NeXus: Exploring the Jewish Journey. Class 1

Jodi Tirengel is on the GTJ leadership team and is head of Jewish Guy/Girl of the Week and co-director of GTJ events.

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“You haven’t taken NeXus yet?” This was the most popular question I heard when I told friends I had enrolled in the course. Offered by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, NeXus is a six-part series designed to teach young professionals about the Federation’s role in our community and how we fit into it.

The looks of shock and awe I witnessed when I discussed my plans to take NeXus may be a result of the fact that I am not particularly new to the local Jewish community. In 2010, I embarked on a journey to learn about the Federation’s role overseas by participating in D.C.’s first Birthright Alumni Leadership Mission. On this trip, we visited partner agencies to witness the impact firsthand. In only one week, we saw a broad range of organizations that the Federation supports. From a recreational facility for the disabled to an Ethiopian absorption center and everything in between, it was amazing to see the organization’s reach.

When I returned from the leadership mission, I had the opportunity to become a Vice Chair of Engagement on the Federation’s Young Leadership board. NeXus felt like the neXt (forgive me) best step for me to take to learn more about the broader Jewish community and how I could continue my involvement. Admittedly, I did not know what the experience would be like. I stepped into my first class unsure of what to expect.

I entered a room filled with 31 other young professionals. We began the night with an icebreaker, sharing stories about ourselves in order to find someone with whom we had something in common. It was interesting to see how many overlaps there were: favorite sports teams, hometowns, and career fields were all bonding points for those in our group. We then had the opportunity to discuss our Jewish journeys. We were encouraged to draw outlines of our paths through Judaism and how they helped us arrive to the place we currently are. Once again, there was a great deal of overlap: Hebrew school, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, Jewish camp, Birthright. It was interesting to see how much we had in common that had brought us all to this room.

After we concluded this activity, Shelly Kupfer, National Young Leadership Co-Chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, spoke about her own Jewish journey. A local small business owner, Shelly told us about her involvement with the National Young Leadership Cabinet. The Cabinet is composed of 200 young professionals from all over the country who meet at annual retreats and conferences to build stronger Jewish communities locally and abroad. Shelly chose to get involved after learning about the integral role that donations from the Federation played in helping a family of Russian immigrants build better lives for themselves in the United States. The story brought her to tears.

I heard a similar story while attending Tribefest, the Federation’s national conference for young professionals, last year. Alina Gerlovin Spaulding memorably spoke about how, without the work of the Federation, she would not have had the opportunity to lead the life she does today. Her father, an Olympic hopeful, nearly died after an injury. As Jews in the former Soviet Union, her family was persecuted. Refugees for months, they were relocated when Gerlovin Spaulding was just five years old. Donations helped save her father when he received medical care in the US. During a visit in which she returned to her hometown, Gerlovin Spaulding adopted a girl whose parents told her that she would not be able to accomplish her dreams if she stayed in Ukraine. Like Shelly, hearing this story brought me to tears. Reflecting on these experiences caused me to leave my first class thinking about the global impact of the Jewish Federation. The leadership opportunities that I have had locally have given me a new perspective on how the work being done here in D.C. has the ability to change the lives of Jews abroad. Through NeXus, I look forward to hearing their stories.