A 29-year-old resident of the Adams Morgan neighborhood, Nikki Salzman is the communications manager at Washington Hebrew Congregation. A 2008 graduate of Brandeis University, where she double-majored in history and American studies with a minor in film, she received a master’s degree in 2011 in public communication from American University. She enjoys learning and going to local events for Jewish young adults. She says although Washington might have a smaller Jewish population than some other metropolitan communities, the range of programming here can’t be beat. We sat down with Salzman at Washington Hebrew’s location in Washington – the synagogue also has space in Potomac – to chat about her work and Jewish identity.
What do you do as the communications manager?
My primary role is to make sure that all of the programming that we do gets out to our congregants, gets out to the community at large. We have a lot of programs happening here, often multiple in any given week, and we have a couple of different channels that we use to get that information out.
Do you have any hand in programming?
Part of what we do is when a program ends, pause and say, ‘What worked right? What didn’t work right? What did our congregants get from it? How did this enrich the Washington Hebrew community?’ … [We] take that and say, ‘OK, is this the right direction for next time,’ or ‘How can, when we do this next time, make it better?’ Certainly, the communications team and I are involved in those conversations, even though we’re not the primary planners.
As for knowing what our community wants, some of that is looking back at what’s been successful and some of that is looking at what’s being done around the country, what’s not being done yet but should be done, and then coming together as a group to think about how can we make that appropriate for Washington Hebrew. How can we put the Washington Hebrew stamp on it?
Few of us in Washington are natives. Where are you from?
I’m originally from Gainesville, Fla., so I’m a small-town Florida girl. I’m very proud of the University of Florida, but I did not attend [college there]. I can’t even remember my first Gator game, but when you’re from a town that’s a college town, your whole life is wrapped up in things like orange and blue and going to football games. I moved here 4 ½ years ago to attend American University, and then from there ended up working for another Jewish organization, Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, and then I came to Washington Hebrew this past July.
What role did Judaism play in your life growing up?
In Gainesville there aren’t a lot of other Jews, except for the ones who go to University of Florida, so it was an interesting community to grow up in. My parents are both from Miami, which has a very strong Jewish population, and ended up in north Florida. There weren’t really a lot of other Jewish kids, so I was an only Jew. But my parents have a very strong commitment to their Jewish identities. They’re very passionate about being Jews and they made sure to instill that pride in me and in my brothers. I didn’t do a lot, Jewishly, growing up beyond becoming a bat mitzvah. I did go to Jewish camp.
For my undergrad, I went to Brandeis. After that, Judaism has had an up and down impact on my life. While I was at Brandeis, I was not as engaged Jewishly because I felt like I didn’t have to. After carrying the weight of being Jewish and alone, beyond my family, for so long, I was like ‘Oh, well, now these other people can be Jewish for me,’ and it wasn’t until leaving Brandeis that I began to re-engage and to find a way to channel my pride in being a Jew into how to bring it into my everyday life and into my professional life.
How would you describe your relationship with Judaism now?
I would say that my relationship with Judaism, part of it is being immersed in a Jewish environment and certainly working at a synagogue for the past eight months, is just constantly deepening. Right now, I’m actually taking a class here. We’re having a 12 Jewish Questions class … that is designed to have adults re-engage with Jewish questions at a level that’s deeper than most of us got in Sunday school and Hebrew school. I’m taking that and I’m learning a lot from it. Some of these questions that I’ve had as an adult we’re exploring – and that’s certainly very helpful and also just interesting.
Do you have any hobbies?
It’s such a Jewish answer, but my favorite thing to do is eat. I made a reservation two months ago for the new José Andrés place [China Chilcano]. They’re very booked up, but I had to get in there.