Kansas City native David Helfand, 25, brings a bit of his beloved Heartland hometown everywhere he finds himself, whether living in Israel, studying in Los Angeles or working at his current job as director of youth engagement at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac.
A product of the Jewish day school system, Helfand was active in the United Synagogue Youth (USY) movement. After graduating from high school, he spent a year in Israel in the Nativ College Leadership Program, studying at a Conservative yeshiva and volunteering in the small Negev city of Yeruham.
Helfand attended the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and graduated in May 2014 with a degree in Jewish studies. While in L.A., he was active at UCLA Hillel and local synagogues, before returning to Israel as a madrich for Nativ.
In August, he moved to Washington and started his job at Har Shalom.
We recently caught up with Helfand to talk about celebrating the Royals’ World Series win, how a Jewish education has helped him succeed and his love of kosher barbecue.
What was it like growing up in Kansas City?
Growing up in Kansas City was phenomenal. [It was] a warm, welcoming, comfortable place to live where everybody knows each other, where in times of need everybody comes together. It’s just a great place to live, and I love going back to visit. My parents are still there, my friends are all still there. Comfort and hospitality is really what I think of when I think of Kansas City.
Are you still celebrating the Royals winning the World Series?
I’m absolutely still celebrating. I’m waiting for my T-shirt and sweatshirt to arrive in the mail.
Sounds like KC has had a big influence on you.
I’ve taken what I’ve learned in Kansas City as far as hospitality, and I host people at my house for meals on Shabbat and welcome people into the synagogue.
How do you translate your passion for sports into youth engagement?
I take my love of sports and of the game and bring that into the work I do with the kids as far as developing leadership skills and teamwork skills, and challenging them to really try to go out of their comfort zone and really do as much as they can to push themselves as hard and far as they can go.
What influence did learning at Jewish day school from a young age have on you?
Empowerment. I’d say that is the biggest thing. Being empowered to go out and take the lead and to learn from your failures and from what you lack and how you’re not succeeding. Going to Jewish day school, especially a small day school in Kansas City with only 23 kids in my class … I had people supporting me throughout the entire process, which is the same thing here at the synagogue. I have an amazing rabbi and chazan and educators and executive director and staff that I work with each and every day that really allow me to do what it is I do successfully.
Tell us about your passion for cooking?
I love cooking and hosting people for Shabbat meals. I love barbecuing. I love meat. I’m a Jewish boy from Kansas City. Kosher barbecue is a love of mine.
Where is your favorite place in Israel?
I’m a big fan of Jerusalem. But I also love the small city Yeruham, where I lived for two semesters with Nativ. [Yeruham] makes me feel like I’m in Kansas City. It’s a small, welcoming, hospitable place where everybody appreciates everybody else.