Monthly Mussar: The Limits of Gratitude

Gather writer Joelle has been exploring different Mussar Principles. These Jewish Principles are based on finding and cultivating the characteristics of the divine that are imbued within ourselves with the goal of eventually projecting them outward, to reach our fullest potential, as we were created to by the divine. For each trait, there is a spectrum, and the goal is to find the middle path, between either extreme. Join her on her monthly journey.

There was something bothering me about gratitude, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The books and the media, to name a few, tell us that we can be happier if only we would be more grateful. It makes sense that if we can choose to dwell on the abundance in our lives rather than the lack thereof, that we will see the world as a brighter place.

Indeed, this month I focused on gratitude – noticing it when I experienced it and practicing expressing it to others.

And in fact, this month, I did have a very cute gratitude experience. The phone at my office rang at 4:30 PM on a Friday, and since I was the only one left in the office, even though it’s not most of my job, I answered the call. It was a data user in need of assistance, and I did my best to help him and be friendly despite longing for the impending weekend. This data user was apparently so impressed at having an interaction with a government employee that was both competent and pleasant, he insisted that he tell my boss what an excellent job I had done. While on the one hand, I didn’t feel like my assistance merited such enthusiastic praise, I also was very touched by his gesture. And it made me think about how easy it could really be to make the extra effort to express gratitude to the people in our lives, whether they be people we are in intimate relationships with or those we’ll talk on the phone with for 10 minutes and never hear from again.

Upside (1)

On my part, for my month of gratitude, I did make efforts to express gratitude to some individuals who had a big impact on my life, but to whom I never expressed that before. I did find that it was difficult to do. And while I expected there to be a warm fuzzy feeling going along with that expression, what I found was that it was more mixed. It does feel good to tell someone how grateful you are to have had them in your life and to have them reciprocate that feeling. But it feels less great when what meant a lot to you didn’t mean so much to the person it came from, and that happened. And it feels a lot less great to not get any response, and that also happened. But I feel that, despite the potential awkwardness, it’s better to say it, because it might lead to a moment of great connection. And also because it’s impossible to know how something grateful you say today can touch someone, even if they don’t know it then or express it to you in the moment. Like my data user interaction.

So with all of those good take-aways, what could be bothersome about the idea of gratitude? As I sit here writing this, in a pretty good mood, it seems like a no-brainer, focusing on the positive and in turn feeling grateful makes logical sense. But in my own experience, the times when I’ve felt so awful, being implored to be grateful produced more harm than benefit. I have, after all, struggled with depression and anxiety to varying degrees throughout my life. And what I’ve found is that trying to ignore the negative just doesn’t work. And for someone to disregard your feelings by telling you to be grateful can feel like a slap in the face.

I remember in particular one time during a depressed episode when I went to Friday night shabbat services. I had always enjoyed participating in services, and I appreciated spending that time as an end to the week. But that particular week, as I sat by myself in services and read through the prayers we say, expressing such gratitude and joy, and I couldn’t help but feel completely left out, because it was not how I felt at all. And as I looked around and saw what felt like every couple embracing each other and staring lovingly into each other’s eyes, channeling in that moment the love and gratitude embodied in the prayers, I felt even more alone.

Downside (1)Having someone tell me to be grateful wasn’t going to fix my problem, nor was saying grateful words I didn’t feel. What I needed was someone to listen and be supportive, and it didn’t seem like there was anyone in my life that was going to be able to provide that for me, nor was it something I was going to find in that institution.

And so I conclude with a mixed message, that gratitude is worth pursuing to the extent that it can connect us with our feelings and with others, but overemphasizing the pursuit of gratitude can distance ourselves from others and isolate them.

So I think we can do better. I think we can do better in the Jewish community to create spaces where everyone feels welcomed and valued. I think we can do better to share with others how much we value them. And I think we can do better in acknowledging where people are at rather than telling them to look on the bright side because it is easier for us.

On that note, this coming month I will focus on compassion. I’ve found that in trying to be more patient and in exploring the limits of gratitude, the empathy that comes from being compassionate is key, so I am excited to see what I discover as I pursue it specifically this month. When have you had to summon compassion? When do you wish someone would have acted more compassionately toward you? Let me know below in the comments.

All comics drawn by Becky Schwartz.


I’ve Been Arrogant for 15 Years and Now I Atone

It is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In synagogue I recited one of the most important prayers Jews read each year called viddui, or the confession. Al chet she-cha-tanu l’fanecha. For the sin we have committed against you.

There are many sins. One stood out to me.

“. . .The sin we have committed against You by our arrogance. . .

For all these sins, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement!”

* * * * *

I stood at my Cancerslayer table at CureFest on the National Mall and talked about my Cancer-Slaying Super Man books, which I displayed along with information on how to purchase them. “My memoirs are about how I survived childhood cancer twice by believing I was superhuman,” I said to interested visitors.


Benjamin Rubenstein in front of his Cancerslayer table at CureFest on Sunday, Sept. 20, on the National Mall. CureFest is an annual event uniting the childhood cancer community, the general public, leading pediatric oncologists and congressional leaders.

I distributed stickers of my Instagram character named Cancerslayer to the sticker-hungry children who visited my table. “Cancerslayer fights illness by day and bad guys by night!”

My table was wedged between two nonprofits that raise awareness and research money for childhood cancer. The two nonprofits’ founders were present to represent their organizations. The three of us talked to each other and also to cancer victims and their family members who attended CureFest and visited our tables. Each nonprofit founder sat and listened to me repeatedly share a concept that I have embraced since my first diagnosis almost exactly 15 years ago: Cancerslayer is the attitude that has helped me survive and thrive.

Each of the founders lost a child to cancer. No amount of Cancerslayer attitude, kale juice or anything else will bring them back or likely helped them stand a chance against the supreme king of illness. In the end, genetics and randomness tend to win out.

The Cancerslayer attitude is brash and arrogant. It helped me when cancer consumed my adolescence. It helps me as a healthy young adult swimming through our complex society.

I think my position will always be wedged between two groups, just like my table at CureFest. One group of people needs Cancerslayer because it uplifts them, or maybe fuels the anger they’ve been awaiting to overpower their sadness. Rage, I’ve found, is a supreme motivator.

The other group of people, possibly including Paul and Sandy who sat at the tables next to mine, resent Cancerslayer. I ask those individuals to please forgive me for this sin of arrogance. Then, please forgive me again because it is a sin that I will always commit to help myself and others keep fighting.

Benjamin writes and speaks about health and feeling like a superhuman. Tell him how arrogant he is on Twitter and Facebook. But first you should probably read his books and cancerslayerblog


Sukkot Events 2015

Check out the Map of Sukkahs in DC!

Did we miss anything? Submit events here and/or leave a comment on this post.


Thursday September 24th

Sunday September 27th

Monday September 28th

Tuesday September 29th

Thursday October 1st

Friday October 2nd

Saturday October 3rd

Sunday October 4th


Simchat Torah Festivities

Monday October 5th

Friday October 9th


Judaism that is more than get married, have babies

On one of my rabbi listservs there’s a long email chain about innovative high holiday programming for this year. There are many creative ideas, but I was struck by one not-so-creative common denominator: they are all taking place in a synagogue.

To be fair, this is the time of year when many Jews, for whatever reason, go to synagogue in spite of the countless objections that deter them from going during the rest of the year. It makes sense, then, that rabbis should be there to meet these high holidays Jews, a phenomenon that was given a special shout out in Zach Braff’s Garden State.

But by only offering synagogue-based options, we as a Jewish community perpetuate the idea that Judaism requires a synagogue. That feels limiting, and not just because of the physical limitations of a synagogue. Synagogues are houses of prayer. As much as we are able to redefine prayer and/or God, those are loaded concepts that will prevent many people from ever walking through the door. I’m someone who believes in God and prays regularly, and nevertheless these are things I struggle with on a daily basis. Is this really the card we want to lead with? Even if one thinks that these are essential and central aspects to being Jewish (I’m not sure I do), these are certainly not the easiest entry points into Jewish life.

This relates to a larger challenge, especially for Jews in their 20s and 30s. When synagogues are both the center of post-college Judaism and extremely family-centered, as most are, the implied message to the rest of us is: get married, make babies, and then you can get involved Jewishly. This feeling is validated when most efforts by synagogues to engage millennial Jews feel like different forms of speed-dating. While this isn’t true for the more innovative synagogues in DC, this type of programming further alienates those Jews who want to be seen as more than single and who want to explore how Judaism might intersect with the many other aspects of their identities.

So what does Jewish life outside of a synagogue look like? I bet the people who can help answer that question are the very people who aren’t coming to these synagogues or hope-you-join-our-synagogue-soon events. These people might be working during Yom Kippur. They might not be fasting on Yom Kippur. But just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And just because they haven’t been given a compelling reason to engage with Judaism doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

So on this Day of Judgment, I’m going to save the judgment to the God that we may or may not believe in and sit down with this population of ignored Jews, on Yom Kippur. If you’re one of them, I’ll hope you’ll join me. Who knows – maybe you’ll meet your future spouse!


In Preparation for Rosh Hashana – A Poem

Post-Selichot, and pre-Rosh Hashana, I find myself in a particularly reflective mood. We have collectively entered upon a time of introspection, but it is also a time where we are under a lot of pressure to come up with answers: Will you forgive me? Will next year be better? Am I a good enough Jew?

In Preparation for Rosh Hashana

I stalk the neighborhood looking for a calmer mood,
but only find gas stations.
Sitting on the corner of Harvard and 11th,
I realize that I’m staring at the helix of the streetlamp
like I’m some kind of bug
in plausibly desperate search of a soul,
or a blind pilot
against a sky still blue and lace
when the world expects grey.
How do you say, ‘I’m sorry for all the shampoo bottles
I threw away with half an inch of soap left at the bottom,’
and ‘I’m sorry that sometimes
when I give food to homeless folks on the street
I feel a little too good about myself,’
like I can collect points
to use next time I’m accidentally racist or something.
How do you say, ‘I’m sorry.’
for 28 years of not volunteering on Christmas?
I’m sorry I don’t call my mother more often,
that I’m no longer vegan,
and that I was ever seventeen.


It’s honey we want
but all that’s here is wine-
turned-to-vinegar from dinner last week
and we walk – to shul
     -to the bus
eyes taut and open and looking up
in an orbital plea
as we step by step make the patterns
of the days of our lives
made of days
made of patterns.
It’s honey we want
but no one was married
or maybe God wasn’t invited to the wedding.


I’ll wash my hair in clover, wear a white dress,
beat my chest,
and cry.
With tired eyes closed, trust me
trust me I’ll sing songs I don’t understand
not because I am supposed to, but because
I need to.


And I’ll walk, drawing patterns behind me
of yesterday and last year
and hoping that tomorrow,
maybe tomorrow vinegar will be honey.

Why do we gather the Jews?

“So, why did Gather the Jews hire a rabbi?”

I’ve been asked this question at just about every coffee meeting I’ve had since starting this job. Of course, I’ve been asking myself the same question, and I don’t yet have the full answer. But in classic rabbinic fashion, I think the answer might begin with another question. It’s a question I’m much more interested in, yet no one has asked me.

“So, what’s the point of gathering the Jews?”

On the surface, the answer seems obvious. Of course Jews should gather. We’re one big family. We’re a tight social club, where the password to get in is a correct answer to Jewish geography. We’re a people with a shared language, history, and experience.

But is that really true? We don’t have a shared language, except for maybe a few Yiddish words that “goyim” know too. We’re completely disconnected from our poor, immigrant, came-to-America-with-nothing history. And our shared experience, if there is one, pretty much amounts to a love of summer camp and a hatred of Hebrew school. A few clicks on Facebook could connect me to people more similar to myself.

Without any substantial commonalities, this “tight social club” has a very arbitrary list of who’s in and who’s out that can easily lead to exclusivity, insularity, and even xenophobia. Do I really care about hanging out with people who have blood that resembles my own? And if there’s more to us than that, please tell me it’s not just self-referential jokes about us being cheap and having complaining mothers.

Others, in an attempt to avoid the challenge of our disunity, give a more practical answer for why the Jews should gather. It’s not about current community. It’s about continuity. The more Jews hang out together, the more they marry each other, the more they have Jewish babies, and the more our people survive.

Even if this were true, it still begs the question: to what end? Why do we care so much that the Jews survive? Is it because Hitler tried to kill us? Is it because our grandma would be really disappointed? Are those guilt-based reasons really compelling enough to make people care about Judaism?

This focus on the future distracts us from our central question, the question I want to explore with others in this new position. Our obsession with Jewish continuity has prevented us from dealing with the present reality, which ironically is a sure way to prevent Jewish continuity. Judaism has become a box that we pass down from generation to generation. We’re so worried about making sure the box gets to the next generation that we forget to open it. Or we’re too scared that we’ll find nothing inside, and then it will have been passed down for nothing.

Friends, it’s time to open the box. It’s time to ask the question of the Wicked Child on Passover night – why does any of this matter? It’s a scary question, especially for Jewish professionals like me who have made a career out of whatever is inside. We might find nothing of value. But at least then we won’t keep passing down a worthless box. At least then we can move on and look elsewhere for meaning.

For now, though, I’m OK with rummaging through it a little more. My hope for this new year is that others take the risk to dig with me. Maybe together we can find some hidden treasures inside.


Jewish Techie of the Week – Sam


Sam with Tiffany and David also Open Doors Fellows

Meet Sam! He was an Open Doors Fellow Cohort I and a coder who created the Gather Now app, an events app that pulls from the Gather the Jews Calendar. Sadly he will be leaving DC soon but learn all about his next adventure below!

Jackie: What first brought you to DC?

Sam: College! I moved out to DC in the fall of 2006 to start my freshman year at American University. My intention was never to stay in DC however after 4 year of undergrad, a year of grad school, and 4 years working in DC it has really started to feel like home (sorry Mom and Dad, I know you would like me to move back to Chicago).

GatherNow_withSubtext_512x512 (1) (1)Jackie: Can you tell me about your experience in the Open Doors Fellowship?

Sam: Being an Open Doors Fellow was an absolutely amazing experience! Through the fellowship I had the opportunity to meet so many extraordinary people and it helped empower me to play a more active role in shaping the Jewish community. As part of my capstone project I developed the Gather The Jews events app called Gather Now. The app is still being beta tested but it will be released in the coming weeks for download through the app store.


Sam working on the Gather Now app!

Jackie: You are leaving us shortly, can you tell us about the amazing opportunity you will be taking in Israel?

Sam: I will be moving to Tel Aviv in October to be a 2015-2016 Israel Tech Challenge Fellow. This fellowship takes a handful of Jewish software engineers from around the world and brings them to Israel for 10 months to work in some of Israel’s most elite high tech startups and companies. I’m very much looking forward to living in Tel Aviv and having the opportunity to learn from some of Israel’s best engineers. But I’m definitely going to miss DC a lot.

Jackie: I know that you are a candy fiend and love both Bubble Tape and Dum-Dums, but if you had to pick one, which would it be?

Sam: Oh definitely dum-dums! The flavor selection with dum-dums is unbeatable however I was really bummed with the recent news that the raspberry lemonade flavor will be canceled. It’s a big loss for the lollipop community.


Sam at the Moishe House With Out Walls Ba_ Mitzvah Party with Sasha another Open Doors Fellow [far right].

Jackie: What is your favorite Jewish Food?

Sam: Definitely bagels. Specifically Everything bagels with tomatoes and chive cream cheese. My apartment is actually located right next to an amazing local bagel shop so I basically have a bagel everyday; I’m kind of addicted.

Jackie: What is your favorite way to spend Shabbat?

Sam: I’m happy doing anything as long as it involves lots of food and friends or family.

Finish the sentence: When the Jews Gather…

Sam: Fun will be had!



Can I Ask Someone Out on Rosh Hashanah?

As the seasonal drink of choice shifts from an iced coffee to a pumpkin spice latte (with real pumpkin!!), and with the High Holidays upon us, it’s time to deal with a question that might arise: Can I ask someone out on Rosh Hashanah? 

What I mean is this: What if you see a good-looking gal (or guy) at services?  Would it be sacrilegious to start a conversation and potentially ask for his or her contact information?  I’d venture to say no… but use plenty of caution and respect.

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a new year, and we’re supposed to fill it with something sweet, like apples and honey.  But should this “something sweet” be limited to the food variety?  Should we deprive ourselves of one type of sweet new year to maintain respect for the other one?

I used to have a friend (we’ll call her Danielle) who moved to Baltimore from DC for work and didn’t know a single person there, in both senses of the word.  Rather than driving down to DC to join me at services as I had suggested, she decided to attend the services there by herself.  She sat on the seat second from the end.  Just as the service started, a guy (we’ll call him Jonathan) sat down next to her, also by himself.  They exchanged pleasantries between prayers—name, job, the usual—and that was that.  Jonathan wanted to ask Danielle out, but he was afraid that it went against all social and religious norms to do it in the synagogue, and this time on the holiest of holy days (Yom Kippur).  So he waited a week, got creative, looked her up, and asked her out.  Facebook tells me that they are now married with two kids.

Now, I’m no religious guru (far from it… do I smell bacon??), but my thought is this: Would G-d want us to stop ourselves from “going for it” on the holiday?  While no one could ever know the answer to this question, what I recommend is that if you think someone might be worth talking to after services, it doesn’t hurt to strike up a conversation and end with some form of, “I really enjoyed talking to you.  If you’re up for it, let’s be in touch after the holidays.  May I get your number?”  A lighter alternative would be to ask for the other person’s card… an easy peasy way to exchange information without using the antiquated “What’s your number?”

As we internalize the spirit of the High Holidays and try to enjoy the year 5776, remember that it’s okay to start off on a bold and exciting foot, and maybe a date in the new year.  L’Shanah Tova!


This article, with minor changes, also appeared in JMag, the official magazine of JDate.


2015/5776 High Holiday Guide

The coconut provides a nutritious source (2)

Erev Rosh Hashana—Sunday, September 13

Rosh Hashana (1st Day)—Monday, September 14

Rosh Hashana (2nd Day)—Tuesday, September 15

Kol Nidre—Tuesday, September 22

Yom Kippur—Wednesday, September 23

Other Resources:

  • High Holiday ticket exchange! Have high holiday tickets that you are not using? Enter them here and check out what tickets are available here!
  • EntryPointDC High Holiday Tickets – Many of the congregations in the area sell their tickets through EntryPointDC, get your tickets today!
  • 10Q – 10 Days. 10 Questions.
  • Jewels of Elul – Daily inspiration every day of the Jewish month of Rosh Hashanah (Elul)
  • Educational materials – from AJWS
  • My Bubby – offering a 20% discount off their honey card of the month. Just enter the code “sweetrosh” upon checkout by August 31.
  • JSSA – Support JSSA volunteers as they deliver baskets of traditional holiday items and food to Jewish families and individuals who are unable to afford these items on their own.
  • Jewish Food Experience – Top 10 Recipes for a Scrumptious Year

Grab a few study buddies for a back-to-school themed Trivia Night!


Jewish Teacher of the Week – Joanna


Meet Joanna! This Chicago native has been in the District for two years now. She is a teacher in Fairfax and Pure Barre enthusiast! Want to recommend an outstanding leader to be featured on Gather the Jews? Nominate them at

Jackie: What first brought you to DC?

I am celebrating my two-year anniversary here in DC. I moved here from Chicago and deciding to make the move was a big decision for me. I was at a point where I wanted a change. I was looking for a new job and my mom had passed away two years prior and a new experience just seemed like what I needed. I moved here really not knowing anyone except my brother. I absolutely love it here and have made amazing friends. I love exploring the city and there is definitely more for me to continue to explore.

Jackie:You are a teacher, what is your favorite part of your job?

I am going into my 9th year of teaching. I am currently a K-6th special education teacher in Fairfax County. There are so many reasons that make me love what I do. The look on my students’ faces when they finally get a concept after days of teaching is very rewarding. Every day is different for me, kids always seem to know how to put a smile on my face, especially with all the funny comments and compliments I get everyday. My friends always appreciate the priceless stories that I have for them about what happened during my day.

image4Jackie: I hear you are keeping Pure Barre in business, where is your favorite studio and do you have pointers for beginners?

I am definitely keeping Pure Barre in business. My recent accomplishment this past week was reaching my 250th class. My favorite studio I go to is Pure Barre McLean. I work in McLean, so I like to stick to my morning routine before work with the 6am class. This summer I have taken advantage of sleeping in a bit and going to class a bit later. For those of you wanting to try Barre and have hesitation, my words of advice for you are that this workout is probably going to be different than any other workout you have done before, so do not get discouraged if you are not an instant pro. You are going to feel muscles that you didn’t know existed and you will be sore, but give it a chance and you will be just as addicted as I am.

Jackie: Can you tell me about your work as a member of the NOVA Tribe planning committee?

image1NOVA Tribe was the first organization I began participating in when I moved here two years ago. Not knowing anyone, this was a way for me to meet friends. The friends that I have made through NOVA Tribe are real meaningful friendships. My decision to be part of the planning committee stems from wanting to help others that are new to the community or that have lived here and want to start participating in the Jewish community to build friendships. Being able to sit with the committee and discuss our ideas allows us to tap into all our resources as individuals and come together as a committee to create the best event possible to provide a meaningful experience for everyone in NOVA Tribe.

Jackie: What is your favorite Jewish food?

I went eating gluten free about three years ago, so some of the Jewish foods I used to eat I definitely do miss eating. One of my favorite Jewish foods of all time is my mom’s kugel. I remember coming home from college and she had it waiting for me to eat. Also, if you are ever in Chicago, matzo ball soup from The Bagel is yummy!

Jackie: Who is your favorite Jew? My favorite Jew is definitely my mom. She passed away 4 years ago and I miss her more and more each day. She has made me the person I am today. She was the strongest woman I knew. She was always there to cheer me on and give me the encouragement when it was needed the most. She taught me to set my mind to something and give it my all.

Finish the sentence: When the Jews Gather…

… They create memories


Join MesorahDC for High Holidays!


Notes From the Recently Observant

I don’t believe in God.

I believe in rainbows, and shooting stars, and the bright, full moon.

I believe in the power of thirty voices in a living room swelling together into something like magic.

I don’t believe in God, but I believe in love. I believe in beauty, and too often in pain. I believe in life and in hope. I live like I mean it.

When I was young, synagogue was my favorite place. We never went there enough for my taste, and perhaps that was because I had a habit of staring at the Eternal Flame until I saw stars, or because something about the echoing boom of my father’s voice singing Lecha Dodi always got to me. Maybe I was spoiled because Olam TIkvah started in my mother’s basement and all of the older people knew me. Maybe I felt at home there because when I was a small child, I could run up onto the bimah and dig my hands deep into Rabbi Klirs’ pockets for hard candy without getting scolded. Often I found a large, heavy arm wrapped around me and I became part and parcel of service-leading. I wasn’t very good at it — my mouth was full of candy.


My grandfather, Arnold Smokler carrying the Torah donated to Olam TIkvah by his father’s shul in about 1965. Ask me about the story of Grandpa (Arnie) and PopPop (my other grandfather, Robert Grossman) and the transportation of this Torah to Fairfax, VA from Boston, MA. It’s funny, I promise.


The years went on, and my parents became less practicing. We shifted away from synagogue, and as I aged into my teenage years, extracurriculars took over my time. For a very long while, my Jewish practices lay dormant. I didn’t go to a university with a Hillel. And when I moved to New York, I didn’t have the chutzpah to walk into a big shul to go to services alone. I built up a fairly fulfilled secular life, and injected Jewishness into it where I could. I had a Passover seder at my apartment each year which all of my Jewish friends from work attended, and a number of non-Jewish friends as well. I hosted Shabbat once or twice a year when people came in from out of town. If someone got married in Crown Heights, I would go, but Chabad was not really my scene.

When I moved back to The District about two years ago, I found a world of Jewish opportunity, and put down roots. At first, I went to a Moishe House DC event here and there. Then it was High Holiday services at Adas Israel and Sixth & I, and eventually, I found my communities, my minyanim, and my Jewish spaces where I felt at ease. (Tikkun Leil Shabbat, Segulah, MHWOWDC, DC Jews on Bikes, etc.) I finally found the places where I could almost, almost hear my father’s voice in the crowd during Lecha Dodi.

I recently started turning my phone off on Shabbos. If I can walk to where I’m going, I do. I do these things not because I have decided to become shomer Shabbos, but because I tend to feel more refreshed and more ready to address the hard edges of The Rest of the Week when I allow myself a break from the emails, a time-out from Facebook, and tell myself that the world will not end if I don’t reorganize my calendar every 45 seconds.

Screenshot 2015-08-25 at 11.34.57 PM


It is pretty difficult to untie yourself from technology when everyone else around you is plugged in. It is also difficult to be an island. For many years, I longed for a community but didn’t quite fit in wherever I settled. Because I was not fulfilled during the week, perhaps because I was a little unhappy, turning off my phone on Shabbat and being alone with myself wasn’t relaxing; it was simply lonely.

When I moved back to D.C. from NYC and found a home here, I bought into tradition alongside friends who also have their phones off, and friends who don’t. However, every week there are lovely people who I know I will spend Shabbat with. Part of finding my happy place here was finding the right people. Now, I look forward to being alone with myself on Saturday afternoon, after walking home from shul and singing showtunes at the top of my lungs with a few other people, oblivious to the rush of the traffic down 16th Street. Now being alone with myself is a break from the day, and a time for reflection, rather than 25 hours of loneliness.

I am a member of a number of independent minyanim (the equivalent, for me, of joining a synagogue), run a havurah group, organize for a Jewish community outreach program for young professionals, am active in a Jewish social justice organization, I practice Shabbat pretty fully and am either at services and a potluck, at a friend’s place, or hosting myself. I took a vacation this year to (what a few friends affectionately call) “hippy Jew camp” where I was, on more than one occasion, brought to tears during davening (recitation of prayers). I would say that I am fairly observant.

There is a collective oversoul, and spirituality in the oneness of Jewish practice that drives me to weave myself into this fabric that is the complex, culture-religion we call a people. For me God does not play a part, but if I walked away from religion tomorrow, I do think I would be left with a gaping hole in my heart. I’m not a different person than I was before I became more observant. I manage my time a bit differently, I make more of an effort to breathe and to let go of the harshness of each week in favor of letting the good stuff in, and I make more of an effort to be a productive member of the communities which I am part of, but those are core values which I always held dear.

Screenshot 2015-08-25 at 11.44.07 PM



Jewish Comedian of the Week – Dana

FleitmanHeadshotJackie: What brought you to DC?

Dana: I came to DC for undergrad at American University. Since I was pursuing a degree in international relations, I felt like it was the place to be. I’m originally from California, so I get a lot of questions about why I would ever leave the Bay Area, why I haven’t moved back and what’s wrong with my choices in general.  But while I do miss my hometown, I also really do love DC! It suits me. I think it’s a beautiful city and love how it’s super accessible, there’s always something going on and you meet so many young, smart, liberal people. I was here before the Columbia Heights Target, you guys. That makes me an old-timer by young professional standards.

After college, I worked at a consulting firm for the Federal government and focused on teen pregnancy prevention, which got me really interested in relationships and sexual assault. That transitioned me over to Jewish Women International (JWI), where I work now.


Denver3FleitmanJackie: What is your role at JWI?

Dana: I am the Senior Manager of Prevention and Training Programs at JWI, the leading Jewish organization working to end violence against all women and girls. Essentially, I create and manage educational programs about preventing intimate partner violence (i.e., dating abuse, domestic violence) and sexual assault. Much of my work has been focused on campuses – for example, I authored the Safe Smart Dating program, a co-ed workshop on sexual assault and dating abuse for college students in the Greek life system. Through a series of discussions, scenarios, news stories, live text surveys and video, the program helps young people define and identify dating abuse and sexual assault as well as build skills to be active bystanders at school and in their communities. I’ve been able to travel across the country to present the program to students and provide trainings of trainers for adult professionals and student leaders.

I’ve also written programs on teen dating abuse, bystander intervention and healthy masculinity and manage a webinar series for professionals in the field of domestic violence.

dana halloweenJackie: How did you first get into stand up comedy?

Dana: I always did super hip activities like mock trial and speech and debate and love being in front of people, so I think it’s something I always wanted to try. A few years ago, my parents generously gifted me a stand up class at the DC Improv for my birthday. That was a ton of fun and the performance went well, so I just started hitting open  and stuck with it. Now I perform in shows pretty regularly and even produce some of my own, including fundraiser shows for JWI and themed shows for Fourth of July and Halloween. I talk about groundbreaking and edgy topics like my cat, eating and dating. It’s an interesting transition from my day job – which is all women and very PC — to the comedy world, which is not those things. The comedy scene in DC is strong and thriving, and you can catch very talented local comedians any night of the week.


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Jackie: Where is your favorite place to hang out in DC?

fleitman5Dana: A sunny afternoon in Malcolm X Park is hard to beat. Especially when people bring their dogs. Hey, people reading this! Bring your dogs! Bring them everywhere! Thanks.

Jackie: Who is your favorite Jew?
Dana: That is tough. Mel Brooks is up there. So’s my sister. Also, Jesus. So there’s a range, I’d say.

Jackie: What is your favorite Jewish food?
Dana: Hot corned beef on rye. One time I saw someone order a turkey on white with mayo at the deli in front of me. I was like…did I just witness a hate crime?

Finish the sentence: When the Jews Gather…
Dana: they will discuss who is and who is not Jewish. Oh, and they’ll have a good time.




It is time to start thinking about High Holidays, check out everything going on in the District in our 2015/5776 High Holidays Guide

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