Opening the Door to the Jewish Community: Sarah Rabin Spira

Photo courtesy of Sarah Rabin Spira

Sarah Rabin Spira has spent most of her adult life and professional career making a space for herself in the local Jewish community after growing up with little Jewish involvement.

The Chevy Chase, D.C. resident has served as the manager of PJ Library in Greater Washington at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington for the last 11 years, spent a decade at the Edlavitch DCJCC prior and has years of volunteer service at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School and with the Friends of Stead Park.

Spira is dedicated to opening the door for people like her to enter the Jewish community and find a home. She hopes to serve as an example for her two kids to do the same.

How did your upbringing impact your desire to pursue a career in the Jewish community?

My background is funny because it did not directly lead to what I’m doing today because if I had stuck with the experiences of my childhood, I wouldn’t be Jewish today. I grew up half Jewish. My dad is Jewish, my mother is not. And my experience was very much feeling like I was on the outside, not welcome, and not part of the Jewish community.

Part of that was because I wasn’t raised with one religion. We had both. I call it being raised “halfsies,” but part of it was just the way the community was. So, as an adult, I made it my mission to push my way into the Jewish community and then hold the door open for everyone coming after me, doing my very best to make sure that our Jewish community is open and welcoming to those who may have a different background.

In my case, it’s interfaith. But there are many Jews who might otherwise feel unwelcome or marginalized. That’s where it came from — a place of not feeling welcome and not wanting others to feel the same.

When did you make that breakthrough into Jewish spaces?

In my 20s, I was living in D.C. at the time. I moved up here after graduating from the University of Florida. I moved up here and I made that decision [to push into Jewish spaces] generally, in my early 20s and then, at one point, I had this powerful need to celebrate Passover. I invited two cousins and three friends for Passover. But I decided two days in advance that I was going to host the seder, and my aunt laughed at me and said it was impossible, but then helped me figure it out.

That was kind of the beginning, I needed to have that connection to my grandparents and made it happen through celebrating that. I was [also] working at the D.C. JCC and slowly made my way in. And then I met my husband — he was also working there. And so, Mark and I pushed together to make a life a Jewish life together here in D.C. That continued when I moved to Federation to launch PJ Library for our area.

Why is it so important for you to commit so much time to volunteering, in both Jewish and non-Jewish spaces?

Each of us can offer time, talent or treasure. I don’t have the treasure, but I have the talent and I’ll make the time is what I always say. So, serving at my children’s school [Milton Gottesman] on the board and as an ambassador for Milton was a really important way for me to give back to the school and donate to the school in ways that I could do so.
Same thing with Friends of Stead Park.

I’ve been on that board since I was pregnant with my son. He’s now 13. Being able to have this very community-based park be a local jewel for the community, working on renovations to the field and to the recreation center, making it accessible for more people and really making it something for the children of the District of Columbia, which is our charter, is something that was really important to me.

How has your work at PJ Library been able to serve as an example for your kids?

My kids have been part of PJ library pretty much their entire lives … I think for them having this sense of joyful, meaningful Judaism is important to them and providing for other people as well. We’ve done things where we’re celebrating Havdalah, the ritual, separation from Shabbat, or braiding challah and teaching people how to do that, or introducing Jewish values like bikur cholim, bringing comfort to the sick.

I want to be able to transmit these Jewish values to my kids, and then have them help me do that for others as well. So that everything that we’re doing is couched in Jewish values, and that we’re providing a lot of different types of experiences, so that when they come time for them to make independent decisions that they make ones that are based in values.

How have you been able to “open the door” throughout your career?

At its most basic level, it’s visual. It’s always been important to me to make sure that different types of families are represented in the books that PJ Library sends out and in the materials that I create with Federation to support this work. I always say that if you can’t see yourself in the advertising, you can’t see yourself at the program.

One of the examples that I use is that we have this Federation roller shade for PJ Library that we use for the PJ program. We use about six or eight pictures of families of all different kinds of families, and kids love it. They always find someone on that roller shade that represents them, and it makes them feel good and that makes me feel good. It is a very basic thing, but unfortunately, it was groundbreaking when I started doing this — iso it starts with the visual representation and then it’s just making sure that everything we do is open, accessible and welcoming.

What about your work brings you a sense of pride?

The thing that I’m most proud of with my work is the fact that I think fewer people feel as uncomfortable entering into the Jewish community as I did 20-some-odd years ago when I was trying to push my way in. I attribute a lot of that to PJ Library being open to so many families without any expectation of money in return or knowledge in advance. And I attribute a lot of that to the work that Federation and our partners are doing to really make sure that being Jewish is something that is open, accessible and joyful and meaningful.

The work that I’ve been able to do with that makes me feel a lot more confident in that moving forward. My kids won’t feel the same barriers that I did, and other children won’t as well. Because I really think that the most important thing that we can do is open the door and keep it open for those to follow behind us.

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