Young, Jewish and making a difference in NoVa

Photo by David Stuck
Photo by David Stuck

Katie Cristol is campaigning to bring a forward-thinking voice on the Arlington County Board. On George Mason University’s Fairfax campus, Hillel Executive Director Ross Diamond is busy engaging Jewish college students. And Stacy Miller has the entire Northern Virginia area covered with her NOVA Tribe series that provides innovative programming for Jews in their 20s and 30s. Together, this trio is redefining what it means to be young and Jewish in Northern Virginia.

Interviews by Josh Marks and Ian Zelaya

Photographs by David Stuck and Lacey Johnson


Ross Diamond
Photo by David Stuck

Ross Diamond

Canada’s capital city of Ottawa is a long way from Fairfax. But north of the border is where George Mason University Hillel Executive Director Ross Diamond found himself after meeting his Canadian wife Sarah while waiting at JFK airport for a flight to Israel for an advocacy trip they were both participating in. He spotted her laptop and asked if he could transfer pictures from his memory card. They got to know each other during the trip and at four in the morning at the Western Wall, Diamond asked if she wanted to travel around Israel and explore and meet his family.

That encounter led to a career and country change for the 30-year-old Long Island native and Penn State grad. After dating long distance, Diamond immigrated to Canada in 2010 and was asked to chair the Ottawa Federation’s first social action mission to Israel. The experience would lead to Diamond’s transition from an IT professional to serving as executive director of Hillel Ottawa for two years before coming to Mason in 2012.

In addition to leading Birthright Israel trips, Diamond annually brings area Holocaust survivors and students together for the Expressions of the Holocaust event and the largest campus Good Deeds Day program in the region. This year, working with Israel Fellow Yakir Daniel, Diamond brought programming to Fairfax such as popular Israeli musicians Rita and Idan Raichel.

Washington Jewish Week caught up with Diamond at a busy Johnson Center, where students were studying for finals, to discuss the differences between the Jewish communities in Ottawa and the Washington area, what makes Mason special and the challenges of connecting with a mostly nontraditional Jewish student body.

What makes Mason such a special place?

At Mason we have a majority of our students coming from interfaith or unaffiliated families that are Jewish. We have more than 900 students who identify as having Jewish heritage; however, they don’t come from traditional families necessarily. We’re known for our diversity here at Mason and our students really love all aspects of our diversity. Judaism and connecting with Jewish community and Israel education and engagement is an important part of their university career because it’s something that they can take with them after they graduate.

What are the differences between leading Hillel at University of Ottawa versus George Mason University?

Many of my Ottawa students were descendants of Holocaust survivors. Having so many students connected to the Holocaust in Canada, they also had a deep connection to their Jewish heritage. I found it was much easier to connect with students on a higher Jewish level. Here at Mason I think that students are approaching Judaism for the first time, and it’s really amazing to be able to share that experience with them and to be able to provide them the first look at what it means to be a Jewish adult. One amazing thing at Mason is how much we invest in the student experience. In Canada, the student experience is not a significant part of the university experience.

Anything uniquely Canadian you brought back to the States?

I really appreciate Canadian politics. In Canada, I was friends with people who were affiliated with the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party and everyone could get together and be friends regardless of their politics. I find here in the D.C. area that it’s very challenging to be friends with people who have diverse perspectives or are affiliated with diverse parties, whether it’s the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. People can’t put their party affiliations down and actually have a conversation and communicate. So I brought back from Canada the idea that you can have a broad group of friends disagree but ultimately want the same goal for your country.

What kind of approach have you taken to making Mason Hillel a place where Mason Jewish students can feel welcome?

I’ve taken the approach that you should never take an opportunity to speak with someone for granted. Our student president next year, Dana, is a great example. She came to our Welcome Week freshman engagement event two years ago. I told her about the Birthright Israel program. I had bumped into her a couple weeks later while I was going to build a sukkah on campus. She had never built a sukkah. She didn’t really know too much about the holiday and when I bumped into her I said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come help us build the sukkah.’ Our relationship developed and eventually I asked her to join us on our Birthright trip. After bumping into her so many times she said yes, and now a year later she’s like a star. She has had a significant impact on our community.

— Josh Marks


Katie Cristol
Photo by David Stuck

Katie Cristol

Columbia Pike resident Katie Cristol, 30, is glad to live in a place that matches her progressive values. She wants to ensure that Arlington’s reputation for diversity and sustainability continues. The community advocate and education policy consultant is running for Arlington County Board to bring a fresh perspective to the 26-square-mile urban county across the Potomac River from Washington.

Cristol holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia, a public policy master’s degree from Princeton University and is a 2012 graduate of Arlington Neighborhood College. She met her husband, Steve, while attending U-VA. They moved to the rapidly developing South Arlington neighborhood a couple of years ago, attracted by the area’s vibrancy.

With the June 9 election fast approaching, Cristol took time out from the campaign trail to talk with Washington Jewish Week about her vision for making Arlington an even better place to live and raise a family.

What motivated you to run for Arlington County Board?

We’re at this really unique moment in Arlington. We have a five-member board and two seats are open for the first time in a few decades, and I thought it was really a perfect opportunity to make the case for some new voices at the table and to expand the definition of what leadership looks like in Arlington. I think we all benefit when we have some new ways at looking at old challenges. So that’s really what’s motivated me to get into the fray here.

What are some of the biggest issues you want to address in Arlington? What is your vision for the county?

One of the things I care most about is housing affordability in Arlington. It’s become really difficult, with the high cost of living, to stay and put down roots in Arlington and to keep roots here. This is one of those issues that I actually think is common cause between the under-35 population and folks who’ve been here for a long time. Even our well-established residents, especially retirees, are struggling to afford the high cost of living here and worry about their ability to stay in Arlington for the long run.

So that actually gets to the vision question. It’s a bit of an existential question about what we want Arlington to look like. My vision for Arlington, what’s attracted me to live here and what I want to preserve about it, is the diversity. The fact that there are so many different people from all walks of life who can find different neighborhoods and make Arlington their home. I think that diversity has also been really integral to our economic success in attracting businesses, which will become only more important as the federal government potentially shrinks its footprint in Arlington.

So that vision for a diverse, robust Arlington where folks get to work shoulder to shoulder and play and live and work with others from all different walks of life is important to me here and one of the things I’d like to be focused on.

Why did you choose to live in the Columbia Pike Corridor?

My husband and I bought in this neighborhood about two years ago. We really love the vibrancy here, which can sometimes sound like an empty phrase but we really do get, again, that mix of old and young. A terrific mix of ethnic restaurants for example. Great Ethiopian food and papusas at the same time. The food becomes emblematic of the vibrancy here.

We love our block that we live on. There are a lot of young families just like ours. It’s a great place to start a family, and I think in many ways looks like what a lot of millennials are looking for. We don’t necessarily need a tremendous amount of house or a tremendous amount of space. What we care about is transportation and accessibility and the kinds of neighborhoods we live in. And Columbia Pike offered a lot for us.

What is your favorite part about living in Arlington? What makes Arlington special?

We really deliberately chose Arlington. When I left graduate school, I really wanted to live in a community I felt matched my values and I frankly love paying tax dollars to a government that invests it in giving people a hand up when they need one. In things like smart growth. Walkable urbanism is one of those buzz words that you really feel when you’re in Arlington. It’s easy to get around here. You don’t need a car in every neighborhood, which I think is tremendous. And it does feel like the sort of place where we make investments that match our values. So when we were looking for a place to live, I work virtually so we had a lot of choice, we really could have gone anywhere. Arlington was at the top of our list because it did match everything that I value so much.

— Josh Marks


Stacy Miller
Photo by Lacey Johnson

Stacy Miller

Growing up in the Reston-Herndon area, Stacy Miller says she didn’t have many Jewish friends in high school. Now, facilitating Jewish friendships is her full-time job.

The 31-year-old Arlington resident is the founder of NOVA Tribe Series, a Northern Virginia-based organization that provides creative programming and activities for Jews in their 20s and 30s, with the goal of giving back to the community and establishing a new generation of Jewish leaders. “I’m Virginia all the way,” says Miller, who attended Oakton High School and James Madison University. “Something I’m really passionate about is connecting Jews to each other.”

You founded NOVA Tribe after attending a summer Birthright Alumni Leadership trip in 2011. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to start this community?

I’d been pretty active in the community before I went on the trip. I was doing volunteer work with the JCC in Northern Virginia, and I really enjoyed working and planning events with them. Around that time, I had decided I wanted to take on more programming of my own. I was getting involved with that leadership trip, and they had asked us to plan a project to impact the community in some way when we got back. So I thought this is for me to form some ideas and see if any other young adults in the community were interested. I put it out to different synagogues and young adult groups in Northern Virginia to see if anybody wanted to join a committee of young adults to help me with my program. So that’s where I started and how we began.

How does NOVA Tribe differ from other D.C.-area young professional groups?

One big thing is we started as a grassroots organization. We weren’t initially funded in any way. It was basically me coming together with other young adults who were passionate about helping the community, and also wanting to find other young adults. We think it’s very important to create a hyperlocal neighborhood-type community.

We also started a new program called Hot Spots of NOVA to showcase Northern Virginia pride and show that there are a lot of free and fun things to do out in the suburbs. For example, we did a wine-and-whiskey tour last year and partnered with EntryPointDC at the DCJCC.

Tell us a little bit more about the events NOVA Tribe throws.

One thing that makes us a little different is we try to do activity-based and meaningful programs. For instance, we did a hamantashen-baking class in Reston at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, which is our partner synagogue. Before that, we helped pack snack bags for a local elementary school that has a reduced and free lunch program.

How do you plan to expand the community’s outreach in the future?

I’ve been thinking of two different ways to reach out to different groups. One thing that I know from partnering with the synagogue is that more couples seem to join synagogues. This past spring we started a couples program for couples without kids. We’ve had a couple events for that, and we’re going to continue reaching out to more couples in the suburbs so they also feel welcome in programs. Our programs are for singles and couples, but we wanted to also see if we could connect to more couples in that way. The other thing is that the Metro has extended out toward Tysons and Reston. And we know a lot of young adults work in those areas. So we’re planning on doing more programming that’s professionally focused, connecting young adults with mentors or helping them with their career.

— Ian Zelaya

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2014 issue.

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