasons I stayed is because of the really great startup community in DC, and especially the support of women entrepreneurs. It’s also such a beautiful city filled with history and has a hustle and bustle to it.

Allie: Can you sum up upace?

Upace is a customizable mobile platform for gyms/rec centers to build communities for their members, while improving their operations. [Once gyms/rec centers download the platform], members use the app to make reservations for classes and equipment, personal training, spa services, receive push notifications, and view real-time facility occupancy.

Allie: What inspired you to start this app?

Rachel: I love fitness, but had a lot of frustrations with my university’s recreation center while in college – the long wait times, equipment and facility crowds. I had this idea [for upace] to use mobile technology to help university rec centers and gyms better manage their facilities and classes, and allow members to gain control over their workouts. Two of my professors from the American University Entrepreneurship Incubator program encouraged me to take this idea beyond the classroom and explore making it into a business.

Allie: What’s been the hardest part of launching this app?

Rachel: At the beginning, my knowledge of technical development was very limited. It was a struggle to find the right development team to bring this vision to life.

Allie: What’s the best part?

Rachel: When users tell us how the app has helped them meet fitness goals, feel confident in the gym, and become more engaged with their facility and its member community. Hearing those stories and watching our gyms and centers increase member engagement and retention inspires us every day.

upace rachel

Allie: You must be very busy running your own start-up! What are you go-to ways to relax at the end of a long work day?

Rachel: Playing tennis. I love getting out there on the courts. Also, going to different workout classes across the DC-region, like CorePower and Pulse House of Fitness. I also love some good TV shows, like Grace and Frankie on Netflix.

Allie: What are the top 3 things still on your life bucket list?

Rachel: The top is going to the Galapagos Island. I want to climb Machu Picchu in Peru and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Allie: Who is your Jewish role model?

Rachel: Ruth Messinger, the president of American Jewish World Service. The work she’s done to make a difference in the world and bring attention to global crises has been really miraculous.

Allie: What’s your favorite Jewish food?

Rachel: I love matzo ball soup. My mom recently taught me how to make it and I’m trying to make it as good as hers. One day I’ll get there.

Allie: When Jews of DC Gather…

Rachel: They make great food!

rachel and bf

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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.

Meet David: Jewish Gym Owner of the Week!

[WARNING: The following interview may induce feelings of inadequacy.]

Okay GatherDC-ers, this week, we have the utmost pleasure of introducing you to the one-and-only David Magida. If you’re in the fitness scene, you may have seen his name before as the author of the book “The Essentials of Obstacle Race Training”, or on Facebook Live as NBC Sports’ Spartan Race host, or as a founding member of the Reebok Spartan Race Pro Team, or at one of the two locations of Elevate Interval Fitness – which he owns, runs, and coaches at. If you’re not in the fitness scene, maybe this interview will inspire you. If not, well, you can always work out your taste buds at Shake Shack.

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Allie: What triggered your passion for fitness?

David: I’ve always loved fitness. Being active is me in my most natural state. Competing and testing my limits is a big thing for me. Whenever I’m down or in a funk, I just sign up for a race. It’s like therapy for me. It clears my mind, and mentally resets me. I try to make working out one of the first things that I do each day, and it sets me on a very positive track. Days when I don’t exercise I’m kind of a hot mess.

Allie: Were you this passionate about fitness when you were growing up?

David: I was really small as a kid, but was always athletic and loved sports. I was a soccer player, swimmer, and wrestler. In middle school I discovered running. By sixth grade, I was already training with the varsity cross country team. I would run with them after my middle school soccer practice and travel to meets with them, even though I had to be marked as ineligible until 9th grade. I loved workout out so much that my wrestling coach made me team captain as a freshman so I could lead team conditioning. It wasn’t over until I said it was over. I wasn’t super popular with the guys.

Allie: Wow! What sport did you like the best?

David: Running. [In high school], I made the choice to commit to running. My junior year I had to give up wrestling for a year so I could focus on my running career. I went to run collegiately, but only briefly. I did one season and was so fed up with the way the team was coached and so I fell out of love with running. I didn’t run for several years.

Allie: What did you do to replace running?

David: I got really into strength training and even joined the football team for a season. I ended up getting certified as a personal trainer at 19, and took a break from school to do that. But, I didn’t think there was long-term career viability in fitness so I went back to school to get my undergraduate degree. Then, I went to grad school at University of Miami and got my master’s degree in public relations. While I was in Miami I started running Spartan races.

david spartan

Allie: What’s a Spartan race?

David: It’s a running race with a series of military style obstacles, anywhere from 3 miles to marathon distances. In 2012, I did the Spartan Ultra Beast which is 31 miles of ski slopes, obstacles, and overall just pure torture. I also completed the Death Race, which is well over 100 miles in the wilderness over several days of no sleep.

Allie: The Death Race?! That sounds insane. Tell me more.

David: It’s appropriately named. It’s backpacking through the woods with a map and compass, and there’s no set course. It changes each year and sometimes mid-race, at the whims of the directors. You don’t know what it’s going to be and they do crazy things to mix it up. The race is full of time cutoffs, crazy physical tasks, and mental challenges. One year, they took our shoes from us for 20 hours and we were in the Vermont wilderness running barefoot on a trail known as Bloodroot. It’s crazy. All the while you’re filtering water out of rivers and chopping wood and basically running around in survival mode.

Allie: After you survived the Death Race, how did you wind up in DC?

David: I got a job working at a public affairs firm. Around that time, I was also offered a professional contract to race in 2013 for the Reebok Spartan Race Pro Team, so I was doing 25 or 30 Spartan races a year.

Allie: How did you manage to keep up with your job while also racing professionally?

David: I was run-commuting to and from work every day, about 3.5 miles each way, and skipping happy hours with my co-workers to go to the gym. I had very little semblance of a social life. But the run-commuting barely took longer than riding on the metro. It was about efficiency. I still often run-commute to this day.

Allie: Tell me how Elevate came to be.

David: I basically hated my job and wasn’t happy. But my success racing garnered some interest. People started asking me if I would coach them. I eventually started leading some outdoor classes. I was having more fun with this than anything I had done before. It’s really fulfilling work. So, I found this spot on 14th street, left my job, and just went for it. Elevate (a studio with high intensity circuit and interval workouts) opened in October 2014. We opened a second studio in Southwest this past August.

Allie: What’s the best part of running Elevate?

David: Getting to do the stuff that I love and connect with people on a deep level. And actually having an impact on people’s lives in a positive way. I like to help people change the way they look at fitness. People look at fitness as this thing they dread or do for body image issues, which is completely backwards. My goal is to teach people to embrace the process and find the joy in the workout and their own personal improvement. Community is also such a huge part of it. It’s difficult to meet other people in a big city. You go to work and go home, but you need a third place. For some people, that’s a bar. But going into a gym and sweating together can bring people closer and builds really dynamic communities.

Allie: What’s been the biggest challenge?

David: Time and stress. When you’re a business owner, you’re working 24/7. You’re never really off.  Fitness in particular, because the days start early and end late. The first year I felt like I was at work from 5am to 10pm every single day, and it can wear you down.

david

Allie: What advice would you give to someone hoping to kick-start a fitness routine?

David: Don’t try to do it on your own. Consult an expert and go to a class or get a trainer. You need direction. Don’t worry about what other people think about you in the gym. If you’re working hard, people will respect that. If you focus on frequency (how often you go), intensity (how hard you go), and duration (how long you go for) you will be successful. And then get your eating in line. Try to meal prep if you can.

Allie: Not sure if it ever happens, but if you had a free day in DC. How would you spend it?

David: First thing, coffee. I make a double or triple shot Americano and then go for a run. Then I wouldn’t mind going out on the river and go boating. If I could do some wake-boarding or wake-surfing that would be ideal. As weird as it sounds, I’d probably do an hour or two of work so I could feel productive. I’d want to go out to the rec center and play pickup basketball with some friends. Then, go out to a meal or happy hour with some friends at Grady’s. And then, play some board games.

Allie: Do you have anything still on your life bucket list?

David: I want to climb some of the world’s biggest peaks, like Matterhorn. I’d love to go running through Mont Blanc. I’d like to do some SkyRunning series, or a century which is a hundred miles. There’s a lot of the world I want to see. I’m going to Japan at the end of February with the B’nai B’rith Young Leadership Network. Maybe one day I’ll live in another country or on the West Coast just to do something different. I don’t see myself being limited to just working in fitness. I’d like Elevate to be a self-sufficient thing so I can go on to explore other client-facing business ventures.

Allie: When Jews of DC Gather…

David: They have great conversation.

david and dog

David and his dog Oscar

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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.

The UK’s Only Ultra-Orthodox Stand-Up Comedian: Ashley Blaker

Ashley Blaker is really funny.

This London based, international award-winning comedian has headlined off-Broadway’s “Strictly Unorthodox”, recorded a radio show for BBC, written and directed acclaimed comedy “Little Britain”, and performed stand-up on four continents. Next stop, a synagogue near you*.

Lucky for you, we scored a one-on-one interview with Mr. Blaker so you can get to know the man behind the kippah.

Oh, and if you’re in need of an afternoon pick-me-up but are desperately trying to avoid having another cup of coffee at 5:00pm (no, just me?) check out these videos of Ashley talking about sushi, driving, and music.

*Mr. Blaker will be performing at Sixth & I on Sunday, February 10th at 7:00pm. Get $10 your ticket price with this exclusive promo code for GatherDC-ers: ASHLEY.

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Photo Courtesy DDPR

Allie: You didn’t grow up as an ultra-Orthodox Jew. Why did you decide to become frum later in life?

Ashley: I compare [my relationship with religion] to drug addiction. I have an addictive personality, and the rabbi [at the Orthodox synagogue] who was kind of a pusher tricked me into a free sample. When I got married the rabbi gave me a free membership for a year and I kept going. I was hooked.

Allie: What inspired you to become a stand-up comedian?

Ashley: It happened entirely by accident. I’ve only been doing it for four years. Before that I was a writer and producer of comedy for TV and radio. I’ve always wanted to do stand up, and when I was 16 or 17 I performed a bit, but was too young to take it too seriously. Someone once suggested I speak at an event and I found myself getting back into [stand-up comedy]. I wasn’t thinking I wanted to do this as a career. Now, it’s all I do. Soon, I will have performed comedy on five continents!

Allie: What is your favorite part of performing stand-up comedy?

Ashley: The feeling of performing for an audience if they’re laughing. If they’re not laughing, it’s not so fun. I love bringing people together. I’ve done a lot of shows where you see an incredibly diverse group of people in one room. I did a show in Newcastle where there was a traditional Jewish audience, some non-Jews as well, and sitting across from them was a female rabbi from a reform synagogue 20 miles away.

Allie: What are the biggest difference between performing in America and performing in the UK?

Ashley: Americans are unforgiving with language differences. I know when I come to America I have to say flashlight when I mean torch, or cell phone when I mean mobile. British people tend to watch American TV so we’re more forgiving with [linguistic differences]. Also, Americans don’t tend to like puns or word play so much. But our Jewish experiences are universal no matter where i go in the world.

Allie: How do you come up with material?

Ashley: Just through my daily life, I see things and make notes. I talk about things that interest me.

Allie: Your Wikipedia page says you grew up with Sacha Baron Cohen, is that true?

Ashley: Sacha and I were at school together, and Matt Lucas who I work with. The water in my high school produced a lot of comedians.

Allie: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Ashley: I really don’t know. Four years ago, I could never have imagined that I would have my own BBC show. I’ve compared myself to a gambler at the tables in Vegas. I’ve been on a winning streak for sometime. As long as I’m winning, I’ll keep playing. One thing I’d love to achieve is to go to Antarctica, and perform on all 7 continents. Even if I’m just performing for a few penguins.

 

 

 

You can see Ashley Blaker perform on February 10th at Sixth & I. A pre-Valentine’s Day date perhaps?! Get your tickets here.

 

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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.