What Does an Open Doors Fellow Actually Do?

Sasha“So, what does an Open Doors Fellow actually do?”

That was a question that I was frequently asked, but could rarely come up with an answer that could adequately portray what it did for me and for others in the DC Jewish community. “We are nice to people and take them to coffee!” was my most typical answer. However, now that the fellowship is complete, I have a real answer for you: An Open Doors Fellow is a social individual who is not only interested in being a connector for Jews in the community, but also consistently interested in learning more about how to better the community. Open Doors Fellows explore the needs and interests of Jews in their 20’s and 30’s and strategize how to make life as a young Jewish professional more enriching and rewarding.

The Open Doors Fellowship was a successful and necessary next step for Gather the Jews. They have the events that cater to the interests of the community, but what was missing was connectors, people who would go with interested members of community to events that they were too nervous to attend alone; people who were trained to feel comfortable openly engaging in conversation at any size event. Gather needed individuals to help community members feel special, unique, and welcomed to an event. It is such a different experience to show up to a large event when you see a familiar face. If you have that, your comfort level can be immediately changed.

11391708_10205534827584549_6810332930038366459_nMy Capstone project was an active way to engage a small group of young Jews and allow for meaningful conversation while exploring Washington D.C. Most of my coffee conversations were with Jews who had recently moved to D.C. and were looking for a group of people to do fun activities with. That’s exactly what my Capstone was all about; participants were able to do something fun with a great group of individuals. Attendees were split into teams and asked to take a picture doing ridiculous tasks. The tasks included: making a Jewish star with your bodies in front of the Capitol building, making a pyramid with strangers, doing the Beatles walk across the street, taking a ride on the carousel, and more. They also got to know a bit about each other by finding their home states in the WWII memorial. Following the scavenger hunt, I hosted a picnic in Meridian Hill Park so that people could continue their conversations, as well as meet members of the other team. I received wonderful feedback from participants who all felt like this was a great way to get to know the city more, as well as make some great connections.11407172_10205534801183889_3892936613167266185_n

If there is one thing I would take away from this Capstone, I would say, “don’t wait, just do.” You want to go up and talk to someone, but you are scared; you want to go to this event, but maybe it’s too far. JUST GO. I always leave events, dinners, happy hours and more, feeling happy that I did it. Whether I made a new friend, tried a new food, or just felt happy to be surrounded by peers, I’ve always made the most of every experience. Stop worrying, have fun, and you never know how much a simple smile or hello could make someone’s day.

Learn more about applying to be a 2015 Open Doors Fellow HERE!


My Soul Story: Building Community one Bike Ride at a Time

lisaI learned a new term during the Open Doors Fellowship: “Soul Story.”

The way I understand it, a soul story is the one that’s a level deeper than the narrative that one would tell at a happy hour amongst acquaintances. It’s a bit less polished. It’s the one that isn’t influenced by the expectations of others. It’s the one that makes you more vulnerable. For me, it’s the one a step closer to the truth.

This is mine.

I missed the deadline to apply for the Open Doors Fellowship. I had the application written, but I didn’t know if it was the right time, or if it was right for me at all. What I did know was that after years of being frustrated and ostensibly powerless to make any impact on the Jewish Community – my Community – I had the chance to do something. To make a difference. To stop sitting on the sidelines.

So I hit send and hoped it wasn’t too late.

I determined that my goal for the Fellowship was to find disconnected, apathetic, and/or unengaged Jews and inspire them to connect, care, and engage. I wanted to “bubble up the Jews.” If it was easy as standing on the corner of 14th and U St. and singing, “Come out, come out wherever you are,” I would have done it. But, what I found instead through conversations and observations was that one or two bad experiences at a Jewish event was all someone needed to write off Jewish life for good. And, it’d be pretty hard to get ‘em back.

I called this my challenge.

A Jewish event full of Jews wasn’t going to be good enough to attract the disenfranchised. My hypothesis was that a Jewish event full of likeminded Jews with similar interests is what they wanted – a micro-community.

This resonated with me and was pretty validating, actually. My mom would send me articles all the time about this Jewish event or that happy hour. “Mom,” I’d say, “being Jewish isn’t a hobby of mine. I don’t want to just stand around with other Jews being Jewish together.”

So when it was time to think about my Fellowship capstone project, I held that micro-community concept tightly. I’m a Jew. I love Jewish rituals. And I like to ride bikes. I wonder if anyone else would be into riding bikes around the city with me, stopping for Havdallah, and then grabbing a drink? Surely there would be a few people.

As it turns out, there are many.

With the confidence, connections, and community building skills I received through my Fellowship, and supported by Gather the Jews and Sixth & I, I organized a Community Havdallah Bike Ride. And then another. Nearly 70 Jewish Young Professionals attended each of our first two rides, and we’re not slowing down. Now, we a have a planning committee full of dedicated lay leaders. We have people coming to ride that haven’t done Havdallah in years. We have committed Jews riding who haven’t been on their bike in years. I’m literally kvelling.

Out of a desire for connection, a community was born: DC Jews on Bikes. On August 15th, 2015 we’ll ride again, and I hope you’ll join us.

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that Jewish Community isn’t something that you join, it’s something that you build. My community is comprised of seekers, pray-ers, and, now, riders. I learned we are each empowered to build the community that we want, where we fit in. And we do it by walking through open doors.

Learn more about applying to be a 2015 Open Doors Fellow HERE!


Diverse Experiences bring Diverse Rewards

tiffanyI was honored to be a member of the first cohort of Fellows in Gather The Jews Open Doors Fellowship. Getting to know the other Fellows was rewarding and it was clear that Gather put an incredible amount of time and effort into finding a diverse body of driven young professionals. I feel very active and connected within DC’s Jewish community, so I was surprised that all of the other Fellows were new faces whom would become new friends!

Going on coffee dates also exposed me to new community members. I felt very special to be among the first people that a person first arriving in DC would meet. The coffee dates also helped me discover not just the special nuances in our community, but also some of the needs and shortcomings. I was able to plan and implement a unique project that will have a positive effect on the lives of Jewish community members in DC and around the U.S.

I gained a number of skills through this experience, but if I had to pinpoint one skill, it would be the experience I gained planning a large Jewish event for a diverse audience. As part of my capstone project I brought an Asian Jewish scholar to speak at an event at a federal agency. The event was a success, but took months of planning and coordination. Gather provided support from start to finish and I feel confident that I can plan other similar informative events in the future remembering the leadership training, guidance, and advice given to me from Gather the Jews!

Learn more about applying to be a 2015 Open Doors Fellow HERE!


Open Doors Fellowship 2016 – Cohort II


Impact the landscape of DC’s Jewish life. • Connect and build relationships with young Jews across the DC area. • Build inclusive and welcoming community that is meaningful to you. • Explore Jewish DC + further your own Jewish connections. • Create innovative Jewish experiences. • Receive financial support for your initiatives, personal and professional development, mentorship, skill-building, and more. •

APPLY NOW. Applications close July 24th. 

Here’s what Fellows from Cohort I had to say about their experience

RetreatPic“The Fellowship allowed me to affect the Jewish Community by encouraging me to listen to the community’s needs, and providing me resources to create positive change.”

“Everyone is looking for the same thing you are, be the person to deliver it.” 

“The Open Doors Fellowship helped me remember what I love about my Judaism, as well as learn how to work with others to create a Jewish community that speaks more deeply to more of us.” 

“Open Doors Fellowship: Creating the type of Jewish community you’d like to see.”

“As fellows, we are hubs of the networks of relationships in the DC jewish community. It was amazing to see how the connections we help facilitate between individuals in the community could quickly multiply into so many new connections.” 

Read full reflections from former Fellows here: LisaKelleyRachel K., Tiffany

What is the Open Doors Fellowship? 

Join a selective volunteer cohort of 10 – 12 Fellows to serve in a 8 month Fellowship from October 2015 – May 2016.Fellows in Circle  This Fellowship is an innovative project to deepen social connections and provide concierge services for Jewish life in DC to those in their 20s & 30s. Fellows will learn and utilize a relationship-based and concierge-model approach to building Jewish community.

Fellows will build 1:1 relationships, create community, and help connect those individuals to the Jewish opportunities and meaning they are looking for, creating your own innovative project where none exist.  These projects can include social justice, learning, outdoors, politics, or any other topic all depending on the needs and interests of those you’re meeting.

We are looking for social connectors from diverse backgrounds and experiences who care about Jewish life in DC and want to help others connect to Jewish experiences that matter to them.

Fellows will receive:

  • All-paid immersive professional training in a retreat setting outside of the city – skill training, team building, resource mapping, and more
  • Access to human and financial resources to support your relationship and community building
  • Jewish learning opportunities and resources (all backgrounds encouraged to apply!)
  • A capstone experience at the conclusion of the Fellowship
  • Follow-through after the Fellowship has concluded

Expectations of Fellowship:

  • One all-paid weekend of immersive training – Friday, October 9th – Monday, October 12th, 2015 (includes the Friday and Monday before and after) – commitment to these dates is mandatory for participation
  • Approximately 5 – 6 hours per week including:
    • Fellows cohort meetings 2x per month
    • Relationship building with diverse range of young Jewish adults in DC and Relationship Management
    • Serve as Greeters for new arrivals to DC
    • Create personally relevant Jewish initiatives around a topic or issue that matters to your community
    • Help design and launch DC’s only online DIY (Do It Yourself) Jewish Experience Portal


Applications close July 24th. 



Join us for our July Happy Hour!


Why Open Doors is What I’m Bringing with Me When I Move

kelleyI am currently preparing to move to the other side of the country. The people close to me, including those with whom I shared my Open Doors Fellowship experience, have been hearing a lot about this recently. It comes with a good deal of stressors, and an even greater deal of reflection about my 6 years in DC. I’ve been particularly grappling with my most recent year, which has been tumultuous and full of change and confusion in a lot of areas in my life and my relationship to DC. However, as I was talking with my housemate about the things I experienced in DC over the last year, I was able to speak with unmatched gratitude and appreciation for my experience in the Open Doors Fellowship.

Being an Open Doors fellow provided me with an impressive array of resources, information, and skills. As the Communications and Engagement Fellow at Temple Micah, I found myself in many ways struggling know how to make the most of my time and do the best I could for the community I served in my work. The Fellowship taught me what engagement could mean—I learned how to leverage my networks in order to reach people who might not be Jewishly connected, how to have meaningful and connecting conversations that let me better connect people to resources, and how to derive enormous meaning from those connections. As the Fellowship progressed, I came to look forward to my coffee dates and drinks with the people I met, and I made enormous strides in my work.

However, to focus primarily on the professional and logistical benefits of the Open Doors Fellowship would be to do it a disservice. Those benefits were enormous and innumerable, but they were also secondary. The real beauty of the Open Doors Fellowship was that as I built a community around me, I also found myself woven into it. My cohort was a group of people I always looked forward to spending time with, and having a diverse, supportive team of people in pursuit of a mission alongside me was endlessly inspiring. The Fellowship gave me a space to deeply explore my Judaism and explore Judaism with the people I met in DC, and I made incredible connections with fascinating people through those conversations. The Fellowship left me with a network of genuine friends who were entirely new to me, and I hope that it brought new friends to the people I met as well.

As I move forward to a new place, the way I felt in the Open Doors Fellowship shapes the decisions I am making about how to build my new life. Having the conversations this fellowship empowered me to have demonstrated how powerful they can be in my life and in the lives of others. Being supported by the Gather team led me to realize that powerful, beautiful Jewish experiences can be created by anyone, including me. This experience left me with new thoughts that can be gained only from learning with others, and showed me that I can participate in building a Jewish community that allows me to do that, even if I don’t do so professionally. I am endlessly grateful to Rachel and Jackie for giving me this opportunity, and to my cohort for laughing, thinking, and creating with me. As I pack my bag and say my good-byes, I know this experience will come across the country with me.

Learn more about applying to be a 2015 Open Doors Fellow HERE!


Applications close this Friday! Join the movement. Apply today.


Hyperlocal Responses to the Proposed Iran Nuclear Deal

It has now been a few days since the P5+1 Nuclear Deal with Iran was reached and the debate has opened between our community and those who we send to Congress to review it. I understand that people have mixed views on the deal, people may still be trying to interpret the 159 pages of the publicly released Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and we’re still on the first week of the U.S. Congressional 60 day window to debate and discuss the merits of the proposal.

As a Gather the Jews blogger, it is not my intent to simply share my views on the deal. Men and women far smarter than me are doing that already from the left and from the right. Instead this blog’s intention is to share our community’s response. So here is the hyperlocal Jewish response from the greater DC metropolitan area with selected highlighted voices from members of our community and those who represent us in Congress.

After discussing a game plan with Gather’s rockstar director, Rachel, I posted on my Facebook wall a request for my “FB Friends” to share their opinions on the deal. I offered individuals the ability to share anonymously because I didn’t want people – both for and against the proposal – to be afraid to make their voices heard. Some volunteered their comments to be with attribution. Others choose to share them privately but agreed that they could be posted as long as they were done so anonymously. Others had a lot of curse words in their responses that wouldn’t be appropriate for publication. I sought individuals from DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

Josh Neirman, who self-identifies as being pretty mainstream in the DC Jewish world, said that he was a supporter of the deal because “it finally gives diplomacy a chance.” Josh continued by saying “as a millennial all I can remember is being in constant wars from Kosovo to Iraq, Afghanistan to now dealing with ISIS. I’m tired of ongoing war or the threats of war and I believe this is a step in the right direction.” He additionally believes “that actions speak louder than words so once the verification of everything that was agreed to happens then I feel like things are settled.”

An Arlington based young professional, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed with Josh’s stance in favor of the deal. “I support the deal and hope others respect that this support is because I believe the deal has a better chance to make us and Israel secure. I just don’t see an alternative other than living with the bomb or war…and we can do that later if they cheat.   That being said, only time will tell if this gamble pays off,” said the Virginian.

But not all agree. Some who spoke against the proposed deal criticized the negotiated compromises. Others directly criticized the Obama Administration. Others were undecided.

A very active member of the DC and national Jewish community said, “The struggle that I have had in many community members response is a sense that Iran should have given up their nuclear program, implemented the most rigorous inspection regime still while maintaining unbelievably strict sanctions, and offering nothing in return.” He continued by sharing that, “I see three options now. 1) We have a deal and we accept it; 2) we maintain the status quo which has only seen Iran capabilities grow rapidly and seen foreign governments not interested in maintaining the sanctions; or 3) military options.” He believed that the military option is off the table because “if there was a military option Israel would have carried it out ages ago as they have in Iraq and Syria.”

Hilla Ben-Hamo, an Israeli former University of Maryland researcher and local resident who is now back in Israel shared the following (note unedited for grammar), “I will start with a short story, in a Jewish community a question was raised, is there a custom to stand while reading the Torah. The Rabbi searched the holy books, looking for the answer. Eventually he replied, there is no such a custom. So the community asked then what should we do? We keep arguing about it. The Rabbi answered: Good, because this is a custom. This story represents the famous saying where you have two Jewish people you will find three opinions. This indicates the Israeli political opinion spectrum. People from the same party can have different opinions. Just to emphasis it, how many parties are in the Unites States (2 per 240 M people) versus Israel (lost count… per 7 M). However, when it comes to the proposed Iranian Nuclear Deal there is a consensus: IT’S BAD!”

An anonymous Washingtonian shares Hilla’s concerns. “I am deeply concerned that Obama has a very poor history of enforcing military red lines, with Syria being the prime example. Iran has already been caught hiding their nuclear program twice, and this is likely to continue,” said the DC resident who was raised in a Virginia suburb.

The individual continued the criticism by sharing “the main feeling I have is disappointment that Obama does not recognize the threat to Jews. He is quick to call behavior racist in the U.S. when it involves an African-American, and his concerns are valid. However he refuses to grant the same courtesy to Jews” such as “in France with his comments on ‘randomly shooting up a supermarket’” – referencing President Obama’s remarks earlier in the year where he and White House and State Department officials wouldn’t call the attack on the Hypercacher Jewish Market in Paris to be an act motivated by anti-Semitism.

He concluded his remarks by saying, “the future of the Jewish people is too important to be left up to the outside chance that Iran, for the first time in modern history, acts as a peaceful nation.”

I won’t share much of my own opinion, but I will volunteer from my personal perspective, that as a Washingtonian young professional Jewish-American – I am a strong supporter of the State of Israel. I have visited the nation numerous times. I volunteer to support the development of Israel. I find the Israeli people to be welcoming, friendly, intelligent, and maybe I have a thing for cute Israeli women from Tel Aviv. Just saying.

I also believe that the bonds between the American people and the Israeli people are unbreakable. We share democratic principles. We share values. We share a desire for our nations to prosper and our people to be free, independent, and prosperous. I do not believe that this bond between the American people and the Israeli people can be broken. I don’t consider this to be an opinion because I interpret this as an undeniable fact.

Additionally, I cannot claim to be an expert in nuclear physics or atomic energy and I have only made a small dent in reading the 159 pages of the proposed deal. I have reviewed a great deal of secondary sources and from what I have read, what I have heard, and what I understand – I do not see the proposed deal in purely a black or white state. It isn’t just a positive or a negative. I recognize it was a compromise and with a compromise those negotiating are pushing and pulling. I though interpret the compromise to have far more bad in it than good in it. I personally do not see its intended purpose being reached. I do not believe this proposed deal restricts Iran’s capacities to be a nuclear threshold state or a part of the family of Nuclear Weapon States. I would have personally preferred no deal to this deal and/or a continuation of negotiations to reach a better deal.

I could write another 2,000 words about my feeling of what a better deal could encompass, but for brevity sake, I’d say that NO DEAL should have lifted the arms embargo. That’s a red line for me and if Russia does sell Iran a S-300 advanced missile defense system, as it looks like they will, it weakens American and Israeli’s abilities to respond – should Iran break promises and ignore the verification processes.

Outside of these perspectives, as the next step in the process is the 60 day Congressional review, I felt it worthwhile to compile and share some of the responses of DMV Public Officials on the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. The following are from public comments released on July 14th from Virginia, Maryland, and DC officials:

U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA)

“I applaud the U.S. negotiating team for its hard work to find a diplomatic solution to peacefully limit Iran’s nuclear program. A nation’s commitment to diplomacy is every bit as important as its commitment to military strength. Now that the negotiations have concluded, Congress must give the deal a thorough and independent review to ensure it cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.

“One of the key reasons I co-authored the bipartisan Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, even over the initial objections of many in my party and the Administration, was to provide Congress a clear and constructive way to review a final nuclear deal. Given that the deal largely hinges on what Iran must do to get relief from sanctions imposed by Congress, the American public deserves to have its elected representatives review any final deal to ensure it is in our national security interest. In the days and weeks ahead, I look forward to discussing the terms of the agreement in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and examining the details before making a decision to either approve or disapprove the deal, which will provide Iran significant relief from economic sanctions. I look forward to working with my Senate colleagues to analyze this deal in the days and weeks ahead.”

U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA)

“I will review this agreement with the utmost attention to detail, given the incredible importance of getting an agreement of this magnitude right. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which I supported, Congress will have 60 days to analyze this agreement and carefully consider whether it substantially advances the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In particular, I will pay close attention to the dismantling of Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program; ensuring an intrusive and reliable verification process; and ensuring a graduated process of sanctions relief entirely dependent upon Iran’s compliance, along with a process for re-imposing U.S. and international sanctions if Iran violates terms of the agreement.”

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD)

“It is in America’s national security interest that Iran is blocked from ever having a nuclear weapon. Congress has an obligation to vigorously and judiciously review the deal announced today with a seriousness of purpose. Negotiators have spent painstaking time and untold effort working on this accord. Congress in turn must fulfill its oversight responsibilities and conduct a thorough, rigorous, and evenhanded review. There is no trust when it comes to Iran. In our deliberations we need to ensure the negotiations resulted in a comprehensive, long-lasting, and verifiable outcome that also provides for snap-back of sanctions should Iran deviate from its commitments. Congress faces a solemn charge that I expect will be fulfilled to the best of our abilities and at the highest of standards beginning today.”

U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD)

<<No public comments exist on Senator Mikulski’s website or social media channels as of the time of this blog being published. We emailed her communications director for comment and has not received a response yet. Stay tuned…>>

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)

At a Democratic Caucus meeting with Secretary Hillary Clinton, Rep. Eleanor Holmes North (D-DC) expressed in a public comment shared on July 14th that she and the caucus, “learned about [Secretary Clinton’s] significant role in the lead up to today’s Iran–P5+1 nuclear agreement. For example, it was Secretary Clinton who put together the coalition, including China and Russia, which led to the unity that makes this agreement so strong, and in my judgment, difficult to refute or oppose.”


FINAL NOTE*: please share your own thoughts in the comments section of this blog. Online bullying or personally antagonistic statements will not be accepted and will be removed from the page. We intend to open an honest dialogue about issues without name calling and questioning how we each choose to support the Jewish Democratic State of Israel. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss my own personal views with any reader over coffee, on FB chat, or via email (

*Any opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and does not reflect the opinion of Gather the Jews


Making New Friends… or Really Awkward Metro Rides

17025_10153738756338709_8563020704545973706_nMy first thought when I was accepted into the Gather the Jews Open Doors Fellowship was ‘I don’t really know what I’ll be doing.’ My closing thought after I presented my capstone project at the culmination of the Fellowship was ‘I don’t know where I’d be in DC if I hadn’t become a fellow.’ And in between, I thought ‘I can’t wait for our Tuesday night meetings’, ‘which Shabbat should I go to this week’, and ‘I’ve never peeled so many potatoes before!’

In the past six months, I feel like I’ve found my place in the District, met some of my best friends, hosted a Passover Seder (hence the potatoes), and got more in tune with my own Jewish identity. Who would have thought that simple conversations, group meetings with the other fellows, cheesy team bonding exercises, and, of course, inspiration from our two leaders Rachel and Jackie, could have done all that?

The goals of the Fellowship were clear: make the DC Jewish community smaller and act as a resource for people wanting to get more involved and connected. Our personal goal and capstone project – address a need or something missing in the Jewish community – was an evolutionary process that took a lot of thought and reflection. We had direct guidance and all the resources at our fingertips, but were free to explore and research on our own terms, through our individual relationships and meaningful conversations we had with other members of the Jewish community.

What I found: gaps within our community among those with different levels of observance, especially between those who identify as orthodox and those who identify as non-orthodox. My capstone project: a conversation event between those two groups facilitated by meaningful and contentious questions about Judaism. My hope was for people to gain perspective on why someone with a different level of observance thinks the way they do and practices the way they do. I worried that the participants would get frustrated or offended because, well, let’s be honest, no one likes being told that what he/she does is wrong or, on the other side, extreme. Luckily that wasn’t the case. Most of the participants became a bit more educated on different aspects of Judaism and left a bit more open minded. There were even requests for a follow-up event to gain more perspectives and talk about even more heated topics. Success!

So what’s next for me? I will be participating in much more discussion about Jewish thought and identity that seems to be erupting in our community right now. As a newly initiated Moishe House Without Walls host, I want to create more educational events like my capstone project. So keep an eye out for them, DC!

Most importantly, being an Open Doors Fellow, I learned to be that “awkward person” who talks to everyone without being awkward. I’ll sit next to a stranger at a bar and introduce myself, I’ll ask the person in line behind me in Starbucks what song they’re listening to on their iPhone, and I’ll run up to a person on the street wearing a kippah to invite them to an event I’m planning. Nine times out of 10, that encounter will turn into a new friend, a coffee date, or just a great conversation. That one time can turn into, well, a really awkward metro ride…

It may sound small, but I’ve developed a worthy skill that I will carry with me the rest of my life. Put me in front of my friends and family and I’ll be flustered. But put me in a room filled with random Jewish strangers, and I’ll never feel more comfortable.


Learn More about Applying to be a 2015 Open Doors Fellow HERE!



F is for Artist

My best friend likes to send me You-could-have-written-this emails with links to articles about yuppie-hipsters or people who live in tiny houses.

I usually respond with a moody Tumblr, a la Werner Herzog or Morrissey Charlie Brown.

These interactions make me seriously consider my life choices, and my career path. Nobody but my future self could have told me not to go to art school, or that I’d spend some strange years wandering the east coast trying to find a way to stop feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. No career counselor would have said, “Look honey, the art world’s skrewy. Don’t get mixed up with that stuff. Go to school for marketing and then surprise them all by being decent at design and writing, too. Go to college to learn how to be mad genius.” Although, I wish someone had.

Because we live in The District, aka That Swamptown Where People Judge Your Self-Worth Based On How Many Degrees You Have, the first three questions people usually ask each other upon meeting are, “Where did you go to school,” “What do you do,” and, “Oh yes, what’s your name. I suppose I should know what to call you.”

I have learned to effectively dodge the, “What do you do,” question by beginning my answer to the “Where did you go to school question,” with, “Well, I dropped out of art school. Twice.” People tend to assume that the answer to “What to you do,” is “I live on the streets, and mostly tend to the many diseases that I contracted while doing all the drugs. All of them.”

I once thought that I was going to grow up to be a great Artist who through linseed oil and paint would speak truths about the disparate human experience and reflect a broken and romantic portrait of modern pain into the eyes of thirsty audience. My career counselors in high school told me no differently (and the computerized career placement exams we took in late high school actually gave me a result that said, “Buy a wardrobe comprised entirely of black garments, we know you already own a beret, now… move to Paris.”)

12226_10101951610114736_8649733001177344577_n (1) (1)Even as a teenager, I knew that I was living inside the walls of a stereotype, but I felt so at home in my box that I convinced myself I built it on my own. The quintessential artist-failure is a widely popularized canon, much like the manic-pixie-dream-girl, or the classic nerd. This character, the Artist is incredibly hardworking and tragically talented, yet their work is underappreciated, but may acquire value after their (also tragic) death. It is seemingly common knowledge that only the reckless or borderline psychotic actually brave the fickle creative world.

After dropping out of art school for the second time, I made ends meet for a short while by selling portrait commissions to rich folks. I survived on Cheetos and lost dreams. I wandered the streets of New York City looking for my soul and spent far too much time sitting in subway stations drawing pictures of the underground musicians hoping to find a piece of humanity in their covers of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The only thing I found was a desire for a steady paycheck.

I wrote this less than a year after moving to New York City to be An Artist:

I want to scream. I want to climb up a fire escape and scream at Brooklyn, and at New York City, and at the whole world. I want to scream long and cruelly like a child, an animal, like radio waves ripping across the universe, teetering around planets, and careening back at the earth light years older but still loud as hell.

I don’t want to be an artist.

Nothing happened, I just came to the sharp and complete realization out of nowhere in the subway on the way home from work that I hate the art world. I hate New York. I hate it all. No one is as unique as they imagine. I hate the fashion, I hate the attitude. I hate the genuine ingenuity.

I want to scream forever. GET ME OUT OF HERE.

1935403_685756840886_3837341_n 4292_650117322766_2169182_n

I stopped painting and became a paralegal.

It wasn’t so bad being an artist failure. I had a lot of adventures. While I have never been able to afford to leave the country, or purchase a home, or consistently retain health insurance, I have also learned such skills as how to dodge scurvy while surviving on nothing but the kinds of food you can afford on a barista’s salary, and the diminutive white girl in the inner-city glare which saved me from being mugged all the times except once.

I burnt myself out while trying to be an Artist, and during those years as a paralegal, I stopped creating art. I rarely picked up a brush, and the doodling fell off. Somehow, I didn’t stop writing, but perhaps that’s because it – to that point – was never my job. A few years ago, after moving out of New York, I started painting again. My house is full of unfinished pieces that watch me while I sleep. Recently, I funneled all the writing that I have done “for fun” for nearly eight years into a career path.

The Artist, The Writer, the The Anything is a farce. Creativity isn’t a race, and greatness isn’t an agreed upon value. No one wins, no one comes in first place. In a world ravaged on the one hand by pop culture and completely incomparably, on the other hand by war and unspeakable degradations of the human condition, I am at more and more of a loss for a way to create authentic art as an expression of modern times. Does that mean that I have given up? It might. Perhaps I am saving my energy for one big brilliant project that will truly encompass the tragedy and wonder of the world we occupy today. That’s what my childhood self would say. But then again, 7-year-old Michele The Artist also wore skirts made out of tablecloths.

*Article updated to correct errors in article made by Gather Staff



How Technology is Both Saving and Ruining Us… One Date at a Time

Ten years ago, my job didn’t exist. There weren’t ads for it. They didn’t teach it in school. And had you told me that this would be my profession after graduating college with a degree in economics, I would have laughed in your face. (And I have a loud laugh!)

I’m a dating coach.

As we all know, dating is a hot topic these days. Between the rise of IAC, specifically OkCupid and Tinder, and its impending IPO for its dating division, Aziz Ansuri’s book “Modern Romance,” which I’m thoroughly enjoying, and Patti Stanger as The Millionaire Matchmaker (she’s leaving Bravo… time for me to step in??), it seems like everyone and their mother is talking about—and practicing—dating.

This leads to my main topic: technology and its impact on the dating world. Now, I’m in my 30s, so when I was in college, I didn’t even have a cell phone. (Well, technically I did—this huge blue box that I lugged around—but I didn’t dare let anyone know I had it!) College kids today are meeting for study groups, hook-ups, and friendship using Tinder on their brand-spankin’ new iPhones that are nicer than the “lame” 5c I still own with its cracked screen and always-full memory.

I’m certainly not one to dispute that technology is a good thing. I love (well, mostly love) that I have my email at my fingertips at all times. I think it’s pretty amazing that I can sign up for all of my gym classes with the click of a button on an app. I’m still in awe that I once programmed my DVR from my laptop as I was sitting 35,000 feet in the air. (I know—it’s AMAZING, Louis CK.) I’m a fan.

Here’s what I’m not a fan of: People looking at their phones all day long so that they don’t even know how to carry on a conversation anymore; a world where I’m not sure if second graders are even learning their times tables since it’s so easy to check the answer with one click… or one ask of your friend and mine, Siri; a place where, in a meeting, someone checks his watch to see that his girlfriend texted him that she’s going to be late for their dinner plans tonight.

When I started my business over four years ago, I was the biggest, baddest fan of technology… specifically online dating. I thought, and still think, that it’s an incredible way to meet people. It’s a medium that gives you access to so many eligible people. Wow—sign me up.

Also when I started, there was no such thing as a dating app. Yes, perhaps the already existing sites had apps to make it easier for users to log in (and OkCupid had a fun/crazy experiment called Crazy Blind Date that got the kibosh quicker than you could schedule said crazy blind date), but there was no such thing as Tinder, Hinge, Grindr, Coffee Meets Bagel, JSwipe, Happn, The League, Bumble… Shall I go on?

It’s so easy now to get a date. Wasn’t that the hard part a mere 10 years ago? Is it too easy to get a date? For some, it is. It’s so easy that, rather than actually taking the time to get to know someone, it’s more important to have the next date lined up, like a taxi line of attractive women just waiting to be swept off their feet… or more like taken out for a drink that may or may not be paid for. Clients of mine even get anxious sometimes when they don’t have the next date lined up, even if they already have three on the calendar.

I still love online dating, of course, and I’ve had countless clients meet significant others, whether for long-term or short-term relationships, depending on their goals. But, like the paradox of choice, is too much choice necessarily a good thing? If you are looking for a man, say, who is tall, dark, and handsome (cliché, I know), if you instead find a man who is tall(ish), dark(ish), and handsome(ish) but treats you like a queen or king and makes you feel like you won the lottery every day, you’d still be looking for next cab with its light on.

Am I saying not to use technology to get dates? Of course not. But what I am saying is that everything has its merits… to a point. Chocolate is wonderful until you drink the entire bottle of Hershey’s syrup and get a sugar headache for three days. (I’m not saying I know anyone who’s ever done this…) A workout routine is so important until you strain your hamstring from overuse. And technology is great until you miss that amazing connection in pursuit of something better, better, better.

So, use technology to find a date. Go crazy! And then stop. Remind yourself that people are people, and they deserve a real chance. The next cab may stink like smoke or have a careless driver or be headed in a different direction than you want to go. You can keep taking rides for the rest of your life, or you can take each ride one at a time, one date at a time, one click at a time, and one swipe at a time.

To see a recent interview on “The New Age of Dating” on News Channel 8, click here.


Join Young Leadership on August 30th for Grand Slam Sunday at Nationals Park and enjoy a free drink at the pre-game festivities at the Fairgrounds! Get tickets now—price goes up July 31st!


Patience and My Path to Self-Improvement

“I would never do something like that,” I have thought to myself, probably at least a thousand times. Whether it was small,images-2 like not following up, or something big, like lying and cheating, there have been too many occasions on which I’ve been severely let down or deceived or hurt. But of course, that was only everyone else. I had never done anything – ever – even remotely related to what those people had done. Except, you know, maybe that one time, but that was different. And, OK, so maybe I did, and OK, so maybe it was more than once.

So while I could go on for a long time about everyone else I think should change in some way, I realize that the only person I can change is myself, so that’s probably the place to start.

For someone looking to be a better person, there are a million and one books, programs, philosophies, etc. offering paths to self-improvement and/or finding happiness. You can go on a soul-finding trip across the world, you can take up a new hobby, go to bed earlier, and get more exercise, you can do yoga and meditate. And any of those might work for you, but I wanted to seek a different approach.

And at the same time, I felt somewhat perplexed about why the question of becoming a better person wasn’t more of the purview of the Judaism I participated in. Sure, there are prescribed mitzvot to do, and by doing them I should make a positive change in the world, but at least in my daily life, I didn’t feel like praying at shabbat services and keeping kosher was making me kinder, nor was mingling at Jewish happy hours making me more compassionate. And I started to think, was there really no facet of Judaism that spoke to what I felt?

mussar 1&2 transliteratedBut then I discovered that there was: a movement called Mussar. The basic premise of Mussar is to refine a number of traits. What makes it Jewish is that it is based on finding and cultivating the characteristics of the divine that we are imbued with 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.

Having discovered this approach, I’ve decided it is time for me to take it on and see what I learn from my experiences. And, dear readers, you too will get to learn from my endeavor, as I will be sharing my experiences as I endeavor on them. The prescribed approach is to pick 13 traits that are particularly problematic for you and focus on each for one week. In the interest of having time to write, I will do one per month. Along with each trait, I will identify tasks, and I will journal to try to see how that trait plays out in my daily life. The prescribed approach also calls for meditation, which is beyond my capacity at the moment, as well as supplementary reading and study, and I’ll do my best on that front.

The traits that I plan to tackle are: patience, gratitude, compassion, equanimity, honor, simplicity, enthusiasm, silence, generosity, truth, loving kindness, trust, and faith.


For this coming month, I will focus on patience. Taking a cue from Alan Morinis in his book on Mussar, Everyday Holiness, I seek to, “…walk a middle path, not leaning to the one extreme of being inactive and fatalistic – because that way I negate the powers I do have, limited though they might be – nor veering to the other, where impatience reigns.” To start, I’ll try to not freak out when I don’t get responses to emails. And I’ll try to refrain from running red lights and stop signs while biking, and maybe even from yelling obscenities at cars and pedestrians who happen to be blocking my way. But I’m curious to see where I find opportunities for patience pop up once I’m looking for them.

I’ll be back next month to let you know how that goes. In the meantime, what could you be more patient about?


Hi Mom, I Got a Tattoo!

Hi Mom,

2015-06-20 15.13.51 (1)Please sit so you don’t keel when you read this, and remember to inhale and then exhale, in that order: I got another tattoo.

I know you thought my final would be the survivor tumor tattoo I received three years ago, or even the tattoo dots I received before my radiation 14 years ago. I know that you, Dad, and ten percent of women like me exactly how I am. Please let me explain my tattoo and then you will love it like I do.

In Judaism, we use trees to celebrate holidays, weddings and births. I love consuming food and booze on holidays, and Mom, your other son just got married and maybe he’ll have a child. (No pressure, JD.)

Rabbis debate the species of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. One opinion is that the Tree of Knowledge was a fig tree and that after the sin, Adam and Eve knew they were naked and sewed fig leaves to make girdles, meaning they used the very object that caused their downfall to correct the mistake. The very drug—Cytoxan—that killed my first cancer caused my second cancer, and then killed the second cancer, too.

We attain wisdom by learning intellectually or through life experience. I hate myself when I make a mistake: make the wrong decision, say the wrong thing, fail to approach a woman because I fear rejection, eat a single chocolate when I hadn’t planned to. The fig tree symbolizes that I can make a mistake and bounce back and grow from it. Very few mistakes cannot be reversed (besides getting a bad tattoo).

Trees clean the world by giving us oxygen; giving us life. I think that the best thing in life is health and when I feel clean I feel healthy; I feel alive. Water also cleans the world. I drink a gallon of water every day. I like to think that saturating my cells with water, along with watching Arnold Schwarzenegger films and eating greens, will prevent a third cancer.

2015-05-18 18.41.53 (1)Mom, when you and I walked out of the single hospital room I inhabited for 65 consecutive days after my umbilical cord stem cell transplant, we pushed the rotating door and stepped outside. The sky was overcast on that peaceful June afternoon in Minneapolis. We faced Dad in front of his beloved minivan ready to sweep me to safety, and we faced trees. Enormous trees with leaves so bright and beautiful and green. I removed my protective mask and inhaled deeply, held it, and exhaled slowly. That was the single happiest moment in my life.

Mom, I got this tattoo of a saturated fig tree dripping with the waters of health. It reminds me to live healthy and clean, that I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t err, and that I am resilient and can use my mistakes to improve myself. The tree is upright and strongest when I reach high, and so I will.

I bet you love it now. And if you don’t, then JD, let’s get that kid started ASAP.

Benjamin writes about health and faking adulthood. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also subscribe to cancerslayerblog.


Measuring Success through DC Volunteerism

Conversion Rate: A Monthly Column from a DC Young Professional on the Israeli Economy (and other Misc thoughts…)image-3

Sometimes you start a monthly column on GTJ and then you get a new job. And sometimes that new job is a bit demanding of your time and that monthly column needs to be restarted a year later. Sometimes is now.

Welcome (back) to the New Conversion Rate…

I was driving up to the Jersey Shore with a couple of friends for Father’s Day weekend. As we are all active Jewish young professionals, we do what active young Jewish professionals do – start talking about upcoming marquee Jewish events in DC and which ones we’re going to go to. IMPACT? Falafel Frenzy? JNFuture’s Anchor DC Boat Cruise? GTJ’s next HH? AIPAC Policy Conference? Hanukkah on the Hill? Etc.

We weigh the options at hand by discussing cost vs. value, big events vs. small events, and more.

Our conversation steers from who is going to these events to how do we measure their success? Is it purely the amount of revenue raised, the amount of people that attend, did it sell out, did it make a profit, did it cultivate a passive volunteer to become an active leader, or can we gauge success on another metric?

We learn that a recent large Jewish event lost money, but everyone there had a great time. Is that still success?

We discussed the experience of a first time visitor of another large Jewish event being turned away at the door after schlepping from Montgomery County into DC for an open/free event that was “sold out.” The person was trying to get in and was seeing people walk out of the door but he wasn’t allowed in regardless. And the staffers of the organization were giving him a bit of attitude. He’s never attending any event from that group again and others who heard his story were disappointed in how the situation was handled. Apparently it didn’t need to be a situation. (And yes, I used situation twice there because as I earlier mentioned – we were on our way to the Jersey Shore.) So was this sold-out event a success to this individual? Was it a success to the organization?

Measuring success might seem to be more science based but sometimes it is an art-form, or maybe at the least a social science.

langsner_schwartz_presidentSo here’s an alternative measure of success. Over the last few years in DC I have volunteered my time for a number of groups whose missions I value. I’m not as active as I used to be across the board but I do what I feel I can, where I think I can, without diluting my volunteerism. I want to see a direct return on investment (ROI) of my time and treasure that I donate to a cause – whether it be a Jewish cause, a pro-Israel cause, or another cause. I often find the scarcity of my available time to be a higher treasure than making a meaningful financial gift. We all have $18, $36, $100, or more sitting around that could either go to a good cause rather than a night out on any given day.

These days I split my time between Israel Bonds and JNFutures because I can see, feel, and comprehend the direct impact that those groups make in advancing a cause that I am passionate about – literally and figuratively growing Israel.

I’m a new JNFuture member and I’m excited for what will be my first official responsibility this summer. I’m proud to support and bring recognition to the great work of JNF in advancing Israel’s clean water programs and of course in its historic work in planting 250 million trees across Israel. 250 MILLION!!! That is ROI. That is a return on investment in time and treasure. We’ll be celebrating how the Jewish National Fund is responsible for over 12 percent of Israel’s water capabilities (i.e. storage,Ad Photo reservoirs, sustainability technology) on a night on the Potomac River via a cruise for 300 young Jewish professionals on July 18.  I recently learned that JNF was more than just trees and although this will be my first JNF event, it certainly will not be my last.

I am passionate about supporting Israel and helping to advance Israel’s economy and Israel’s prosperity. That is why I started Conversion Rate on GTJ, why I blog for The Times of Israel, and why I want you to join me on the Potomac this month.

Conversion Rate represents the views of Jason Langsner.  Langsner has been active in the DC Jewish community for over 10 years.  He formerly drove the digital strategy for B’nai B’rith International.  He is an active volunteer leader in a number of Jewish communal organizations at local and national levels. He has staffed a Taglit-Birthright trip and is a former runner-up to GTJ’s Jewish Guy of the Year.

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