At age 27, Raeefa Shams made her passion for the State of Israel and cultural affinity toward Judaism official with her conversion to the Jewish religion. Now, at 35, she combats the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as the director of communications and programming for Academic Engagement Network. The D.C.-based nonprofit mobilizes college faculty to reject the delegitimization of Israel on U.S. campuses.
Shams graduated in 2008 with a history degree from Wellesley College and earned her master’s in international relations at University of Chicago.
Why have your five years at Academic Engagement Network been so rewarding?
I deeply enjoy the intellectual content of what I have been doing. It is a combination of my professional interest and also my personal and academic interests. We are leveraging the expertise and knowledge of faculty and their interests and concerns about this issue to really make a change. I enjoy the fact that I am making a difference when it comes to supporting Israel on campuses, which is something that I have been involved with and passionate about for a long time.
What led you to convert to Judaism?
It was a combination of having close Jewish friends at Wellesley and really feeling connected to the history and warmth of Judaism. I took multiple trips to Israel and developed a deep interest in contemporary Israeli culture and society. I was living basically a culturally Jewish life and religiously Jewish life for several years when I decided to make it official with Rabbi Avis Miller, a Wellesley alumna from the 1960s [and rabbi emerita of Adas Israel Congregation]. It was a very intellectually enriching experience.
Tell us about your family background.
My parents are immigrants from Bangladesh, who came to the U.S. in the 1970s for higher education. I don’t have any Jewish heritage of my own. One of the things I find really special about my experience is all the comparisons between the South Asian community in America and the Jewish community in America. It’s always fun and interesting to find a lot of cultural overlaps.
How did your parents influence you?
They definitely instilled in me the value of education and being knowledgeable and curious. They taught me about being responsible for other people, and being engaged in your community and helping those in need.
Are you involved in the local Jewish community?
I am highly involved with the young professionals group of the Jewish National Fund for several years now. I was appointed to serve for the next two years on JNFuture national board. It’s a real passion of mine to be connected to this organization that has existed for so long and seeks to connect American Jews with our partners in Israel. I haven’t joined a synagogue yet. I am looking for one that’s the right fit for me and my situation.
How would friends and acquaintances describe you?
Intellectually curious, passionate, fun loving.
What is one thing about yourself that people would be surprised to hear after meeting you for the first time?
I think they would be surprised to know I’m Jewish. I don’t have a traditionally Jewish name. Also, that art and design are passions of mine.
Which Jewish figure, past or present, would you like to have lunch with?
That would be Dr. Ruth [Westheimer], to talk about her life’s work. She just seems like one of the most delightful people alive today. I would love to know more about her youth when she was fighting for Israel’s independence, her incredible career as a sex educator and how Jewish values impacted her life.
What do you do for fun?
I like to travel and take nature walks. I also like all things culinary, cooking and Chinese restaurants.
When was the last time you felt very Jewish?
This past Yom Kippur at Tifereth Israel Congregation. It was the second time I had been to in-person services since COVID began. It was very moving for me to just be with people again in a Jewish context. I realized how important this was to me, walking by myself in Rock Creek Park, right after services. I really felt a sense of calm and tranquility before the torrential downpour. I was with my community at a time that I was being responsible for myself and for others.
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