That person you lost touch with from a previous Jewish life.
Hebrew school, Jewish summer camp, youth group, an Israel trip; someone from “a lifetime ago” will most likely be there. You’re bound to run into at least one blast from the past—whether you recognize them or not is another question.
The party-goer who is only there for the drink specials.
It seems that every time you look at the bar, this person is getting another drink. But hey, can you blame them for wanting to take advantage of those fabulous drink specials? Whether or not you choose to drink, you can say “L’chaim” and have a ton of fun.
That guy who is totally owning the dance floor.
This person is leaving it all on the dance floor. They came to throw their cares away and party like it’s 5759 (or 1999)! Word of advice: don’t get too close to the line of fire.
The person who genuinely came to support a good cause.
They’re here to do good and they are loving every minute of this mitzvah (good deed)! Say hello to your fellow ‘do gooder” and give them a high-five, because 100% of your ticket proceeds go to The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s continued efforts to build a stronger Jewish future around the world.
The networking guru who’s never without an ample amount of business cards
You can find the networking aficionado by the trail of business cards left on the floor by all of his new “friends”. This person is worth meeting because they have the insider scoop on all the best Jewish gatherings in DC.
In sum, go to Falafel Frenzy because it’ll be an awesome night filled with innumerable next-day brunch stories.
Register today at shalomdc.org/falafelfrenzy to get a free drink ticket!
The above is a sponsored blog post. 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.
Not to brag or anything, but, this week, we’ve kind of discovered the Hanukkah gift shop mother-load. The Solid State Books pop-up (the evergreen bookstore is slated to open in early 2018) has everything and anything you’ll ever need to impress your best friend, sister, mom, partner, or coworker with your on point gift giving skills. Meet the nice Jewish bookshop owner who started it all (alongside Scott Abel) – cofounder, Jake Cumsky-Whitlock.
After you read our 1:1 interview with Jake, go check out the shop at 600 H St NE in time for the holidays…which means ASAP…because, welp, Hanukkah started yesterday!
How did Solid State Books come into existence?
I’ve always loved books, which led me to get a master’s degree in creative writing, and then go on to work at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle. Scott Abel (Solid State Books co-founder) and I met while working together at Kramerbooks, where we were for almost a dozen years. We talked about opening a business together, and decided bookselling was our long-term career choice.
Where did the name come from?
It’s threefold: 1) A throwback to solid state technology – which was a term used to describe modern technology in the ‘50s and ‘60s. 2) It references the physical book that you can hold in your hand. A book that doesn’t exist in the cloud, that you scan hold, put down, and lend to people. 3) It’s a pitch for DC statehood. We think this name is definitely going to push us over the top in terms of DC becoming a state. 😉
Why shop local versus buying books on Amazon?
Well, we can’t compete with Amazon on price. But, we don’t believe books should be discounted, because we think it lessens their inherent value. Also, we offer a curated selection of books, and the ability to talk to someone about those books.
Most of all, we provide a community. We have an actual space people can come to that’s not their home, or their work, but they can connect with other people, whether that’s by meeting new people, discovering new books, hearing authors, or getting intellectual stimulation.
When does Solid State Books actually open?
Sometime in early 2018. We’re very excited about it! We’re going to host so many amazing events at the shop – cookbook events, literary fiction talks, children’s author programs, and events that are not totally book driven, but bring community together to talk about important issues like cannabis legalization, DC school systems, etc.
– – – – –
And now, here are some on-point Hanukkah gift ideas we discovered at the Solid State Books pop-up:
– Caticorn Greeting Card, and other way too relatable cards
– Maps of DC
– Water-Color Paint Set
– Inspiring Women, and Beer, Coasters
– Books to Learn About Life: e.g. “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor E. Frankl; Thich Nhat Hanh’s “How To” Series; “Brave Enough” by Cheryl Strayed
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.
As the great poet Kanye West once pondered: “And the weather so breezy; man, why can’t life always be this easy?”
Life is hard, and it seems to get harder the older we get. Like all great minds, Yeezy simply gives expression to our deepest desires.
It’s no wonder, then, that some people have often turned to religion looking for reassurance, the ability to transcend our daily struggles, the comfort of knowing we are doing the right thing, or the guarantee that it will all work out in the end (if not for everyone, then at least for us).
Don’t believe this is how people actually relate to religion? Ask your rabbis (or other clergy) what happened to their attendance in services after the election last year. (Not that numbers matter all that much… they clearly didn’t for the election.) This “religious” drive is why Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the people” – many people relate to it as a calm-inducing drug.
The Torah offers a very different understanding of what it means to be religious, and to be human. In the very first sentence of this week’s Torah reading, we read: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1). Nothing all that remarkable.
Yet the rabbis read into the word “settled” a deeper longing for tranquility. Jacob has had a difficult life; in his old age, he justifiably wants some peace and quiet. In direct response, God disrupts his life once again through the ensuing drama of his son Joseph (whose brothers sell him into slavery while convincing his father he was killed by wild beasts).
As the biblical commentator Rashi explains: “[When] the righteous seek to dwell in tranquility – God says: ‘Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they seek to settle in tranquility in this world?’”
Life isn’t supposed to be easy – you can rest peacefully when you’re dead.
Instead of encouraging retreat from challenge, Judaism pushes us toward it. The tough moments in life are the moments where we grow the most.
Almost 2000 years before it became a workout slogan, Rabbi Ben Hei Hei said: “According to the pain is the gain.”
It’s ironic that Jacob wanted to settle down, because his name was changed to Israel (which means, “to wrestle with God”) after wrestling with a man/angel just a few chapters earlier. Yet he still retains the name Jacob, which means “heel” and alludes to his tendency to run away, perhaps reminding us that we can never fully overcome our urge to avoid the harder moments.
This is why we need Judaism. Not to provide the easy answers, but to ask the hard questions.
We are called the children of Israel. To live up to our namesake, we must constantly choose to wrestle, instead of escape. It’s the critical first step in improving ourselves and the world around us.
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.
When I checked out the program of the 19th Washington Music Jewish Festival (WJMF), I noticed that the Levine Music faculty were/are performing Messiaen’s “Quartet to the End of Time,” a work composed inside a prisoner of war camp in 1940. I wondered what a piece written by a Catholic composer, and inspired by the Book of Revelations and the Apocalypse, had to do with the Jewish festival.
I got very curious and decided to attend the concert and interview one of the members of the band, percussionist Manny Arciniega. Manny explained that while inside the prisoner of war camp, Messiaen met with two other world famous musicians: violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier. Messiaen loved to listen to natural sounds like birds singing, and added these sounds into his composition.
The other band members presented an innovative version of the piece by re-scoring and playing it with electronic instruments and percussion. What resulted was a mesmerizing performance.
By the end, I had an answer to my question: why was this performance included into the Jewish music festival? Well, in addition to one of the three musicians who played it, Étienne Pasquier, being Jewish, the piece is a work expressing liberation and the possibility of hope — sentiments which are very close to our Jewish history.
Enjoy my interview with Manny Arciniega!
Daniela: I hear you are on faculty at Levine Music. Tell us more about that!
Manny: Levine Music is a community music school that serves the area around DC for students of all ages and abilities. It provides a welcoming community for children and adults to find lifelong inspiration and joy through learning, performing, listening, and participating in music.
Daniela: Why did you decide to commemorate Messiaen’s Quartet to the end of time at this year’s WJMF?
Manny: Each year, Levine Music chooses a theme for its concert series that faculty participate in. The theme for the 2016-2017 Levine Presents series was “The Power of Music: Protest, Propaganda, Promise” – and I immediately thought of the “Quartet for the End of Time.” The story of the piece’s conception, having been written in a Nazi prisoner of war camp during WWII, perfectly intersected with the proposed theme. Messiaen drew his inspiration from the Book of Revelation but its message is far from Apocalyptical. It was an offering from Messiaen to the other prisoners in the camp. The music, composed of birdsong and sounds no one in that camp had ever heard before, allowed each individual to remove themselves from the temporal and into peace.
The work is a testament to the power of human will to overcome the darkest of circumstances. It’s message of hope, perseverance, and love.
This seemed appropriate topics for the WJMF. Recent political events have necessitated a fresh look at Messiaen’s timeless masterpiece.
Daniela: How do electric instruments and percussion add to/change the original piece?
Manny: I loved the “Quartet for the End of Time” since my first encounter with it as a graduate student in the UK. I used to drive around listening to it in my car and imagine what it would sound like with percussion behind it. Messiaen was an avid composer for percussion instruments, and many of his birdsong compositions use a percussion or lesser known instruments such as the Ondes Martenot.
Changing the orchestration provided a variety of challenges from an arranging standpoint. I tried to find parallels between the original instruments and their modern counterparts. My goal was to find moments where I felt Messiaen was trying to maximize a particular timbre or sound and see if we could dial it up.
My hope was to just strike a chord with the individual. Whether that is one of contemplation over the cacophony of sound, or complete disgust for the destruction of revered music, we just want to invoke an emotional response.
After the premiere of the re-orchestration this past January, one individual just came up to me, gave me a hug and then thanked me with tears in his eyes. It’s a moment I will always remember.
Daniela: Does this piece give you an experience of oppression or liberation while you play it, knowing that it was composed and performed in a Nazi camp?
Manny: As for the history of its composition, knowing its origins strengthens its meaning of hope and liberation. Each time I play that 8th movement, I get goosebumps.
I can’t help but think about how beautiful the world is, despite all of the hatred and lack of empathy around us — music is inspiring — it’s an escape from the ‘now.’
Daniela: How has playing this piece changed the relationship between the musicians?
Manny: If it weren’t for the other individuals in this performance, it most likely would have never been realized. As a result of this project, we have all found ourselves in vulnerable positions, both musically and emotionally, from the stress that comes with working such a challenging work and that has served to bring us closer together. Everyone has put their heart and soul into learning this music, its story, and the language of Messiaen’s unique composition style. I will admit, there have been moments of doubt that some of the tasks before us might be impossible to pull off, but in the end no one backed down from the challenge.
About the Author: Daniela is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you! She is a “retired philosopher” who works as an executive assistant and loves to write about Italian and Jewish events happening in DC. She was born and raised in Sicily (Italy) in an interfaith family and moved to D.C. with her husband after studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where they met. They have a wonderful Siberian cat named Rambam! Daniela loves going to work while listening to Leonard Cohen’s songs and sometimes performs in a West African Dance group
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.
November 2017 | Transcript, 0:00:00 to 0:42:27
Listen to the episode here.
[start at 00:00:00]
Michelle W. Malkin: Welcome to “It’s Who You Know! The Podcast.” This is your host, Michelle W. Malkin, and my guest today is Rachel Gildiner, who is the executive director of GatherDC. With over 15 years of professional experience in non-profit management, emerging adult identity development, and relationship building engagement, Rachel builds community through the power of personal connection.
She holds a B.A. in sociology and modern Jewish studies, an M.A. in higher education administration, as well as a certificate in experiential Jewish education. She has studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and is also trained as an Ayeka Soulful Jewish Education facilitator.
I’ve asked Rachel to come on the program today because I’m hearing a lot about the rise in individualism—how younger people don’t want to be quote unquote members of our institutions, that people don’t have the time any more for community, and that technology is hijacking our relationships.
And I don’t actually know if I believe all of this, so I’m excited to hear about the work of GatherDC and their approach to bringing Jews in their 20s and 30s together in a way that is meaningful, in an attempt to sustain adult Jewish identities. So welcome to the program, Rachel.
Rachel Gildiner: Thank you so much for having me, Michelle.
Michelle W. Malkin: So, start as we always do, just with your own story, and how you got into this position, and all of your wonderful formal education backgrounds, and I’m sure informal education as well.
Rachel Gildiner: Absolutely. I originally hail from Philadelphia, and grew up mostly in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. And a lot of my formative Jewish experiences were outside of the academic setting. So, Jewish summer camp, USY. And then as I got older, I realized I was missing some foundational elements of Judaism, and so I decided to study Jewish studies and go to a Jewish program for college, which I loved. It was great.
And then when I graduated, I pretty much decided I was not going to work in the Jewish world. I had two years working in development for a university. And after two years of just kind of being surrounded by Judaism and having taken everything for granted until then, I realized that I really missed this kind of Jewish part of myself.
And so, the next phase of my personal journey was in the Jewish world, and I had moved to Washington D.C. with my now-husband. Hillel International had a really exciting opportunity open. They were piloting a project at the time that was called CEI, or the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative. And it was about engaging Jewish students on campus who were just not going to come to Hillel, and that that was OK, but how can we still help them engage Jewishly?
It was so exciting and something totally different and out of the box. And so I started working for Hillel. I was there for seven years. And fast forward to today, I’ve been at GatherDC for three years, since 2014, and it has kind of been a natural evolution of my passion for Jewish life that’s a little bit outside of the box, and really just helping people connect.
Michelle W. Malkin: And so when you came to GatherDC, were you looking for a new opportunity? Did it come to you? I mean, that’s a lot of years to be at Hillel.
Rachel Gildiner: I loved my time at Hillel. I learned a lot. I went to Israel. I staffed trips. I had incredible colleagues and mentors. I had an international network of professionals who were colleagues but also friends. And essentially, what I loved about my time there is that it was a legacy institution – it was old and established – but it was innovating from within. And so that journey was really powerful for me.
And I guess I’m a cusp millennial, and so whether the rumor is true that we stay in places for a long time or not, after seven years, I started getting an itch of, “I’ve learned so much. I’ve gained so much. I feel like I’ve given so much. Let’s see what else is out there. Let’s try something new.” It seemed like a very kind of natural time for a next step also.
And this is just—a little funny tale is that my leaving Hillel coincided with the Shmita year. So, every seven years, you let the land lay fallow, and I literally was there for seven years, and it just kind of felt like, you know, we needed some fresh air or something new.
It was very sad to leave, but I had been approached by a friend and colleague who was in the field and said, “There’s this thing happening and it’s really exciting, and you should take a look.” And then with a little goading—it took me a few requests to apply—I put my hat in the ring, and a few months later, I was starting as the director.
Michelle W. Malkin: Excellent. So give us a little bit of history of the organization, how it came to be, and then you can launch a little bit into the work specifically and the operating philosophy and that good stuff.
Rachel Gildiner: GatherDC at the time that I started there was actually called Gather the Jews. I’m not the founder but…
Michelle W. Malkin: [laugh] Sorry!
Rachel Gildiner: …a good chuckle. Yeah. It was called Gather the Jews. I will say, your question about me starting—when I heard this name, I was actually kind of hesitant to look at this opportunity. And then I did a little bit more research, and I found out that in Washington D.C., Gather the Jews, which was—it was newly professionalized. There was one amazing professional, another Rachel G., actually, who I owe a lot of gratitude to. She was the first and only professional.
Gather the Jews really started as a grassroots movement. It was a project of the community. It was a bunch of friends who came together and said, “We need to organize how our people, how our friends, are connected to Jewish life. There’s no central place to go to find out what’s happening.” So, they started a website and a listserv and happy hours.
It was totally organic and really from the ground up, and so the name was really—there was like a cult following. People who were part of Gather the Jews—it was their people. It was a reclaiming of, “This is our Jewish connection, and we really want to own it.” And it was not something that people were open to changing. Gather the Jews was the name of a brand, and people loved it.
And so what I realized with time is that if we were going to change, it would just take some time, and we’d kind of have to do that from the grassroots. And so now, we’re GatherDC. So over three years, we did make that change. But we were very attuned to [the idea that] change takes time, and you really want to honor the people who got this off the ground and got it started.
And Gather the Jews, that name, it definitely was memorable, and it definitely got attention, and that’s what the organization needed to do as it was starting. So, it was really brilliant. It was so sustainable, because it was the people on the ground who made it exist and who got their friends involved.
And by the time I came on in 2014, people really knew of this brand. We would not be where we are today if it were not for that foundation, those first years of kind of building, and the entrepreneurship and the creativity that came behind creating what Gather the Jews is and was—this incredible network of people, and these online resources, and monthly gatherings.
And then I really had the opportunity to make change when I came to the helm. It was also a lot of pressure. My first thought was, “How do I help this grow and how do I not run this into the ground?”
Michelle W. Malkin: Right.
Rachel Gildiner: And that was a real question. It was an opportunity, but also in the back of your head, I was nervous.
Michelle W. Malkin: So was it intentional to not have a Jewish component in the name?
Rachel Gildiner: This was something that we were asked when we changed the name. So visually, GatherDC, our logo is still a map pinpoint with a Jewish star cutout in the middle. And so we are absolutely identifiably a Jewish organization. The reason we took out “the Jews” was actually the opposite. We want to engage more Jews, and there was something about identifying Jewish people as “the Jews” that actually was kind of grating to some people…
Michelle W. Malkin: Right.
Rachel Gildiner: …who identified as Jewish, and it just felt a little aggressive. They just weren’t interested because we were using that term. And so, we are proudly Jewish. Our goal and our mission is to connect people to Jewish life, and Jews to other Jews, and Jews to Jewish identity. But we want to engage as many people as we can, and when we found that there was a barrier to engaging with us because of our name, it was an important thing for us to consider.
And so that’s why we changed it, but we are just as Jewish, as committed to the Jewish mission. We just know that Jews have different ways that they hear the term “the Jews”…
Michelle W. Malkin: Right.
Rachel Gildiner: …and a lot of people we work with are Jewish, and that is great, and wanted to honor that.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah. I know it’s definitely a conversation that’s happening as far as, do we have Hebrew in our institutional names? Do we have something Jewishly identifiable? And I know in the Bay Area there’s, you know, UpStart, and I think it’s The Kitchen? These names that, maybe visually as you’re mentioning, have some Jewish components—the name itself—and what you hear about, how you hear about it, you’re like, “Oh, that sounds interesting. Tell me more.” And it’s not kind of as in your face as a Hebrew word, or as alienating, as you just mentioned.
Rachel Gildiner: Right.
Michelle W. Malkin: That’s great. So tell me a little bit about the work. What does the organization do?
Rachel Gildiner: GatherDC’s mission is to connect Jewish 20s and 30s in D.C. to each other, to Jewish life in D.C., and to sustaining adult Jewish identity. And the subtext to that is an adult Jewish identity that is outside of synagogues, marriage, traditional kind of Jewish established entities that a lot of us don’t experience for a long time, or just are not really into.
And the work that GatherDC does is grounded in a relational methodology. Part of the reason we can be successful is because we connect people to the Jewish offerings that are happening all around the city. We have incredible Jewish institutions here. If you don’t know of Sixth & I, it’s an amazing community center. They have cultural programs and book readings and services, and it’s a very vibrant community.
And if people find their event on our calendar and connect to Sixth & I, that is our success, and we are thrilled that they have found a Jewish community. The DCJCC. We have tons of synagogues that have young adult programs, and the people who connect to those places—we want to be a resource and a concierge to those amazing opportunities. That’s one of our goals.
The other work that we do is when we meet people, for one-on-one coffee dates, which is our primary methodology, and someone says either they’ve gone to something like that, and it just wasn’t their fit, or they’re not even sure where to start, we provide them with some personal resources. We’ll connect them with another person in the community who’s a part of one of those organizations, or who also wants to go to something for the first time. We’ll go with them sometimes.
We also host micro programs. We have small learning communities where people come in groups of 10 and 15. The purpose is for them to meet each other. They do some awesome learning with our rabbi. And it’s like a gateway into the larger community, but it allows them to do it in a more intimate setting. It kind of lowers the barrier to engagement.
It also lowers the pressure. You don’t have to be in a room of 100 people, and feel alone, or try and make everyone your best friend. It just facilitates these social connections that are so important to any community. And so, this kind of relational theme in everything that we do is what really makes us different, and it sets us apart.
Our staff spends the majority of our time meeting people one-on-one, and less of our time planning actual programs. Because as I mentioned, there are amazing programs in the city. We try and leverage those and connect people to what’s happening, and only plan programs where there’s a gap.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah. I was looking on your website and I saw the all-day women’s retreat that you guys are doing, and I’m like, “That sounds amazing!” [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: That’s the thing—we’re not doing that. Someone else is doing that. What we get to do is tell our network about it. “If you’re out there and this speaks to you, you should do it, and we want to help you get there. And if this doesn’t speak to you, look at this other thing that’s happening across the Jewish community. Maybe that’s for you. And if none of this looks like it’s for you, come out for coffee with us, and we’ll figure out what your thing is, and we’ll help you connect.”
Michelle W. Malkin: So, what are the programs that you put on? What are those gaps that you’re seeing?
Rachel Gildiner: So again, a lot of it is just greasing the wheels. The programs that exist—and from my work at Hillel, this was something we really focused on, which is that the number one reason that people don’t go to something isn’t because the content isn’t amazing, or it sounds like it’s going to be awesome, or you really want to hear that speaker, but it’s because you don’t have anyone to walk in the door with.
What we try and do is give people their people to walk into any Jewish door with. And so, in that vein, we actually started a fellowship that’s based on what was happening on campus, but we wanted to pilot it and see what we could learn in a post-college city setting. It’s called the Open Doors Fellowship. And the purpose is to train young adults who themselves are trying to figure out where their Jewish connection is, to be ambassadors of Jewish life for their peers.
We train them how to approach someone who they don’t know, how to be an active listener, how to really understand what drives someone, not just in Judaism but in life, and then help them find their personal fit. So every year, we’ve trained 11 of these fellows, who now—they’re not tied to any organization. They’re not recruiting. They’re not recruiters. They’re really just out there trying to make any Jewish space more welcoming and more approachable.
And so, that’s one of the things that we offer to the city. It’s a service to the city, for us to train and invest in people who are going to kind of be greeters wherever they go. So that’s one project that we’ve launched, and it’s been very exciting.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah. I was going to say that it seems like another barrier, even if you are someone who’s willing to walk in the door alone, is do you look into the crowd and see people you want to go talk to and hang out with, or not.
Rachel Gildiner: Exactly. It’s not the fault of any organization or institution. When someone holds a program, and it’s an amazing program, and 300 people come, that’s a huge success for that organization. But what that also means is that you probably have people who come into that space and experience exactly what you described.
They’re in a room with 300 people. They’re here to hear an amazing speaker. But they leave that room not having talked to anyone. Not having seen anyone they know. Not having had anyone to process that amazing speaker’s content with. And it’s just a missed opportunity.
And so knowing that it’s our partner organizations who are putting on these programs and putting so much thought into them, how can we kind of help enrich the relationships and the connections that are happening in those rooms?
Michelle W. Malkin: So do you help them with the planning of their program and kind of work with them at all? You just let them do it and you do your…?
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah. Because they’re experts at that. They’re amazing at that. They get the right speakers. They get the right people. They do that really well. And what we do really well is just this personal, individual connecting. And so when those powers combine, the D.C. Jewish community is so vibrant and so amazing, because there’s incredible content, and there’s incredible buildings and rabbis and staff and professionals, and also young adults who are looking for that person standing alone in the room, because they genuinely want to meet them and know who they are.
Michelle W. Malkin: I mentioned at the top of our conversation, when I introduced you, this is the all-elusive 20s and 30s millennial generation. Other than putting in a new line item for coffee, what kind of advice—what would you suggest to these older institutions that have people walking in their door, but then come to the speaker and leave and don’t really find those connections as easily?
Rachel Gildiner: It’s such an important question. I think there really is this misconception that this millennial generation, and now the generation following closely after them, is not interested in participating. And what I think is really true of humans is that everyone is looking to connect, and everyone is looking for meaning. It’s just the way that they find that is different.
One of the other criticisms of this generation is this technology piece. And what I think is so exciting is that technology is actually an asset. It’s an asset to help bring meaning and connection to this generation and to our communities. Not replace it, but to help facilitate it.
I think how we use technology, and kind of not poo-pooing it, but just understanding how it’s a tool that millennials are naturally using, and how it can help form connections that need to land in a personal place as well.
So, an example of that is sometimes I think institutions feel like to get young people, they have to do something sexy or have a fancy name, or have free food or free drink. And I think those things help. What people will pay is a big question, and we think about that too.
But at the end of the day, what are young adults who participate in one of your programs going to leave with? Are they going to leave with meaning? Are they going to leave having a new connection, a new friend? Something that actually impacts their lives, that they can kind of take with them?
I have a favorite story. It’s a Yiddish story where there’s a man who goes into the community square, and he’s surrounded by people, and he says, “Anyone in this square who loves jam, I want you to show up at my house tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m.” And then he walks away. And at 10:00 a.m., hundreds of people show up at his house. They show up, and they’re there, and they’re saying, “I love jam, and I’m here because you invited me to come.” And the man opens his door, and he says, “Wow, so many who love jam.” And then he goes back inside his house.
And I just—it’s just a silly story. It just rings so true to me because what we often care about in the Jewish world is getting people to show up and fill our seats and say, “Show that you love being Jewish, and come to this thing”—whatever that thing is—and then we don’t think about what is happening, and how we can facilitate the deepest meaning in that space.
And sometimes that’s not by having 100 people come. Sometimes it’s by having ten people come ten times. Everyone has their angle. For some people, it’s you need—what’s the content that’s going to speak to people? And that’s important. But the work that I do, the lens I see the world, it’s about the “who.” Who is there? Who are they going to talk to? How are they going to process whatever is happening? And how are you facilitating connections?
And I think this work—it takes a lot of time. This one-on-one coffees, listening, connecting—it’s really time-consuming. And so I think that it requires a different infrastructure to support. And so, a lot of institutions, for really good reasons, they fill their calendar with programs, and so it’s hard to figure out where the time for the individual people come.
And so GatherDC wants to be a voice in D.C. and beyond that says, “Let’s start with the who. Let’s start with what is the user experience of a program, and why would someone want to come?” Not just enough that they show up, but what are they going to get when they’re there? And I think that rings just as true for millennials as it does for any other generation.
Michelle W. Malkin: It sounds like you’re talking a lot about intentionality and planning. So if you’ve got a community of people that are like, “We need to get younger people involved. Let’s do it!” it’s not just magically going to happen because you want it to, or you recognize that your population is getting older. It really takes a lot of, not even just expertise, but like planning and thinking and being intentional about why and how these people are going to connect with your community, and to what end, and what does that look like. And do we need a coffee budget? Right? And who’s the person who’s having those coffees? Is it 65-year-old Larry that has been in the community for 30 years, or is it maybe somebody else that they identify?
And I think sometimes that intentionality and planning isn’t necessarily what people either know to do or really ever focus on doing before jumping into something that might seem flashy or exciting. Or, “Let’s do this thing,” and it doesn’t really seem to be working so well.
Rachel Gildiner: Or I would say that intentionality is just sometimes like misdirected. So, you can have a lot of intentionality about the logistics of something that doesn’t matter as much. I know in my event planning days, we would spend so much time going over the menu. And of course the menu matters. And of course it’s important. But if we spent as much time and intentionality—exactly what you’re saying—the food or even the decorations—there needs to be quality.
These things are all important, but if you think of the time that staff spends talking about the details and logistics and the door registration—all those things—and you switch the focus to the intentionality around the individual people—like, who’s going to get every single person’s name? Who’s going to talk to every face? What are we going to do when people leave? What’s the first way they’re going to hear from us after? Is it going to be to ask for a donation? Is it going to be to take a survey that helps us? What does that look like? If they spent as much time and intentionality on those pieces—it’s just asking different questions—I genuinely think it would yield a different result.
Michelle W. Malkin: And it’s even like who’s going to be there early to make sure there is somebody that greets somebody new and…
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah. Oh my gosh.
Michelle W. Malkin: …connects that person to somebody else.
Rachel Gildiner: Oh my gosh. We have—so we have these monthly happy hours at GatherDC, and we do them all over—like real cool bars in the city. I’m not cool, so I don’t know a lot of the bars until I show up, but you always see this thing happen, where it starts at 6:00, and someone shows up at 5:50. And they’re waiting really awkwardly and nervously like right outside of the registration table. And you can tell that they’re waiting for someone, but they are not going to come in. They are not going to talk to us. They are not going to enter the space until that person is there.
And so, we literally—everyone on our staff, if we see that happen, we just go up and we start talking with them. And we say, “Oh, here’s a free drink ticket. Go…” You know, just the awareness of the people in your space. Our backs weren’t turned to them, and we were like frantically making sure that the tables were set. The people. It’s the focus on the people that makes a difference.
Michelle W. Malkin: So what are some other barriers you can think of that keep people from focusing on that and being successful in—even just starting a 20s and 30s group at their synagogue. I think I also hear a lot of like, “Well, where do you find them? How do you find these people that want to come to your area?” Like do you go and knock on every door in your community and try to find new people? I think that’s something I hear a lot, of like, “Well, where are these people, and how do we find them, and how do we get to them?”
Rachel Gildiner: GatherDC believes in the networked approach to reaching people. So what that means is that instead of kind of hanging up a shingle and saying, like, “Everyone come to us,” we believe that relationships have value in and of themselves. But relationships also introduce you to their relationships and their friends. And word of mouth is a really big part of how we operate.
Something that is I think hard sometimes for synagogues or organizations or even us sometimes is that to be most successful, you actually have to be OK with success not necessarily benefiting your organization. And what I mean by that…
Michelle W. Malkin: What, Rachel? Heresy!
Rachel Gildiner: I know.
Michelle W. Malkin: I can’t believe this! [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: It is. Like this—if we could—my goal…
Michelle W. Malkin: …say such a thing!
My dream in the world is that the entire Jewish community could see that we are a larger ecosystem, and that I don’t have to make sure someone has the best time at my program. If they’re going to have the best time at another Jewish organization, or with another Jewish person, and that’s their right fit, I’m not losing someone. That’s a really positive thing.
And so one of the ways that that happens and what I hear a lot is like, Jewish institutions say, “We need to get people in our space. They need to see how cool our space is. They need to be in our walls. We need to count them as coming here.” And sometimes that works. And there are people who just need that invitation into the space.
But a lot of times, that is the barrier. People are not going to show up to the JCC or to the conservative synagogue, or to—they just want to be with their people in their kind of native state, whether that’s their living room or a bar. Which, you know, this Yom Kippur, we got a lot of interesting attention around doing something in a bar, because that’s where people are.
That’s so foreign that—what are the spaces where people are most comfortable, and just let them do Jewish there. So we definitely think that location can be a barrier. But again, if we look at it differently, it can also be an asset. Like how cool is it to think about doing Jewish things in coffee shops, or letting people do it in their backyard because they have a cool deck?
And that that’s still the success of the synagogue if they’re helping facilitate and make that happen. It doesn’t have to be in their space and in their walls. I think that’s just a different way of thinking, but when physically showing up somewhere is a barrier, let’s take that away.
Michelle W. Malkin: Or even whether or not the traditions you think are so important are carried through, right? So if you have people on Yom Kippur, during Yom Kippur, having coffee, but talking about and reflecting on their year and how they might have acted incorrectly, and how they can do better next year—that’s what you’re pushing, right? You’re not pushing the, “Well, why aren’t you fasting? Why aren’t you hearing these prayers? Why aren’t you doing it the way that we’re supposed to be doing it?” But you have the same kind of people underlining activities and thought and identity development, that that’s what you want to see.
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah, that’s our goal. And I really do—I understand that there are institutions who—right? Like it’s—this is also the “who.” There’s segments of the “who.” It’s really nice and romantic to think that there’s this one big Jewish community. We all observe the same way, and we all think the same things, and we all have the same theology, and your Yom Kippur looks like my Yom Kippur, and that unites us. There’s something really beautiful about that.
But there’s also this reality on the ground that that’s not at all the case. And instead of kind of pretending that that doesn’t exist, or pretending like everyone is in shul on Yom Kippur—no. Like, no. Not everyone is in shul or in synagogue. And if they are, they might be bored out of their minds.
And so, to just kind of name and acknowledge that we can all be Jewish, and we can all share this wisdom and heritage and tradition—we just express it differently—is like a first step.
And then how do we actually facilitate experiences that help bring this meaning? We were in a beer garden literally having people write their own eulogies. I mean, it was radical, but also, that’s what Yom Kippur is about.
Michelle W. Malkin: Right.
Rachel Gildiner: We had 130 people there, and we had a wait list. This was an experiment, and we were totally prepared for this to fail. Our hypothesis was that there are going to be people who aren’t going to go synagogue on Yom Kippur. Where are they? What if they would come to a beer garden?
In our conversations, we said, “It might be ten people, and then we’ll know, ‘OK, this isn’t the way to reach folks.’” But we hit on something. And so again, I think we really would have been OK if that failed. We would have learned, and we would have tried something new.
And so I think it would just be really cool if every kind of Jewish organization was like, “What’s the most radical thing we could imagine, and let’s just see if it works. And if it doesn’t, we’ll move on with our lives and find the next place where we know the Jews are hanging out.”
But yeah, just making it a priority to try different things and try and reach different segments of this broader Jewish community—that excites me a lot.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah. And it goes back to what you were talking about being people-focused.
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah.
Michelle W. Malkin: What do the people need? And to think about this demographic as not wanting that, right? As like, “Oh, well, they don’t go to temple on Yom Kippur.” To be like, “Well, why don’t they want to go to temple on Yom Kippur?” And why are you then assuming that they don’t want anything during this time? Why are you assuming that there’s no connection that they have to their Jewish traditions or wanting to have these conversations?
And maybe they had grown up in NFTY or USY or camps that are completely lacking [laugh] once you become an adult. Like I want to write my own eulogy, but I’m not going to do it sitting in my apartment by myself, because I think that’s interesting, right? And that’s also not something I’m going to do at a Yom Kippur service. As things are evolving and we are kind of trying to think more about the people and not the demographic or the age or their technological savviness or how they interact with the world, to try and figure out what it is that they want out of a Jewish experience.
Rachel Gildiner: Absolutely.
Michelle W. Malkin: Wonderful. So what’s the future for the organization? What’s the kind of next step for you guys?
Rachel Gildiner: The exciting thing about D.C. is that we have new young adults who move here, if not every day, every month, every year. There’s just this constant influx of young adults who come to the city for jobs or relationships or fellowships, and all of those exciting things.
And so, what we really want to do is figure out how we can continue to be the first stop that just kind of helps them navigate everything that’s out there, before they either opt out or kind of get lost or they fall off the map for us.
And so what that looks like is we are going to continue to hone and develop this engagement methodology, this kind of what does it look like to function in a relational way. How do you build infrastructure around that? How do you operationalize in a way that allows you to be lean and meet people where they are, but also continue to provide meaning and Jewish connection in a sustainable and compelling way?
And so we are creating trainings where we can help other organizations think through and apply this methodology to their own work. We are continuing to employ engagers on the ground—people who again spend almost zero of their time planning programs, and more of their time just listening to people. That’s really kind of where we see ourselves growing.
And look, I think we really believe in the ability and the power of organizing. Helping organize communities, where they already have incredible assets and programs, but kind of creating a central hub that helps people find out about those opportunities.
And so if there’s a GatherChicago or a GatherAtlanta, or a GatherDenver, or whatever that looks like, we see this really being a replicable and exciting model for other cities down the road. And yeah, I think there’s a lot of potential for where we are, but we’re just really grateful for the community we’re a part of, for the adults that we meet and get to talk to every day.
I’ll also say, just what you were talking about before—this idea of being able to take yourself outside of your own Jewish experience and actually empathize with the fact that someone else will experience their Judaism differently. A lot of the training we do with our fellows is about, you’re going to meet people who have a very different Jewish experience than you do, and how do you kind of engage with them without judgment? Without making anyone feel badly about where they’re coming from, but actually have empathy for someone else’s Jewish connection and put yourself in their shoes. Like you might love talking about Israel, and this person just might not. So don’t invite them to an Israel program.
And so I think this understanding of empathy in the Jewish community in general is something that we want to be a champion of as well.
Michelle W. Malkin: And you’re not getting the information by having them fill out a survey.
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah. Like surveys are important—oh my gosh. If the Jewish world has got anything, it’s data. We love data. It’s amazing. Data drives us forward and it’s great, but there’s also something about a human one-on-one conversation where you can get so much valuable information that’s going to help you help someone else in a way that a survey just doesn’t do.
Michelle W. Malkin: So what does your funding structure look like at the moment? Do you have foundation funding? Are you individually cultivating funding? How do you keep your feet on the ground? [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah, it’s a great question. Again, as an organization, GatherDC is still really in its infancy. We’ve been funded as an organization, with full-time, senior-level staff, for three years. And so we’re very lucky and fortunate to be funded by three local foundations, who have helped us get our feet off the ground. And we are continuing to engage new donors, both individuals and foundations who believe in this work, who are excited by different aspects of what we’re trying to do.
And so, my role in the coming year will be to increase our fundraising as we also try to increase our staff and our impact in the city. But we are very fortunate we have a board and funders who believe in our mission wholeheartedly. They want to see us try new things. They see the value in us as an asset to the city overall and have been able to really help us kind of become established as this new entity. As GatherDC. And we’ll continue to kind of hit the pavement and try and get more people involved with supporting us financially.
Michelle W. Malkin: And do you have people in their 20s and 30s on your board?
Rachel Gildiner: So, we don’t. What we do have—and this is really exciting, and something that has kind of been a dream of mine since I started—is that we have what’s called an Innovator’s Advisory Network. And this is a group of 20s and 30s. They’re not the people who use our calendar every day. They’re a little bit kind of more established in the community, but they are advisors. They provide guidance.
They have been kind of behind the scenes with us in terms of how we are thinking about growing, and how we operate. And this group of 11 20s and 30s kind of works in tandem with our board, which is a governance body, and also provides incredible expertise and insight and support.
And so the two of these bodies together, they are our lay leaders who kind of help pave our direction and who help guide us, again both financially and in terms of the audience that we’re serving. And so it has been a really cool project.
We’re a few months into the advisory network, and we have amazing people who have brought amazing expertise to bear on our work, and we’re really grateful for this kind of robust network that we’ve launched.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah, that’s excellent. Good job! Because [laugh] it’s definitely something I’ve touched upon in this program, just really thinking about the diversity of your board and is it representative of those that you are serving, and having different generational conversations.
Because if you have people in their 50s and 60s, or 60s and 70s, who happen to be big donors, who are making these decisions about how do we engage 20s and 30s, without people in their 20s and 30s kind of around that table or involved in that conversation—and it seems like this also—how much are you developing your future leaders? And so it seems like this is a great way for you guys to do that, and really invest in those that you’re serving. That’s fantastic.
Rachel Gildiner: And something else I’ll share—again, we think a lot about the user experience, and the experience of the people we’re trying to engage. And something that I’m just very aware of is on one hand—and boards are all different, but in the past. I have heard about experiences trying to get that young voice on the board. And it is really helpful for all of the more established and kind of older individuals who are around that table, but for that young adult, it’s like not a super positive experience. I hope it’s OK to say that.
But again, I think that our hope, and in line with our mission, is that everything that people do with us, we want them to connect with other people, with other young adults through engaging with us. And so the idea of putting together a whole group of young adults that are actually a body, a functioning body themselves, as opposed to kind of taking two representative young adults and saying, “OK, now you’re going to be in a room with these really powerful, impressive, established funders and lawyers, and we want you to speak for the entire young adult community…”
Michelle W. Malkin: Right, right. Yeah.
Rachel Gildiner: You know, it’s overwhelming. It’s intimidating. And half the meeting is about governance and things that they might be bored out of their mind about. So again, this idea that we want people to have a positive experience, but we also really want their expertise. And so by putting it in kind of these two separate bodies, and identifying their different needs—it has been more to manage, but the impact has been tenfold.
Michelle W. Malkin: So I know we talked a little bit about advice. Do you have other advice for Jewish professionals out there? Maybe those that are focused on this cohort, aren’t focused on this cohort, just trying to do the work of Jewish professional-ness? [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: Yes. So what I would say to everyone is, always take advice with a grain of salt. Right?
Michelle W. Malkin: [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: You know your authentic self, and sometimes advice hits home, and sometimes you’re like, “Nope, that’s not advice for me.” What I would kind of encourage Jewish professionals to think about in our work is, a lot of times in the Jewish world, I see this model of advocacy. In the adaptive leadership model, there’s two ways—advocacy and inquiry. And a lot of times, in a Jewish world, there are a lot of people who advocate. Like, “We’ve found the right way. This is how you do it. We’re the right cause. We’re the right mission.” And they lead with advocacy.
And I think that there’s something really beautiful and really refreshing about taking a first approach of inquiry. Right? Like if someone isn’t coming to you, it’s an opportunity and an invitation for you to inquire. To genuinely inquire, “What is it that drives you? Where are you looking to find your Jewish connection? What are the ways that you are looking to be Jewish in your own life?”
And I also think that goes across organizations. We all need to learn from one another. We need to be open and asking questions about what is your model, and what can we learn from that, and how does that work? And instead, we often kind of come out of the gates advocating for ourselves or our organization.
I have kind of tried to navigate that in my own professional life, and I think if we can be building an army of people who inquire before they advocate, that we would learn a lot more about the people that we’re trying to reach, and about how to best do that. So that’s something that I just—it’s on my mind right now, and I think it’s just kind of a cool paradigm to think about as we do our work.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah. And those are also really great skills in conflict management, right?
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah.
Michelle W. Malkin: And it seems like conflict management doesn’t necessarily just have to be between two people. Obviously we have lots of conflict management between organizations, especially when you’re competing, or seemingly competing.
And you mentioned this before—rising tides lift all boats. That whether they’re going to engage with you in the long terms or they’re going to engage with Sixth and I, or they’re going to engage with some synagogue, that is good for everybody.
And whether you get the $100 donation or they get the $100 donation, right? Maybe you get a $100 donation that they didn’t get, right? So it’s something that’s good. That’s why it’s called the community, right?
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah.
Michelle W. Malkin: Things that are good for everybody. But sometimes it’s really hard when you have your laser focus on your organization and your work, to kind of see the bigger picture. Wonderful. So how do you do it, Rachel? I know you have kids, a husband. I see Hungry, Hungry Hippos in the background. [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: [laugh] That’s so funny.
Michelle W. Malkin: So how do you keep it all together? How do you keep some balance and sanity in your life, assuming you do?
Rachel Gildiner: Oh my gosh. Yeah. It’s a big assumption. That is the million dollar question. I think the first answer is that I’ve just learned to be really patient with myself. There’s this self-love and self-appreciation of like, some days you’re going to have it all together, and some days, you’re just not. And that doesn’t mean you’re a bad professional, and that doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom, and that doesn’t mean you’re a bad friend. It’s just this like cosmic balance of life.
I think I actually have on my desk a postcard that says, like, “Be patient with yourself. You are but a…”—I don’t know—something in the universe. Like we just have to let ourselves be all of these things at once. And on days where you do it all, I feel like superwoman, like I can take on the world. And days where one child is sick, or one deadline is missed, or one team meeting doesn’t go well, it’s really hard. Those days are really hard.
And I think that naming that this is hard, whether you have a family, or other relationships, or all of the commitments in your life, it’s really hard to fit in all of those big rocks. And so, patience with yourself is just kind of the bottom line.
And I think the other thing is you need to surround yourself by cheerleaders. Right? I spend my day at work cheerleading everyone—my staff, the community, the individuals I talk to, our partner organizations. And sometimes you just need to pick up the phone and have someone say, “You’re doing great. You’re killing it. You’ve got this. Keep it up. I’m here. I’m sorry you had a bad day and you need to cry right now.” Whatever that is.
Just finding those cheerleaders in your life—professional, personal—they’ve just got your back—it’s so important. And I am so grateful. All you cheerleaders who are listening right now—I’m here because of them. So yeah, I would say patience and finding the people who really can lift you up and hold you when you’re down.
Michelle W. Malkin: Wonderful. Any last thoughts or comments that you can think of? Things we didn’t touch upon?
Rachel Gildiner: Really, I’m grateful for the chance to be on this. I think this is such an awesome idea. I’m so excited about all of the work that’s happening in and across the Jewish world. I’m grateful to be a student of it. I’ve listened to your other podcasts. I’m so grateful for the wisdom that is out there.
And I just really hope that we can continue to share what we’re learning and share the questions that we’re asking. And at the end of the day, we’re all going to be a lot better off because of it. So thank you.
[End of recording]
This week in #SpottedinJewishDC, we’ve discovered an awesome bar steps away from our favorite soup-spot (what up Soupergirl). Some reasons this bar is worthy of the highly revered “Spotted in Jewish DC” title: 1) Really inexpensive happy hour prices; 2) Steampunk inspired ambiance; 3) The owners are three Jewish brothers who are natives of the DC suburbs. Read this exclusive interview with 1831 Bar & Lounge’s Co-Founder and Owner Sean Chreky – and then go say hi in person!
Allie: How did you wind up opening the bar?
Sean: I come from an entrepreneurial family. My mom had her own dance school, my dad started his own hair salon, and many of my extended family members were hairstylists. I was meant to be a hairstylist (ie: Don’t Mess with the Zohan). Instead of becoming a hairdresser, I got my masters in finance and was going to work in investment banking. But deep down, I wanted to own my own business and be my own boss. And my father always taught me I should follow my own dreams. When my brothers and I saw this amazing space available in DC in 2015, we jumped on this opportunity to buy the space and transform it into a bar. Now, my two brothers and I are owners of 1831 Bar & Lounge! They say doing business with family is never a good idea, and we definitely have our moments, but ultimately we’re happy to be doing it.
Allie: What sets your bar apart from the others?
Sean: Well, we have a really inexpensive happy hour menu. Since we started 1831 on a shoestring budget, we wanted to do whatever we could to create buzz around it, and figured having really cheap drinks and food -$1 beers, $4 glass of wine, $6 Tito’s – would do the trick. We also specialize in hosting events, whether it’s a birthday party, or a corporate or nonprofit event.
Ambiance-wise, we’re trying to be a steampunk-inspired bar – like in the 1800s when there was industrial steam-powered machinery, a little bit like the train time machine in Back to the Future Part 3. We’re looking forward to eventually having our staff wear steampunk outfits.
In the future, we will keep the bar & lounge as is and start a nightclub by taking over three more levels of the building.
Allie: What advice do you have for someone dreaming of opening up their own business?
Sean: Before you do it, know that it’s really what you want. It takes a lot of work, late nights, and the bar industry can be a tough one. Make sure that whatever business you are planning to start is the industry you really want to be in. Try working in that industry before you start your own business, so you get a feel for it. And have a niche. You need to be able to carve out your own unique space and stand out from the competition. Oh, and make sure you have more than enough money saved if things don’t go as planned.
Allie: What do you like to do for fun outside of work?
Sean: Well, because I invested everything in the bar, and it takes time for a bar to become profitable, I had to get another job during the day. So, my fun time is very limited. But, if I did have time to spare, I’d spend it by the water. My brothers and I love going to the beach, scuba diving, and spearfishing. I love watching football – we’re Ravens, Redskins, and Miami Dolphin fans. If you come to 1831 on Sundays, we have Redskins games playing, and are also the official DC bar for the University of Miami Hurricanes and the DC International Film Festival.
Allie: How do you connect with your Jewish identity?
Sean: I have a deep cultural connection, and care a lot about Jewish tradition. I went on Birthright Israel, and we grew up going to Congregation Har Shalom. I also love Jewish foods – Matzo ball soup has a soft spot in my heart. I used to live in New York City, and there were real, authentic Jewish diners where I had some of the best matzo ball soup of my life – like 2nd Ave Deli.
Ike Swetlitz is a man of many talents. A contra-dancing aficionado, world traveler, Jewish music guru, medical journalist – just to name a few. Though he is brand new to our nation’s great capital, he seems to be taking full advantage of what DC has to offer. Get to know him, and welcome him to the city!
Allie: I hear you have a pretty cool job as a journalist. Tell me a little bit about that.
Ike: I’m a health and medical journalist for STAT, which is part of The Boston Globe Company. Before this, I was majoring in Physics at Yale and doing a lot of journalism on the side – trying to decide if I wanted to be a Physicist or a Journalist. In the end, I realized I prefered developing relationships with people instead of a computer, so I figured it would be a lot more enjoyable to work as a journalist. I’m still really fascinated by science, so getting to be a health/medical journalist is a wonderful opportunity for me to pursue both of these interests.
Allie: Where is the coolest place you’ve ever traveled?
Ike: I have two: The Point Reyes National Seashore, on the coast of California, just north of San Francisco. It was such a beautiful place, and has an incredible sea lion reserve. The second is my visit to the the Jewish community in rural Ghana – Sefwi Wiawsoin. While I was spending a few weeks in Ghana working for an agricultural news radio station, I had the opportunity to travel to the Jewish community and spend a Shabbat there.
Allie: What brought you to DC?
Ike: I grew up in a suburb outside of Chicago, and after college was looking for journalism jobs. STAT was just starting up in Boston, and I got a job there as a medical/health journalist, and moved to Boston. I started working on many journalism projects related to DC, and wound up moving down here just a few months ago to pursue these projects at STAT’s DC-office.
Allie: Being new to the city, what is your take on DC so far?
Ike: DC reminds me of when I first moved to Boston, and I’m in this period of meeting a lot people and trying to figure out where I fit into the community. It’s a different kind of city than Boston though. In Boston, every other person works for a university or health company, and in DC every other person works for the government or an organization related to the government.
Allie What are your favorite things to do in the city?
Ike: I really enjoy going to the farmer’s markets in DC, and checking out the many Jewish community programs, and folk dance communities.
Allie: Folk dancing? How did you get involved with that?
Ike: Well, I learned square dancing in ninth grade, because we were told it was was the State Dance of Illinois. Then, when I was at college, I discovered this small, nearby town that had contra dancing – which is sort of like square dancing, but more fun – and every so often, I took part in that. While living in Boston after college, there was a big dancing community, so I started doing contra dancing, and have been happy to see there are lots of those communities in DC too.
Allie: How do you connect to Judaism in your own life?
Ike: I love Jewish music, Jewish ritual, and find that Jewish communities I’ve been a part of are really welcoming. It’s refreshing to spend time with a group of people who can be intently focused on one thing at hand.
Allie: Who is your Jewish role model?
Ike: I’d say the founders of Nava Tehilah – a song-based community in Jerusalem. They’ve created this incredible group that brings people together who normally have different religious practices, and show one another the beauty of each other’s traditions.
Allie: What’s your favorite Jewish food?
Ike: Sweet potato latkes. They’re basically like gigantic sweet potato fries.
Allie: Complete the sentence: When Jews of DC Gather…
Ike: They’re surprised by who they recognize.
Judaism Unbound Podcast: BREAKING NEWS – Yom Kippur…in a Beer Garden? – Aaron Potek
Listen to the entire podcast here. Read on for a complete transcript.
This is a special breaking news edition of Judaism Unbound—Yom Kippur…In a Beer Garden? Welcome back, everyone. I’m Dan Libenson. And the first thing I should say is that Lex is not here with me today because we wanted to do this episode as a kind of rapid response to something going on in the Jewish world, and unfortunately Lex and I weren’t able to coordinate our schedules such that we could both do this interview together. But rest assured, Lex is in the background doing the editing of this episode, so his hand is still here.
And I’m excited to be here today with Aaron Potek. He is a rabbi who has been in the news recently, over the last week or two, because he put together a very unique Jewish experience for Yom Kippur, and it took place in a beer garden, which is essentially a bar.
So we’re going to talk to Aaron about this event, and we thought it was worth doing one of these rapid response breaking news episodes because it’s something that’s happened very recently that’s been in the news, that’s really interesting, and that connects to a lot of what we’re talking about on Judaism Unbound.
Lex and I have been talking recently that we want to try to do more of these episodes, and we’re going to keep our eyes open to things that are happening in a sort of “in the news” sort of way. So if you know of anything that’s about to happen, please let us know, and we will see about putting together one of these episodes.
So we’re excited today to talk to Aaron Potek. He is a rabbi at an organization called GatherDC, which in their own language is a local non-profit that connects Jews in their 20s and 30s in Washington D.C. to meaningful Jewish life, to each other, and to their unique Jewish identity, through personal relationship building, collaboration with local Jewish partners, and facilitation of alternative community programming.
GatherDC creates a thriving Jewish life where millennials of all backgrounds, genders, levels of religious observance, and interest can find their people and their place. So one of the things that this organization has done is to create an alternative Yom Kippur experience for some of the folks that they work with. And we’re really interested in talking to Aaron about that event.
As I said earlier, it got a lot of press because of its location in a beer garden, which is essentially a bar, which happened to be closed at the time of the event, so there was no food or drink served. But somehow that sense that it was happening in this not only space that wasn’t a synagogue, but in a particular kind of space that pushed some people’s buttons got a lot of press. This was covered in the Washington Post as well as a number of Jewish press outlets and other general press outlets.
And that in itself is very interesting, and we’re excited to talk to Aaron about it. But in addition to that, the experience itself is really interesting, because it was not your typical Yom Kippur service. It was something very different. So we’re really interested to talk about this, to connect it to the themes that we’ve been talking about on Judaism Unbound over the last couple of years, and to hopefully open up a conversation more generally about really what an out-of-the-box creativity looks like in terms of trying to connect Jewish content with people who are not connecting to the traditional forms.
So we’re really excited and glad and thrilled that you joined us today, Rabbi Aaron Potek. Welcome to this special edition of Judaism Unbound.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah, thanks for having me, Dan, and I’m excited to be a part of—I think this is a new feature for Judaism Unbound, correct?
Dan Libenson: Well, it’s the second time that we’ve done this kind of breaking news edition. But it was funny, because Lex and I actually were just talking the other day saying, “Hey, we should do more of those breaking news editions. That was fun.” And sure enough, some news happened. So thank you for giving us the excuse!
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Happy I could be the source of some breaking news.
Dan Libenson: Right. So let’s tell our listeners a little bit about this, because although it was covered pretty heavily in the Jewish press—and I think that we who are doing work in the Jewish community, the holy grail is that we should be covered by The New York Times or the Washington Post. And so at least I saw a Washington Post article.
So it’s very exciting for any kind of Jewish event to be covered in one of the major papers. But not everybody reads those papers. So I was hoping that you could at least just start by telling us a little bit about the event from your perspective, and how you came to create a Yom Kippur experience, as you put it, in a beer garden.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Well, not only is this breaking news, but you have the first exclusive post-Yom Kippur experience interview. Those other articles were all before the fact.
Basically, my work is centered around unaffiliated, unengaged Jews in their 20s and 30s, here in Washington D.C. And for all the talk of innovation in the Jewish world and trying new approaches to reaching Jews where they’re at, when it comes to high holidays, the options are more or less pretty standard.
They seem to mostly be synagogue-based and prayer-based. Which is fine. You know, most—a lot of Jews connect that way, and there’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But there’s actually a lot of Jews who don’t connect that way, and I don’t really think moving prayer services from a synagogue to a JCC or to a gymnasium really counts as innovative.
So, yeah, I thought I would explore what it means to try to reach Jews for whom these standard aspects of Yom Kippur, whether it’s praying, whether it’s synagogue, whether it’s fasting—I was thinking about what can I do to reach Jews for whom that really isn’t as resonant, but who are still trying to connect to the themes of the day, the larger aspects of what Yom Kippur is trying to get at, and trying to make sense of their larger Jewish identity. And it seems like there should at least be an opportunity to provide something that’s a little different than the standard traditional option.
Dan Libenson: So tell me what the elements were in your thinking about what you were doing. Because at least in sort of reading the press about it, I think that there were two major elements, one of which probably I would imagine in your mind, the less important one is the one that got all the press coverage, which was the location of the event in a beer garden, which for our listeners who don’t know, is basically a bar. And that actually, there was no food or drink served at the bar at that time at the beer garden, because it was a Saturday morning, right?
And so a lot of the sort of talk was about having a Yom Kippur service or experience in a bar, and whether that was appropriate or not. But that was one of the elements. And then the other element that you were talking about is what went on there. That it was not exactly a service. And so I’d love for you to talk a little bit about both of those elements, and if there were other elements in your thinking through the event and your planning for it, that were really like the key elements that you were focused on.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah, yeah. There’s a lot there. We can start with the beer garden. Like you said, that got most of the attention for, you know, good reason. Obviously when you think of Yom Kippur, you don’t think of a beer garden or a bar.
It was unfortunate how many people wrongly assumed or even willfully ignored articles confirming that indeed the bar was closed and that food and drink wouldn’t be served. Kind of a larger meta side comment there about how much we can ignore the truth, even when it’s [laugh] like right there on paper, or at least how much we’re not willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. But that’s for another conversation.
In terms of the reason that I chose the bar, I felt really strongly like I wanted it to be in a cool, real-world [laugh] location, you know? Whether that’s a bar, whether that’s a music hall, whether that’s a coffee shop. We didn’t specifically look out for a bar. That just happened to be the one that worked in terms of price and location and size.
But yeah, I think that was an important message, that especially for Jews who kind of touch Judaism once or twice a year, I think it sends a really important message that Judaism doesn’t just happen in a synagogue. I’ll share what someone shared with me, which is now whenever they go to that beer garden, they’re going to think of [laugh] my Yom Kippur experience. And that’s like—it was a half joke, but I really do think there’s something powerful there. If you never step foot in a synagogue again, then you never have to think about all the stuff that you thought about there. But if you’re having that experience in a beer garden, then you’re probably going to be forced to think about it again at some point in the upcoming year.
Dan Libenson: It’s interesting, because in the press coverage, one of the comments that I read somewhere, or maybe it was in some kind of Facebook comment or something, was that somehow there was some importance to the idea that Jews should come to synagogue for Yom Kippur.
And whether it was in a beer garden or somewhere maybe less provocative, I think that person would have felt equally that it was wrong to not have Yom Kippur services in a synagogue. And you know, I think it’s a really interesting question, right? This question of whether people should be coming to Judaism, or Judaism should be coming to people, and is there some way in which if Judaism comes to people—I think the implication was that that somehow is cheapening or lessening Judaism or making it less sort of important or I don’t know what.
And it struck me, because it was so the opposite of the way that I think about it. But it also struck me that you think back to our history, where Judaism was localized to the temple in Jerusalem, and that there was a notion that Judaism could only happen in the temple in Jerusalem. And then obviously after the destruction of the temple, Judaism started happening in all these other places. And it’s actually the people who now defend those other places where Judaism started to happen—i.e. the synagogue—that are now upset that Judaism is potentially happening in different places.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yes, yeah. I love that irony. Thanks for pointing that out. I guess this was honestly a good example of how I’m so immersed in this millennial world of non-institutional Judaism, that you know, I was not—maybe I’m naïve, but I was not anticipating that sort of reaction.
There’s obviously important debates to be had about institutional Judaism and Jews in their 20s and 30s—whether they should or should not join synagogues, and who’s fault—is it the synagogue’s fault? Is it the 20s and 30s who just have everything handed to them’s fault? You know, we could have that conversation.
But the reality is just—I mean, there’s no arguing that masses of Jewish 20s and 30s are not joining synagogues. So the idea that we should kind of dig in our heels and take a firm stance on the one or two times a year when Jews are actually looking to engage with their Judaism for the sake of—I don’t even know what—hoping that they become members?
I mean, I’m sure there’s statistics done, but that just can’t possibly be happening [laugh] on a large scale. I would seriously doubt that these Jews who are coming once or twice a year suddenly decide to come back to synagogue on a regular basis based on that.
That’s not to say that that’s not an important conversation, and that’s not to say that there isn’t merit in the idea that maybe we should be not dismissing synagogues so quickly, but in the end of the day, part of meeting people where they’re at, at least for me in this work, is saying “Hey, you know what? If you don’t want to join a synagogue, that’s OK. There’s actually a way to live a very rich Jewish life that doesn’t involve institutions.”
Dan Libenson: Yeah. So let’s turn our attention to what actually happened there, and how it all went. Before just describing it, could you also sort of talk to us about what was your point of view going into designing this day? What is it that you think people were looking for, or didn’t know they were looking for?
And I guess what do you think that Yom Kippur has to offer somebody who may not appreciate prayer or be a believer, or whatever the other predicates that we tend to think of, that have to do with the traditional themes of the holiday?
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Prayer has just become such a focus of the day, and again I’m not arguing that we should eliminate prayer or that prayer isn’t effective or that it isn’t a great means to achieve certain ends. But yeah, I guess my working theory was that for some people, just as a synagogue might be intimidating, prayer might be intimidating, and we shouldn’t let kind of the desire to promote and defend prayer get in the way of people actually connecting to the themes of the day.
So I think the real heart of the conversation is, what’s the point of Yom Kippur? [laugh] And how is it relevant? And what was interesting is that I heard some feedback from people that the actual point of Yom Kippur is fasting and praying. That that is the point. So kind of what I was doing was just a futile endeavor because it was you know, kind of just this hippy dippy secularization distortion of what Judaism actually is.
And for me, that’s where the real debate is, because I just fundamentally don’t agree. I see praying as a means to achieve what we’re actually supposed to do on Yom Kippur, which is confronting ourselves in the deepest way. Confronting our mortality. Confronting the life that we’re living. Confronting the questions about the life that we should be living. And kind of asking ourselves and confronting, what are the obstacles that are getting in the way of me doing what I need to do to live my best life, and to be my best self?
Again, this kind of gets to a more core ideology of mine, which is that Judaism is ultimately supposed to help us achieve self-fulfillment and self-actualization. That these are not arbitrary laws that some vicious God is imposing upon us, but that this is actually a system that helps us live life to the fullest. So with that attitude, it seems obvious to me that there are other ways of connecting to the themes of Yom Kippur that don’t require prayer or synagogue to get there.
Dan Libenson: So how did you do it?
Rabbi Aaron Potek: [laugh] Well, [laugh] it’s easy to talk about it. I don’t know if I was successful or not, but I can tell you about some of the stuff that we did. We decided to focus on three major themes. The first was Judaism, which is a bit of a meta conversation. But basically in thinking about the day and what I wanted to focus on, I realized that for better or worse, Yom Kippur is just one of the few times, maybe even the only time in a year, that a Jew asks him or herself, “What does Judaism mean to me?” So might as well [laugh] use that opportunity to really delve into that question, instead of having it be in the background of someone’s mind but never explicitly discussed.
The second theme that we talked about was big picture. And I’ll tell you a little more about what we did there. But the idea was Yom Kippur is a day to zoom out of all the distractions and all the mundane details that end up, yeah, distracting us from this core question of, “What is my life really about?” So we did a couple of activities and used a couple of different methodologies to help people zoom out.
And then the third thing, which was actually the bulk of the time, was exploring this concept of tshuva, which is tough to translate, but has been translated as repentance or returning, and which is clearly a major theme of Yom Kippur. And so yeah, we figured “Hey, let’s actually spend a good hour talking about what this actually means, and what it actually looks like to do in real life.”
And those were the three major themes. I’m happy to get into what we did for each of those, but I’ll just share that we ended on a note of joy, which felt really important for me, both because I actually do think that there’s an aspect of Yom Kippur that is joyous, that is often ignored, and because as an engagement tool, the idea that people [laugh] experience Judaism once a year on this sad, somber, almost depressing day, and then we wonder, well, how come they never come back? It’s like, well, no wonder they never come back! [laugh] They experienced the depressing Judaism. Who wants to revisit that?
So for me, it was really important to end on a note of joy, and with singing, and with ultimately experiencing a little bit of the release that I think Yom Kippur is meant to create, which is a sense that we have a renewed commitment in this upcoming year to live life to the fullest, and not just beat ourselves up.
This idea that prayer works for everyone, or that fasting works for everyone—I mean, it’s just so clearly not true. And not only is it not true, but that’s acknowledged in the halacha, in Jewish law itself. Someone who suffers from an eating disorder—god forbid that we should be telling them that they should try to fast the whole day.
So there’s an acknowledgment, even within the system, that clearly this doesn’t work for everyone. And I think part of the dangerous trends of certain streams of Judaism today is not appreciating that a system that is meant to apply to every single person is limited by that very fact that it’s trying to apply to every single person uniformly.
And we really need more voices of different avenues that are ultimately trying to get to the same place. For me, that really just brings up a conversation of pluralism. And I think a lot of the pushback that I got was actually really just a pushback on the very idea of pluralism. The very idea that there are multiple paths to achieve the same outcome.
Dan Libenson: So could you share with us a little bit about the how? Because I think a lot of times when we talk about thinking differently about Judaism, and we might be able to bring in the philosophy, but then people break down at the point of saying, “Well, what would this actually look like applied, and how can we actually create a very concrete thing that people will be doing, that will in some way be capturing these meanings and goals of the holidays? Because here, we’ve received this tried and true formula that’s been around for thousands or hundreds of years, and at least—it might not work that well but at least we know that it worked one time for somebody, whereas your crazy idea, we don’t know if it’s going to work for anyone.”
You know, how do we really—how do you go from the goals and the meanings to an attempt to actually ritualize that? And what did you do specifically in this case, and how did it go?
Rabbi Aaron Potek: You know, I’m not like an innovative genius. I’ll tell you what I did, but I don’t think it’s anything mindblowingly crazy. I think what was more unfortunately radical and innovative was just acknowledging that there needs to be different methods to try to reach that same goal.
I understand that that’s dangerous territory and trying to create an alternative to the standard tried and true method, but we can bury our heads in the sand or we can look around and acknowledge that those tried and true methods are just either not working for a lot of people, or I think even more important is they’re not accessible to a lot of people.
Of course these prayers are unbelievable if you speak fluent Hebrew, and if you’re fully familiar with all the biblical references that they’re making and the plays on words. I’m not saying that that’s not incredible stuff. Of course it is. But we’re talking about people who don’t speak Hebrew [laugh], and who have no understanding of the Bible. So the idea that these prayers are going to work for them—they weren’t written for them. They were written for people who have a deeper understanding of our liturgy, of our history, of our canon.
So I just think this is really a conversation about dealing with the reality on the ground. And we can bemoan that it’s not where it should be, and we can argue about how it got to be where it is, but at the end of the day, we’re talking about a massive group of Jews—a massive population of Jews here in America—who are trying to connect. And if our only answer is, “Hey, do this traditional thing that is completely inaccessible,” we’re pretty screwed.
What I wish was that this could be a panel [laugh]. Maybe this is for next year’s Judaism Unbound. You know, a panel of ten different people who tried different things, tapping into these different themes.
Dan Libenson: Well, I’m glad you said that because I really do—I share your hope, and I hope that one of the things that will come out of this conversation for our listeners—well, there are two things at least, that I can imagine.
One is stuff like this that’s already happening out there, we’d love to know about it. And we’d love to find a way to collect knowledge of it, and put it on our website or otherwise share it.
Because I’ll just tell you, even at my own synagogue that I attend for the high holidays, for many years I’ve been leading an alternative text study session as an alternative to a large chunk of the service.
And this year, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, as an alternative to the morning service, we also had Rabbi Benay Lappe, who was a previous guest on Judaism Unbound, teaching one of her Talmud study sessions, that she very much presents always and presented at this particular time as a spiritual experience.
What she says at the end which—she basically asks, “How many of you were thinking about your mortgage payments while you were studying Talmud over the last two hours?” Or, “How many of you were thinking about your other situations in your life, and how many of you were really focused on the Talmud study?”
And by the way, these are no Talmud scholars. These are regular people many of whom had never studied Talmud before in their life. And everybody raises their hand that they were focused on the Talmud study because it was so challenging and so interesting. And Benay says, “And that means it was a spiritual experience.” You know, “You had a spiritual experience. You were transcended from your day-to-day cares, and hopefully beyond that. You thought about important things that the particular text we were looking at was asking us to think about.” Et cetera et cetera. And so, just from a sample size of two, we both experienced these very interesting alternative experiences these high holidays. And we also know about these experiences for secular Israelis in Palo Alto. So my guess is that there’s a lot more of this going on than we know about.
And, second of all—that was sort of goal number one. And goal number two is that I think that a lot of people, if they hear, and if they would become—if they would know that these kinds of things are happening already, these are not just theoretical, they might do them themselves. They might—or they might urge the leadership of their synagogues to try alternatives. And to say, “This is not something that we’re going to be the first in the world to do. Actually, this is happening already.” And so I really think that there’s a lot of potential here. There may be a lot already going on. And yeah, sorry for the long digression, but I look forward to that panel discussion next year.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah. No, no. I appreciate that. And I do just want to say, maybe a slightly controversial point, but you know, a lot of people in the pushback that I got for this said, “Oh, well I host a learner’s service. Why can’t you just do that? That’s what engagement is.”
And again, not to repeat myself too much here, but distilling down a five-hour-long service into one hour and including some poetry readings is not the same as really what I’m talking about, which is a paradigm shift. Which is saying, “How can we move outside the model of prayer to still achieve the same ends?”
So I hope that that panel discussion is rich with a lot of different diverse non-prayer-based options. Because we know what the prayer option looks like, and I think this is a little more of uncharted territory.
And I heard from a lot of religious Jews saying, “Oh, I would have loved to have been there if it was on a Sunday or if it was after the regular services.” But then that gets into a problem of inclusivity and diversity.
And I’m obviously not going to come down against inclusivity and diversity. But I think there is something special about a self-selected group of people who are all more or less trying to connect to Judaism with a similar understanding or a similar background.
And this experience was really 130 like-minded people that were open to receiving a very particular type of message. And it was liberating from my perspective to not have to worry about, “Oh, but what about this type of Jew who’s going to be there?” And, “What about this…?” You know, and all the caveats, and all the introductory remarks, and all—it’s like “No, actually we can just speak to this group, because that’s exactly who’s here.”
Dan Libenson: OK. So let’s jump into the meat of it. We keep almost getting there. But tell us a little bit more about the substantive specific content of what you—as you say, you’re not necessarily the biggest ritual reinvention genius in the world, but maybe you are! So I’d love to know what you actually did.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Trust me, I’m not. The first section of checking in about Judaism was just framing how much baggage people have when they walk into a Jewish space, and really thanking them for having the courage to step into this new experiment with all of that baggage, with all of that uncertainty.
And we just wanted to help bring people into the present moment. So we had people get up out of their seats, find someone that they don’t know, and do a three-minute each paired sharing of what brought them to this moment.
So whatever people shared, again that was private. So I have no idea. But I imagine people shared either kind of like the alienation that has led them to this kind of more alternative route, or the moments of inspiration that led them to actually do something on Yom Kippur as opposed to nothing.
I wish—[laugh] this sounds like Big Brother, but I wish I could have recorded every single one of those conversations, because I’m kind of blown away by everyone’s story, and what actually did lead them to that moment.
So anyway, we did three minutes each. I think it’s also nice to create a more casual style, where people aren’t just sitting in their seat the entire time. So it was nice to have people getting up and walking around.
We then had people sit back down and Sarah Hurwitz gave a talk about her personal journey, about how she discovered Judaism as something that could be meaningful in her life, and could offer real wisdom and values to just the way that we already live in the world.
And then we ended that section by singing the Shehecheyanu blessing, which is funny, because that technically maybe falls in the camp of liturgical prayer, which I promised there would be none of. But I framed it more—less as a prayer and more as kind of an intention setting and a mindfulness practice even, of just in any moment, being able to appreciate all of the events that led up this moment.
For me, that really is what the Shehecheyanu prayer is about. And it really is overwhelming, every time I think about it. You know, just any time you do something new, to think about everything that led you to that moment. So we—I explained it, and we made up a tune for it though. [laugh] We taught everyone and did, and that was a nice little wrap-up for that first section.
The second piece we did was focus on the big picture, and that was largely influenced by the thought of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who says that Yom Kippur is all about confronting our own mortality. His theory, which I find convincing, is that all of the laws around Yom Kippur are actually meant to help us simulate our own death. That’s why we don’t eat or drink. It’s why traditionally sex is prohibited. It’s why we don’t bathe. All these ideas that kind of confront the fact that our bodies are fragile.
And so what we then did [laugh] after giving that framing was we had everyone take out a pen and write their own eulogy, [laugh] which was most certainly the most powerful part of the experience for me—to be sitting in a bar, with 130 people, who were all very seriously and intensely confronting their own mortality in a real way. We had a cello playing in the background. So it really felt almost like everyone’s own personal funeral.
Dan Libenson: Wow.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: And just from looking around, you could see people were really moved by that experience. We did give, I have to say, a couple of alternative, less death-related options for people for whom that might have been a little more intense.
But the idea was that all of those prompts were meant to really spark introspection in a way that forced everyone to ask themselves, “Who am I really?” And I think confronting our own mortality does that, but there’s obviously other ways that can do that as well. You know, really highlighting the question of, “Who am I when I’m being my best self?”
And that was really important before moving into the third section of tshuva. Because I think so often we talk about tshuva and forgiveness and repentance, and we frame it in such a negative way, of how have you done all these things that are bad, and how can you make amends for all these wrongs that you’ve done?
And I think it’s so important to start from the positive, and to say, “Actually, at your core, who are you really? Who are you trying to be?” And once you have that vision for yourself, only then can we really talk about where we’ve missed the mark. Because then we can kind of realign to who we actually want to be, as opposed to just focusing on the negative.
So we did a text study for a good 20 minutes, which is [laugh] really unbelievable, to turn a beer hall into a beit midrash. I provided them with a few texts that all kind of got at different ways of understanding tshuva. We talk about tshuva all the time but I think we rarely acknowledge that there really are fairly radical different understandings of what tshuva means. [laugh]
So we had quotes just purely from a translation perspective. You know, what does tshuva mean. But then we got into this tension through different texts of tshuva as repentance from sin versus tshuva as returning to your soul, and your truest self.
And the final text, which was what was most moving for me, was a text around the tension between tshuva from love versus tshuva from fear. Which is a really provocative idea, and one that is ripe for a very rich discussion.
After the text study, we got back together. Both Sarah and I shared our differing perspectives on what tshuva from love might mean. And Sarah led a love meditation for everyone, which was another incredibly powerful moment during the service—sorry, during the experience [laugh]—where people spent a good five, seven minutes reflecting on all the people that have loved them in their lives.
And the reason that we chose to do this was because it’s so important to really enter this grueling self-examination process from a place of feeling loved and of being loved. And ultimately, it’s hard to conceptualize or to feel that we are loved by God, but it’s a lot easier when you can break it down and remember all those moments throughout our lives when we have been loved.
And that was a very powerful moment as well. To have everyone in complete silence, just meditating on the different people that have been kind to them throughout the years.
Dan Libenson: And then there was an element that I—in what I read—it was sort of not presented, and maybe it wasn’t even thought of as part of this event, but it was often thought of as why hopefully you yourself personally will have time to pray after this event, but there might not be time, because your organization, GatherDC, was going to be going off and preparing food for homeless people I believe.
And that struck me so powerfully, right, because the Haftorah reading on Yom Kippur comes from Isaiah, where he’s basically talking about how god is saying to the people, “You think that I care if you’re fasting and oppressing your own bodies if you’re also oppressing workers and others?” And, “The fast that I desire is essentially to free those in bondage and to feed the hungry.”
And it felt like this was this element where all of this lead-up, whether intentionally or not, eventually led to the playing out of what Isaiah is saying is fundamentally the message of the holiday. Was that intentional or a happy coincidence?
Rabbi Aaron Potek: No, no, that was extremely, extremely intentional. [laugh] Yeah. We went from there—again, this was an alternative option. So about half of the people who were at our morning experience came to this, and about half other people joined us. We had 40 people.
And no, that started with another text study of Isaiah 58, along with a few other texts, that really got at that core message, which is, you know, of course the irony that we sit in services all day fasting, being hungry, and thinking about ourselves and our own needs, when really the entire point of that is actually the opposite. To be thinking about others and their needs.
So that was a very important intention-setting that we did upfront. And then, yeah, we made lunches for people experiencing hunger. We worked with an organization called SOME—So Others May Eat—which is an incredible organization here in D.C. I believe they’re the only organization that serves three meals a day, every day.
And yeah, that was really powerful to do on [laugh] Yom Kippur. There was a handful of people there who were fasting, myself included, and to say, “It’s not about me and my hunger right now, because I know that my hunger is temporary,” I don’t know, I found that to be extremely moving.
Dan Libenson: Yeah. Just listening to all this is putting me in the mind of these Talmudic categories of mi l’chatchila [sp] and b’di’avad. Right? Which mi l’chatchila [sp] basically means like this is the way that ideally you should do things. And b’di’avad means look, if you can’t do it that way that you’re really supposed to do it, this way is not a total sin. And you can do it this way too. It’s not great. But it’s OK.
And I almost feel like a lot of folks who hear about your event will see it at best as a b’di’avad. As a kind of, “Well, these people—they don’t know that much about Judaism and they’re not going to go to a synagogue and et cetera, et cetera, but at least they have some Jewish experience.”
And what I’m hearing in what you’re describing is the ideal Yom Kippur, for me, and I think for a great many Jews in America, and while I would have nothing but respect for people who say, “Look, I believe that following Jewish law has to be at the center of it, and that’s what it is for me”—fine. I think that that’s a valid way to be Jewish.
But it strikes me that it’s also a valid way to be Jewish. And again, for me personally, a much more powerful way to be Jewish, to have the kind of experience that you’re describing for Yom Kippur, rather than the other.
And I don’t know quite how to talk about that without being judgmental or insulting to one or the other. Actually was troubled and am always troubled by a lot of the sort of insulting tone that gets placed on the alternatives. And I don’t want to make the error of putting the insulting tone on the traditional.
And yet I want to try to say that they at least in my mind, to explore the possibility that they’re both mi l’chatchila [sp]. They both represent sort of the best way to be Jewish. And I’m curious how you think about that, and how you kind of hold that in your mind, particularly as someone trained as a rabbi, and as a traditional rabbi at that.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah. Thanks Dan, for that framing. I love the l’chatchila versus b’di’avad. And I agree with you, that I don’t want to be disparaging of the traditional approach. That was actually some of the feedback I got in this last week as well, was around my tone and around the idea that I was actually tearing down more traditional forms of Jewish practice.
I really don’t want to be doing that, and I really want to respect that people have different ways of connecting. And the last thing I want to be doing is disparaging people’s authentic and sincere forms of expression.
That said, and I think you and I are struggling with the same thing—it’s so hard because that more traditional approach is often so disparaging [laugh] of alternative forms, that it’s hard to kind of not feel like the need to [laugh] fight fire with fire. So it’s definitely a delicate balance.
I want to apologize if at any point throughout either this interview or all the PR leading up to the event I did disparage the traditional ways. That’s definitely not what I meant to be doing at all. But like you said, I think that this actually is what we’re supposed to be doing on Yom Kippur. I really do believe that.
And I almost want to suggest—and again, this is pure speculation—that part of the reason that this received such a strong reaction is because it hit a chord that maybe some of these more traditional aspects that are supposed to be getting us to this place are actually failing at doing that.
And if that’s true, and again I’m not saying that’s true for everyone, but if that’s true, that then creates a pretty complicated tension and a really tough choice. Which is, do I continue to follow the tradition that is what I’m supposed to be doing, but that doesn’t lead me towards what I am supposed to be feeling, or do I let go of the tradition and get to that spirit of the law, while really sacrificing the letter of the law?
Obviously this is a debate that has been happening [laugh] for many, many years. But I wonder if part of the reason that the reaction to what I was doing was so almost angry is because I think for a lot of traditional Jews, the idea of circumventing the law in order to get to the spirit is extremely, extremely dangerous.
And I really hear that, and understand that. But I guess I want to counter that just as dangerous and perhaps even more dangerous, is divorcing the letter of the law from the spirit of the law, and almost raising up the letter of the law to the place where it really becomes almost arbitrary.
Obviously there are Jewish philosophers—Yeshayahu Leibowitz being the most famous who comes to my mind—who believe that. But I’m really troubled by that theology and philosophy. And again, I think that’s actually just a serious warping of what Judaism is meant to be.
Dan Libenson: Yeah. That’s so much one of the things that we are struggling with on this show all the time, and with the larger work that we’re doing, is what does this look like going forward?
I think that there are so many ways in which one could look at what you did in ways that say, you know, “This is giving me cognitive dissonance. How are you an orthodox rabbi but this is clearly not a quote orthodox way to experience Judaism?”
And there are those who will say, “So therefore you did something wrong.” Right? Or therefore you missed an opportunity to bring people to better awareness of the beauty of the tradition. And yet, there’s another way to look at it that says, “Gee, this thing happens that’s giving me cognitive dissonance. I better try to understand more deeply why this happened.”
And I guess there I was hoping that you could share a little bit in the time that we have remaining—just a little bit about the experiences that you’ve had through your work on campus—you used to be at Hillel, and now at GatherDC—where you’re encountering all these young Jews out there.
And I guess I’m curious, what is your sort of point of view? What is your understanding of who these folks are, and what they’re looking for, and what they’re not looking for, that has led you to create things in this very out-of-the-box creative sort of way?
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah. I definitely want to answer that. Just to first comment on what you said in terms of the cognitive dissonance, in some ways I totally understand how what I’m saying can create [laugh] serious cognitive dissonance. But for me, it really just goes back to this idea of pluralism.
I identify very strongly as a pluralist. And so, from that perspective, I really don’t think it’s as jarring. I have a path that works for me, and I’m a part of a stream of Judaism that has a particular path that presumably works for its followers. But as [laugh] other teachers of mine have mentioned, Halacha, you know, the Jewish law, is a path. It’s to bring you to a certain place.
And I think almost having the humility to appreciate that that path might not work for other people, and that there are other paths that can lead to that same end—I don’t actually know that it’s all that wild and crazy, and I don’t know that it needs to create [laugh] cognitive dissonance.
It’s really just saying, “Hey, I’ve got this thing that works for me, but it doesn’t necessarily need to work for you.” Even outside of Judaism, I sometimes feel like we could benefit from more of that attitude. You know, “I love gummy worms, but it’s OK if you don’t like gummy worms. I get it.”
Dan Libenson: That’s so interesting. I think that the expectation, right, is that if you’re a Jewish professional, especially a rabbi, there’s some notion that what that means is that you think the path that’s right for you is right for everyone. Somehow that’s—you know, that’s the way that I think most people tend to look at most rabbis. And so—and by the way, I think probably most rabbis look at most rabbis.
And so it’s fascinating to me to hear you say something along the lines of, “Yeah, I’ve chosen a path that really works for me, but that’s not actually the job necessarily that I’m out here in the world to do. I’m out here to be part of a greater project that may ultimately bring about a Judaism that may not the best for me.”
You know, it’s funny because a lot of times—I mean, I get this from my perspective, which is very much not that of an Orthodox rabbi, and I often am sort of asked, well, why am I working on some more traditional—you know, why am I working to help a synagogue be better or whatever?
And I say, “Look, I’m OK with the possibility that the Judaism that emerges out of this process is going to be one that may not be the one in which I’m most comfortable. That’s not what this is about for me. What this is about for me is to create a Judaism that is healthy and responsive to the needs of people, and that best is able to connect the needs of people with the resources that Judaism has. And if it turns out that I’m not one of those people, that’s OK.”
Rabbi Aaron Potek: It’s hard, because obviously within the Orthodox world, but even outside of the Orthodox world, I think a lot of people and rabbis think that their path of Judaism is the right way, and that there’s not multiple right ways. And I guess my only response is I’m not really interested in hearing that opinion from people who are only [laugh] in their particular bubble.
What I mean is that I’ve gotten a lot feedback of Orthodoxy is the only right way, and how can you even be opening up another path for people that’s clearly not the right way? I don’t know. I would just like to see these people actually have conversations with [laugh] the people that I’m working with.
The more that you work with a diverse group of Jews, the more you—I honestly can’t imagine coming to any conclusion other than the one I’ve come to, you know? And I respect people who think that their way is actually the right way for everyone, and go ahead in good health and try to bring as many people on board as you can.
But I think anyone who is actually engaged in this work realizes that the idea of like a uniform path for every single Jew, especially today when we have such different types of Jews—I don’t know. I at best think it’s misguided, and at worst think it’s actually a little dangerous.
Dan Libenson: And could you give us a sense of what you think in terms of working with the Jews that you have worked with, who are not involved especially or at all with existing institutions or forms of Jewish life—could you tell us a little bit about kind of what leads you to the position to say, “Hey, let’s create a new way of experiencing Yom Kippur” that they might really resonate with, as opposed to I think what a lot of those folks assume, which is like “Oh, they’re not interested in Judaism.”
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah. I mean, the problem [laugh]—it would be a lot easier if those people weren’t interested in Judaism. Right? Because then we could just be doing our way and not have to worry about finding an alternative way.
The problem is that’s just not true. They’re desperately trying to connect to Judaism, and they feel that they’re being locked out. Whether it’s being punished because they didn’t go to day school or didn’t go to Hebrew school or didn’t go to Jewish summer camp—that’s one big piece.
Another big piece is just ideological issues. They feel like they just cannot ideologically get behind some of these more traditional viewpoints, whether it’s on Jewish chosenness, or whether it’s on views on Israel. There’s all kinds of alienating ideologies that stem from traditional Judaism.
Again, there’s alienating ideologies that stem from any traditions. The point is that there’s just a danger in thinking that there’s just one path that works for everyone. So these Jews are desperately, desperately trying to find a way to connect. And they don’t have [laugh] someone who’s like stepping in and helping them connect the dots. Helping them access our tradition.
Again, what I’m doing is really not so wild. Unfortunately, I think the most wild thing is that I’m just willing to meet with them, and even focus on them. And that’s where I wish that we’d see more from the Jewish world. Again not kind of hoping that they come onto our particular agenda, but really just trying to say, “Oh, here are Jews that are interested in connecting. How can we help them connect in a way that works for them?”
I’m already anticipating the pushback is, “Well, it’s not about them. It’s about the Torah. It’s about authentic Judaism.” You know, “You’re just following whatever they want. What if they say they want to have sex and murder everyone?” You know? But I don’t know. Those arguments are honestly just a little obnoxious.
These people are searching for meaning. They’re searching for community. They’re searching for connection. They’re searching for belonging. They’re searching for purpose. If Judaism can’t provide that to someone who doesn’t speak Hebrew and didn’t go to Jewish summer camp, I think that’s more a negative reflection on [laugh]—on Judaism than it is on those people.
Dan Libenson: And I know this is a pretty huge question to sort of maybe end on, but I’m curious in terms of what you just said—how do you think about what Judaism has to offer such people? That if it’s not about God and what God demands of us, and Torah for its own sake—if it’s not about these ways of thinking that are some of the traditional ways of thinking, then what is it about?
And I guess I’m asking that both philosophically and empirically. Like where have you seen—and maybe it’s a way to sort of share any sort of very quick reactions that you’ve already gotten to the experience from just the other day. But what does sort of register with people, and what do they connect with? And where is it that Judaism still has what to say to people who may not accept many of its traditional predicates?
Rabbi Aaron Potek: I mean, it’s funny. You listed Torah for its own sake, or God. I actually really think all of those bad reasons can just get folded into one, which is arbitrary Judaism. Whether that’s because God says so or whether that’s because the Torah says so, I really think that that is actually just the problem. The idea that Judaism is an arbitrary set of rules that we’re just supposed to follow and somehow that like appeases this magical God—I think that’s really the battle that’s being fought here.
What I’m suggesting is that that’s not what Judaism is. It’s not this externally motivated kind of system. It’s actually something that comes from within. It’s something that has our own best interests at heart. It’s a question that we need to be leading with always—
“Why does this matter?”
You know, it’s like almost funny. My rabbinate has really [laugh] kind of become just repeating that question over and over again. [laugh] “Why does this matter?” And I think some people have legitimate answers for that question, but I think a lot of people are scared to ask that question, because they’re worried they don’t have an answer. And if they don’t have an answer, then that really—to reference Benay Lappe, who we’ve already referenced—then that creates a real crash.
Sometimes I go back and forth. Sometimes I wonder, is Judaism just a language for us to have meaningful conversations that could be had in a different language? Or does Judaism actually have real unique wisdom and perspective that is deeply needed today? I go back and forth. But even if its the former, even if it’s only just a framework through which we can connect and have meaningful conversations, I think that’s pretty worthwhile, and actually desperately needed in today’s culture.
Dan Libenson: Well I for one am thrilled that you’re out there doing this work and asking those questions, and I would say most importantly, experimenting. And I think that we’ve been talking about, over the last year and a half that we’ve been doing Judaism Unbound, and I think we’re going to talk more and more in the future about the attitude that says, “We can experiment. And maybe this will work.”
And if it doesn’t, the way that scientists look at that is, “So now we have some more data.” And we can bring that data back into the equation. And so I admire so much the degree to which you are willing to take those risks, and to try stuff out. And it’s exciting, what you tried out, and like you, I really agree that I hope that the conversation that we’re going to be having next year is a panel discussion with all the folks who have tried out all kinds of crazy ideas.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah. And again, just to clarify, I don’t want that panel discussion to only be around different tactics or different methodologies or different programs. I actually think there’s a higher level richer discussion here, which is, what’s the point of Yom Kippur? And what are we ultimately trying to get people to do to feel—I think what’s so unfortunate about the opinion that it’s all about what God says and just follow the commands, is that it ends up completely stifling that conversation.
You know, maybe you don’t like that I did this eulogy thing. I’d rather you argue with me about, well then, what’s the point of fasting? You know? Like what are we supposed to be feeling if it’s not about confronting our mortality? I very well may be wrong on that one, but you know, then we’re actually having a rich conversation about like, what’s this leading to?
And it feels like that conversation so rarely happens, because we end up focusing on which denominational box does this fit into? Or you know, is this traditional or not? Or is it appropriate to be having this in a beer garden? You know? I understand all those questions, but for me, they’re so secondary to these more core questions.
Dan Libenson: Yeah, I agree. And I think that a lot of times what the fighting tends to be about is the sense that the stakes are so high of error. Right? And so if we got it wrong, so what? So we’ll get it right next year. As opposed to we got it wrong, and so we’re all going to hell.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: It’s funny. I’m struck by the irony of fear of being wrong on Yom Kippur. [laugh] Right?
Dan Libenson: [laugh]
Rabbi Aaron Potek: It’s like, if we’re talking about the themes of Yom Kippur, for me one of them is that we are inherently flawed human beings and that we will make mistakes.
Dan Libenson: Hmm.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: But that tshuva from love—this idea of returning from love—is actually rooted in this idea that at our core, we are good. You know? And to be a little kinder to ourselves and to others. And I really think that with that baseline, it does allow for a little bit more experimentation, and a little bit of a loosening that allows for creativity in a way that kind of perfectionism doesn’t allow for.
Dan Libenson: Well I think what a great note to end on. I really thank you so much for spending this hour with us. And I think that whether just by the happy chance that doing it in a beer garden got a lot of publicity for this, or because of the brilliant ritual reinvention that you did, I’m so glad that it’s opened this conversation for folks. And I hope that we’ll see the fruits of it in the years to come.
Rabbi Aaron Potek: Thanks. Thanks for facilitating a great conversation, and looking forward to hearing people’s other creative ideas. We’re so desperately in need of them, and I’m just one voice, really.
Dan Libenson: I want to thank Aaron Potek for a wonderful conversation and I want to thank him also for doing this work. This is the kind of work that I think we need more of. And in that spirit, if you know of things that are going on in the Jewish world along these lines, please reach out to us at Dan@NextJewishFuture.org, or Lex@NextJewishFuture.org, and we can’t promise an immediate rapid response, but we are really eager to find out what’s going on.
And finally I’d like to say that if you are so inclined, we very much would appreciate and need financial support. So if you would be so inclined to donate, please go to www.judaismunbound.com/donate, where you have options to give a one-time donation or an ongoing monthly contribution if you are so inclined.
You can look at some of our other postings at Judaism Unbound on Facebook, and you can also visit our website at www.judaismunbound.com, where we have all kinds of materials and particularly I’d urge you to look under the resources and holidays section, where we have all kinds of interesting stuff relating to the high holidays and the holidays in general.
So I’m looking forward to Lex being back with us in a couple of days, but until then I will take his role and say, “With that, this has been Judaism Unbound.”
[End of recording]
Whiskey lovers rejoice!
Recently #SpottedinJewishDC is one of the finest whiskey, vodka, and gin distilleries around – One Eight Distilling. Pour yourself a tall gin and tonic (or favorite drink of your choosing) and enjoy this 1:1 interview with One Eight’s co-founder, Alex Laufer, who left a thriving career in biotechnology to open the distillery.
Allie: When you were growing up, what did you dream you’d do as an adult?
Alex: From an early age I loved exploring nature (mucking about a salt marsh, checking out the creepy crawlies under a log in the forest, collecting shells), and dreamed I’d be a biologist when I grew up.
Allie: What is your favorite drink? Do you get to be a “taste-tester” for One Eight?
Alex: Very hard to pick one favorite drink. I enjoy many spirits, cocktails, beers, wines, ciders, etc. For cocktails, I tend to enjoy those that are balanced, yet are boozy, and often have bitter elements; such as a Negroni, Old-Fashioned, or Martini. All of the core staff members at One Eight are taste-testers. Whether we are making the “cuts” on the still run itself, tasting barrel pulls for blends and finishes, proof samples, or creative cocktails, the diversity of pallets and opinions leads to a better final product.
Allie: How did you come up with the idea to open One Eight Distilling? And also, where does the name come from?
Alex: One Eight’s co-founder, Sandy Wood, had the inspiration to open the distillery. It had come from discussions with another friend, a nagging desire to create a business, and early visits to other distilleries in the region. Sandy wrote a lengthy proposal email to me, asking me to partner with him and come on board as Head Distiller. After discussions with my family I agreed, and we dove in!
The name was also Sandy’s inspiration; as an attorney by training, he is familiar with our Constitution. One Eight refers to Article One, Section 8, which- amongst several provisions-calls for the formation of the Nation’s capital. For us, One Eight demonstrates our pride to be crafting spirits here in Washington DC. I also love that One Eight could read as 18 or Chai (life in Hebrew).
Allie: Tell us the best – and most challenging – part of running your own distillery?
Alex: Crafting our spirits is my favorite part of the business. Many aspects of this part of the job are physically demanding and can become routine, but it is extremely satisfying when we have bottled 300 cases or filled 10 new barrels with whiskey for the future.
I also enjoy sharing our work with others, from giving a tasting at a local liquor store, or making cocktails with our spirits for friends and family at home.
Allie: Any new products coming out this year that you’re particularly excited about?
Alex: We released our Rock Creek Bourbon in September, and have been floored by the amazing reception it has been receiving. Our next release will be a collection of four beer-projects we have been working on for some time. For three of the spirits, we collaborated with local breweries, DC Brau and Hellbender. Stay tuned for a release next month!
Allie: Sounds like you’re pretty busy running a distillery, launching new products, and being a DC whiskey connoisseur…what do you like to do for fun outside of work?
Alex: First and foremost, outside of work, I love to spend time with my family; my wife, Jen and sons Jonas (12) and Abe (10). I enjoy cooking for them at home, taking time for hikes, bike rides, camping, or the beach and attending the boys’ various baseball games, swim meets and concerts.
Allie: How do you connect to Jewish life in DC?
Alex: My family and I are members at Tifereth Israel on 16th St. It is a lovely, diverse congregation with great local history (last year marked TI’s centennial), and an amazing leader in Rabbi Siedel. The congregation is very active, and has provided us with meaningful opportunities to cook and serve food at local shelters.
Allie: What is your favorite Jewish holiday and how do you celebrate it?
Alex: Tough to pick just one, as TI can really party for Purim and Simchat Torah! But, honestly, I love the Passover seder the most. We combine elements from seders Jen and I attended growing up and are making our own tradition. We often host family and friends, so I can cook several of the traditional dishes (except Jen makes the best matzah ball soup!).