In just under three hours on Nov. 8 the inspiration, innovation and impact of the Washington, D.C., Jewish community left its mark on Israel — and on the people who traveled there to reunite with their Washington peers.
A Shabbat dinner at the Inbal Hotel brought more than 200 Washingtonians of all ages and affiliations together to make Kiddush, break bread, sing and dance.
It was a highlight smack in the middle of a Federation Israel mission for some, midway through a Birthright Alumni mission for others and kicking off a trip to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America for a group, too.
“I’ll never forget the extraordinary Shabbat dinner we had with mission participants from Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia, with Birthright Alumni leadership, Birthright participants, MASAniks from the D.C. area and others from D.C. attending the General Assembly,” opined Steve Rakitt, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “The ruach [spirit] was amazing as we ate, sang, danced and thoroughly enjoyed being together as a community.”
And why not?
The Greater Washington community, with its 250,000 members spread around more than a dozen zip codes has a reputation for being transient and less-than cohesive. But early November brought 65 Washingtonians on Federation’s Israel Your Way mission, 25 young adults on the Birthright Alumni trip and 50 D.C.-area students and young people on a Taglit-Birthright experience. Some 100 of those folks stayed on for the GA, making Washington’s representation one of the largest nationwide.
According to Jamie Poslosky, a co-chair of the Birthright Alumni mission, that Friday night dinner solidified for her a passion for and commitment to Jewish D.C.
“If I could capture that moment and replay it somehow,” she said speaking of the dinner, “I would do it. It was quite humbling and empowering to look around at the vibrant community who were strangers turned friends, mentors and leaders, joined together in that way.”
She described her mission as eye-opening, empowering and humbling and told WJW that Washington’s Jewish community is diverse, intergenerational and dynamic. She said seeing firsthand through her trip the tangible projects in which the Jewish federation invests helped crystalize how much the work matters. The work of the D.C. community — and the role modeling of its leaders — “gives me, and other [future] leaders, formidable paths to follow in our efforts to lead.”
Polosky’s co-chair, Bradley Buslik, said what started as a group of 25 Birthright alumni who didn’t know each other turned into a family.
Jeff Rum was in Israel for the GA, as chair of the Young Leadership Cabinet and a participant in the Jewish Peoplehood Roundtable that took place the day before the GA, on Nov. 10. He told WJW that when he became involved in the Federation 10 years ago “it was the same crowd at the same events,” but that something a decade later has changed.
“With exceptional leadership — both on the volunteer and professional sides — there is a new energy, true innovation,” Rum said. He noted that you need “disruption” to innovate, that you need to take risks and change the rules.
Rum citied concrete examples of how this model has worked in Washington, examples such as the Reverse Mifgash, where Israelis come to spend time living with and experience Jewish Washington (as opposed to the traditional model of young Washingtonians being hosted by Israelis); of Birthright Next programming targeted to those who travel on the 10-day tour that creates community back home; and of ConnectGens Fellowships providing Jewish social innovators with the training, tools and connections to transform big ideas into ventures or projects that engage, inspire and support the Jewish community locally, in Israel and overseas.
Rum said at the Peoplehood Roundtable he heard for the first time the term “non-Jewish Jews,’ a reference to the more than 2 million U.S. Jews that are Jewish but have either converted to another religion or decided for whatever reason not to live their lives as Jews.
“It showed me that we certainly have a lot of work to do, and it underscores the importance of making Jewish peoplehood a priority of the Federation both on a local and national level,” said Rum. “We have an opportunity now to define the future of Jewish peoplehood.”
For a seasoned leader like Robert Zahler, who has been involved with the Federation on a top-leadership level for a decade but traveled to Israel for the time on the Israel Your Way mission, the trip was eye-opening. It was the Washington community in a different venue, for sure, but also the increased understanding of the Jewish state and the Jewish people. He cited as a highlight a visit to the Palestinian city of Umm el-Fahem. He said when he had read about Arab towns in the past, it conjured up images of tents and vast valleys of dirt. Umm el-Fahem is a city, he said, and he described a multimillion dollar mansion that was situated atop one of the hills. It was encouraging, he said, to see vibrant life in an Arab town.
Rakitt said he thinks these deep experiences and epiphanies will feed life locally now that everyone is back. He termed the missions “catalytic” and said he believes that successful mission experiences catalyze community development back home.
“We have energized dozens of members of our community who understand Israel better, are eloquent ambassadors for Israel and the Federation and will become more involved in the D.C.-area Jewish community as volunteers,” he said.
Noted Rum in the words of Natan Sharansky: “’When someone speaks to God, they should do it in a way that is comfortable for them.’ I think we’re at a defining moment.”