Out of college, David Wasserstein had many passions but little direction. One email changed that, sending him off to Israel for a year.
The New Jersey native returned to the United States to help tackle the issue of affordable housing, spending two years as a legal aid and helping low-income residents to find housing in Washington. Now, at 25, he’s studying at American University Washington College of Law with an eye toward working in public interest law.
How did you wind up in Israel after graduating college?
I had very little idea what I wanted to do after school. I’d gone on the massive propaganda machine that is Birthright and drank the Kool-Aid. I loved it. My Jewish identity growing up was very Reform. I had a bar mitzvah but that was pretty much it. Birthright and the summer I spent in Bat Yam changed that to an extent.
Then senior year comes around, and I had no idea what I wanted to do until I received a random email saying, “You should teach English in Israel.” So I went to Rehovot and got a real glimpse at Israeli society. I saw so much more than on Birthright. My eyes were opened to not just the diversity within the country but the issues under the surface. With refugees from Eritrea or Sudan or the schism between Ashkenazi Jews and Mizrahi Jews, it not only opened my eyes to what Israel actually is but it also tapped into my own Jewish identity.
You’re supposed to pursue justice and that idea really wasn’t present in my Jewish identity until much later — long after my bar mitzvah, which seems like a flaw. So my time in Israel put me on track of, hey my Judaism actually means something to me. It’s a responsibility, a duty, an obligation to make the world a better place.
One could say tikkun olam …
Yeah but I would never use that phrase.
How did your time there lead you to the work you’ve done in Washington?
I knew I wanted to something direct-service oriented, but didn’t want to teach because kids are smelly. As a history major the question was always, “Are you going to be a lawyer or a professor?”
There’s a very similar economic dynamic in Israel. Very concentrated wealth, the cost of living is quite high in Israel. Housing is expensive in Tel Aviv and inordinately expensive in Jerusalem. That had keyed me into some of the broader discussion of injustice.
As a direct legal service provider in a housing market that’s incredibly expensive and inaccessible for so many people, naturally one of the primary responsibilities I had was dealing with people walking into the [legal-services] clinic in a part of the city that is often overlooked and I never knew existed before I started working in Anacostia.
I know you’re not an authority, but what’s your assessment of the state of housing affordability in Washington?
My experience has shown me how inaccessible the market can be, even with assistance. As a housing specialist, we confronted a lot of source-of-income discrimination. Even those with rental subsidies and guaranteed financial backing are often prevented from finding decent, safe and sanitary housing because of, I would say, not-so-subtle attempts at excluding people from certain areas. There are a lot of ways landlords can engage in source-of-income discrimination without calling it that.
How do you think that experience will guide you through law school and your career?
I saw the importance of establishing a fundamental right to housing. I do believe it’s a human right. So often, tenants don’t have access to legal representation in housing court. Without an attorney, people often sign consent judgment agreements that they can’t possibly meet and end up getting evicted.
I’ve really appreciate how public interest-oriented American [University] is. I don’t have much freedom as a first-year to choose courses, but I know the guiding principle of my law school life and my career in law will be advocating for economic justice and racial justice.
How do you reconcile being a millennial who enjoys the changes the city’s undergone with your passion for affordable housing?
It’s a paradoxical existence as a young white person seeing the extent of poverty. Here at school in upper Northwest, it’s a totally different city than the one that exists elsewhere. At this point it’s an empty term, but it really is crucial to recognize your privilege.
And it’s discouraging how entrenched segregation is in Washington and how we, in the nation’s capital, continue to allow poverty to exceed 15 percent and allow so many people to be housing insecure. As a society more broadly, we’re starting to better understand the importance of housing. I know I have.
Coming from an interfaith family, what are your plans for the holidays?
Blood libel, actually. No, the Jewish side will get together for one night of Chanukah and exchange gifts and light the menorah and whatnot. Then the Catholic side will come down to our house and have Christmas dinner and open presents. It’s a fair and balanced celebration of the holidays.
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