You Should Know… Sara Shalva

Photo by Josh Marks
Photo by Josh Marks

The quietude of a yoga studio couldn’t be more different than a bustling community center, but Sara Shalva feels at peace in both settings. The 37-year-old certified Bikram yoga instructor was recently hired as the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center’s first director of Jewish innovation.

Shalva lives in Reston with her husband, a writer and independent rabbi, and their two children, ages 6 and 9, in the same house that she grew up in.

Born in Managua, Nicaragua, Shalva has lived in Israel, New York City and Boston.

In Israel, Shalva studied at Hebrew University and the Pardes Insitute of Jewish Studies. While in Israel, Shalva volunteered for Project Otzma and served as development associate for Hebrew Union College’s Jerusalem campus.

In the United States, Shalva studied political science at Mary Washington College, later becoming a Taub Fellow at New York University, where she earned graduate degrees in nonprofit management and Judaic studies. Her stateside career experience includes serving as director of enrollment management at Hebrew College and as executive director of Limmud New York.

Shalva recently sat down with us to talk about the challenge of engaging the local Jewish community, what makes the DCJCC such an innovative place and why she decided to raise her kids in the house she grew up in.

What is a director of Jewish innovation?

[DCJCC CEO] Carole [Zawatsky] brought me on to really think about what it means to be Jewish in Washington, D.C. and how to work with the staff here to think about connecting Jewish values to universal values. People are making all kinds of choices in the modern world and those are really Jewish choices. Part of my job is to invite people to think about those Jewish values and allow those Jewish values to be anchoring for them and grounding for them and to help the staff engage in really interesting and creative programming around Jewish values and Jewish ideas.

What are you most excited about in your new role?

Working at an arts institution in D.C. is a very exciting thing to be doing right now. D.C. is changing so much. It’s such a vibrant, dynamic city. It’s so diverse. And it’s just amazing to be able to be with an institution that has such an incredible history and such a strong community of people who care very deeply about the arts and about their Jewish identity even though they might not be able to articulate what their Jewish identity is, how they’re Jewish in their everyday life. But I’m thrilled to be thinking about that and thinking about helping people do that.

What do you see as the biggest challenge of your job?

One of the challenges of my job is making everybody feel welcome here and also making sure that we’re not providing a watered down experience, to make sure the experience is really high quality because people in the D.C. area are intellectual. They’re smart. They are very driven. They’re very ambitious. So we need to make sure that our programming is on that level. And it has to be welcoming. We want to have deep, meaningful Jewish learning here.

What makes the DCJCC an innovative place?

Certainly the people. There are a lot of amazing people that work here. Look at our arts programming— our film festival, the music festival. The upcoming literature festival we’re planning just sounds amazing. It looks like we’re going to have some really forward thinking playwrights and forward thinking authors.

You live in the house you grew up in. Tell us about that.

I feel like my parents’ marriage wasn’t the best marriage. They got divorced in 1986.  But I have a healthy marriage. And I’m raising these two kids in the same space and it feels like a real tikkun, a healing. It feels like real repair. We’re somehow bringing a redemptive energy to the world through living in that same space that my parents lived in, having my daughter be in the room that I grew up in and my son being in the room that my brother grew up in. To have the opportunity to do that is a really nice thing.

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