Building community in Northern Virginia with Jenn Rafael

Jenn Rafael (Photo courtesy of Jenn Rafael)

When the pandemic hit and Jenn Rafael couldn’t gather with her friends in person, she improvised. The Fairfax Station resident met with people at the edge of their driveway.

It was an effort to maintain community connections that for Rafael are necessity.

“The opportunity to talk with or be with a person I really enjoy,” Rafael said. “That interpersonal connection is what gets me out of bed.”

Rafael, 48, formerly served on the board of her synagogue, Temple Rodef Shalom, and currently serves on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Hadassah’s chapter in Northern Virginia. In 2014, she created the Jump into Judaism NoVa Facebook group where members help each other navigate Jewish life in the area. It’s all part of her goal to become more active in Jewish life.

While Rafael was active in her synagogue, she didn’t get involved in the broader Jewish community until participating in a survey for a study Brandeis University was conducting on Greater Washington’s Jewish population. Answering questions led her to reflect. She realized that she did not have a circle of Jewish friends, and that was something she wanted to change.

“I realized that it’s wonderful to have friends of all kinds, but I wanted to embed myself in the community. And I knew that the only way that I could provide for my son, for example, Jewish role models, was to become closer to other Jewish women and their families. So that we were raising our children together as a Jewish village.”

So Rafael became more active in Jewish organizations and participated in events at the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. Today her circle of friends is overwhelmingly Jewish.

“[I] have two dozen female friends that I can call on for anything. When my mother died, I had people come to my house for shivah from all over Northern Virginia, because I had made so many new Jewish friends.”

Rafael sees the Facebook group she started as a resource for NoVa’s Jews. She said most of the group’s 500 members are women looking for advice on raising children, finding kosher meat or searching for a synagogue that’s a better fit for them. Basically, the tips and tricks on how to do Judaism in Northern Virginia. Rafael’s ultimate goal for the group is to encourage people to engage in Judaism any way they can.

“My goal in my group is no matter what, do something. And there are so many different options to jump in to increase your observance, to have a playdate with another Jewish family, to do volunteer work and repair the world. Whatever you do, just do something.”

Rafael grew up on Staten Island and in New Jersey. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1994, she worked for various newspapers as a copy editor before landing a job in 2000 at Sightline Media Group in Tysons that publishes the Military Times and other military-related news publications. In May 2020 she was laid off as a result of the pandemic. While disheartened by the sudden loss of security and employment, Rafael saw it as an opportunity to change industries.

Last summer, she spent her newly found free time volunteering at the Lorton Community Action Center. Since 2018, she’s served on the board of the nonprofit that works to alleviate poverty.

“In my volunteer work, I see the devotion to mission that staff members of nonprofits have that I felt an affinity for, that I did not necessarily see anymore in media. There used to be more of a devotion to mission that I shared with coworkers in media. And media is different from what it was 25 years ago,” Rafael said. “That’s the kind of devotion to mission that I really wanted to feel in my everyday life at work. So that’s why I specifically wanted to interview with nonprofits.”

In August 2020, she became director of marketing and communications at NARFE, or the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. It’s the kind of organization she feels proud to be part of.

Rafael said she is a “very proud Jew by choice.” She converted in 2005 while engaged to her now-husband.

“I chose to convert — not to get married, not for him — but for myself because I felt as if I were already part of the community and I wanted to do the work to become officially part of the community.”

Because of this, Rafael said she, along with other converts she knows, can feel not always accepted. So she’s always looking for new ways to get involved and to help other Jews feel as though they have a place in the community.

“I always feel people think I’m pretending [to be Jewish]. Am I an imposter? So I’m always interested in learning and experiencing [Judaism],” Rafael said. “I’m always going to be looking to be a better Jew.”

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Correction, May 19: The story originally stated Rafael currently serves on the board of Temple Rodef Shalom. She is a former board member and the article has been updated accordingly.

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