Honor Individuality. Strengthen Community.

By Avery Drongowski

I am a millennial.
I am a product of intermarriage.
I am a product of public schools.
I am a product of Camp Tamarack, Temple Emanuel of Oak Park, MI, Congregation Micah of Brentwood, TN, NFTY Ohio Valley, non-Birthright Israel trips, Hendrix College Hillel, and Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps.
I am a product of the Jewish Communal Leadership Program (JCLP) at the University of Michigan School of Social Work (or at least I will be on April 30).

and

I am deeply committed to Jewish past, Jewish present, and Jewish future.

I have been told by my Jewish community that my “I am’s” don’t guarantee an engaged Jewish young adult. Yet, here I am.

This set of circumstances isn’t unique to me – we all come to Jewish community with our own stories, interests, and levels of engagement. My time in JCLP has allowed me to reflect on who I am Jewishly and what brought me here, and to recognize the variety of “I am’s” that exist in our community. Even my own graduating cohort of amazing women reflects a variety of Jewish ancestries, geographies, educations and passions. Because of that we are stronger.

In our weekly seminar, we have met with local and national Jewish leaders who are executives at federations, leaders of Jewish community organizing initiatives, program managers at family foundations, and spiritual leaders and rabbis. I have grown to appreciate that we all play different roles in strengthening our broader Jewish community.

In my field experience as a clinician at Jewish Family Service of Metro Detroit, I saw first hand that humans are shaped by varied experiences that shape differing approaches to problem solving, relationship building, spirituality, and community. Sometimes, early experiences make it difficult for people to engage with a broader community. My field experience taught me how to be empathetic to this challenge, and practice how to make space for people who haven’t always felt welcomed. My colleague Melanie Rivkin has grown in a similar way through JCLP. Melanie says, “Before coming to JCLP, I knew I wanted to work for a nonprofit focused on engaging individuals in Jewish communal life, though wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. JCLP has taught me a lot about the range of challenges and opportunities in Jewish communal life to foster and develop inclusive Jewish communities, and how to be a leader in doing so. “

Two of my favorite Judaic Studies classes I took during my time in graduate school were with historians Deborah Dash Moore and Karla Goldman, the director of JCLP. We discussed the immigrant experience of Jews in the United States, and how that influenced Jewish involvement in social justice movements, democratic politics, arts, and culture. From these courses, along with a program our cohort facilitated with diversity educator Yavilah McCoy, I reflected on what it means to be proximate to the history of our people beyond one’s own family experience. Leaving this program, I realize it’s important to me to incorporate our history into the work that I will do.

While the path individuals take to Jewish life may differ, the dedication my colleagues and I have to Jewish life in America is profound. I graduate from this program with a new sense of pride, a greater understanding of the history of our people, and a network of professionals and lay leaders who are deeply dedicated to social justice, community, and living Jewishly. My colleague Sharon Alvandi, graduates from the program with a sense of confidence in the relationship between faith, social work, and the broader community. Sharon says, “JCLP has shown me it’s possible to use my faith in my work effectively. I’ve learned that there are many ways to meet people where they’re at no matter what identities they hold.”

Though only three of us came in with Michigan roots, the majority of graduates in my cohort will remain in the area following graduation, which is in part due to the relationships that we have cultivated locally. Mariel Schwartz says, “Being a student in the Jewish Communal Leadership Program has given me the opportunity to meaningfully engage both the Ann Arbor and Detroit Jewish communities. I’m looking forward to continuing the connections I have made long after I graduate and well into my career as a Jewish communal professional in Michigan.”

Upon my graduation, I will work as a Program and Engagement Associate for The Well, a Jewish community, education, and spirituality outreach initiative, where I will bring my whole self with all of my past Jewish experiences. Rather than recreating these experiences for others, I am excited to honor the ways in which they relate to Judaism, and be a support in bringing it to life.

The more willing we are to acknowledge that individuals come to Jewish life from many different places, the more opportunities we will have to strengthen Jewish community. Prescribing a Jewish future of “what we are” or “what we need to be” will never be effective unless we are able to honor and lift up all of our “I am’s,” and recognize the diversity of routes it may take to get there.

Avery Drongowski is graduating this spring from the Jewish Communal Leadership Program at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.