How I Became a Stem Cell Donor (part two)

This is the second in a series of posts by Erica Steen, the director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service. You can read the first post here.

It’s been a week of ups and downs. There is no doubt in my mind that I am happy to donate my Peripheral Blood Stem Cells (PBSC) to “Luke” (aka– the anonymous recipient of my PBSC). But as excited as I have been there’s also trepidation. I am not a fan of needles or the sight of my own blood. I have spent the past week totally psyching myself up for my day at the Fairfax clinic. My mother has a plane ticket and two of the best girlfriends in the world have taken the day off to come hang with me. Their task: to distract me for the many hours it takes to complete my donation.

But, now I feel like I’ve let Luke down. I just got a call that he is in the ICU. Of course it’s not my fault he’s in the ICU, the donation isn’t even scheduled until next week but now it has been postponed. He needs at least five full days of chemotherapy before receiving the PBSC transplant and he needs to be in stable condition before that.

I am still Luke’s donor, but now we have to wait and pray. So if you find yourself with an extra prayer please send them his way (not that we know where he is).


JCCA Brings its Executive Seminar Conference to DC

We’re proud to be hosting the JCC’s of North America Association’s annual Executive Seminar Conference this week.

What exactly does that mean?

It means that there are nearly 80 executives from Jewish Community Centers large and small from across the US and Canada meeting here for two and half days to compare notes, learn best practices and come away with new tools to lead their agencies. Their presence, taking-up most of the first-floor of the building, has prodded me to think a bit more about the 16th Street J as being part of a movement of JCCs dating back to the very first, just up I-95 in Baltimore, back in 1854.

That first generation of JCCs (back then they were called Young Men’s and Young  Women’s Hebrew Associations — YMHAs and YWHAs or just Ys) grew up in-tandem with the settlement house movement, in which the middle and upper classes sought to alleviate urban poverty by bringing them arts and culture. In the Jewish community this meant the more established Jews, mostly of German ancestry, providing a mechanism for their poorer Eastern European co-religionists to accultrate into American society. The movement has certainly come a long way since then and has in a sense been turned on its head. An institution first created to remind Jews how to act like Americans, now exists to remind Americans how to act like Jews.

Ann Eisen of JCCA in Saints gear and Dori Denelle, Executive Director of the JCC of Greater St. Paul

Now, the professional leaders of that movement  have gathered here to take stock of where we are and where we are headed. And seeing them gather is a bit like witnessing a family reunion. There are friends and rivals, people who haven’t seen each other since last year’s conference and others for whom this is their first conference as a JCC executive director. There are still noticably more men than women, although women are by no means absent. In fact, the television set-up in the lobby for the purpose of conference attendees being able to keep tabs on the NFL playoffs has been monopolized entirely by women — none more demonstrative than Ann Eisen of JCCA and Dori Denelle of the JCC of Greater St. Paul, who have camped out in the lobby between sessions in full Saints and Purple People Eater gear.

There is a spirit of collegiality that I’ve found comforting. Every JCC is different, even as every Jewish community with its local concerns and demographics is different. In our region there are large differences in constituency, program content and physical facilities between the JCCs in DC, Baltimore, Rockville and Northern Virginia. Spend enough time in your own building wrapped-up in the drama of your own problems and you can begin to develop the misapprehension that your JCC has nothing in-common with any other JCC. That’s simply not true either.

JCCs have enormous challenges before them: increasing assimilation, greater competition for “Jewish” philanthropy dollars, maintaining high-mission but low-revenue programs for seniors, positioning their services as attractive to non-Jewish neighbors while still retaining an essential Jewish mission, harnessing the potential of social media to expand their place in the community as opposed to being replaced by it. The odds are daunting, but if good will is a necessary first step, I think we can say we’ve gotten at least that far.


Boxed In

by Francine Zorn Trachtenberg

Many of our modern cities are designed according to an organized pattern. Washington is such a town. L’Enfant’s diagonal radii emanate from the U.S. Capitol (like Copernicus’ heliocentric universe) and the spaces in between are filled with a rectilinear grid of streets, sequentially numbered and lettered. Every once in a while there is an exception to this layout, but for the most part, navigation moves along according to plan. The Washington DCJCC sits on the corner of Q and 16th Streets, with a clear view to the White House. Prime real estate.

Much of Washington’s political sociology is also pushed into grids: House or Senate, Democrat, Independent, Republican or the Rainbow Coalition; Pro-choice, Anti-abortion, or Taxation without Representation; City Slicker, Country Bumpkin, Red-State or Blue-State. We label positions, people and places into neat (and sometimes messy) categories.

The Jewish community and the Washington DCJCC are no exceptions to this container-mania. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstruction, Unaffiliated, Atheist, non-Jewish; Male, Female, Heterosexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex; Infant, Youth, Adult, Senior, Elderly; Health & Fitness, Arts, Children and Family, Judaic Studies, Community Service; DC, Maryland, Virginia; not to mention sports, hobbies, talents, academic majors, countries of ancestral heritage, professional affiliation and food fetishes.

Hannah Higgins has written a book that explores some of the governing principles about how we view / interpret / organize / conceptualize / discuss the world around us. Her work, The Grid Book analyzes ten forms she believes altered the world: the brick, the tablet, the gridiron city plan, the map, musical notation, the ledger, the screen, moveable type, the manufactured box, and the net.

While there is nothing inherently Jewish in Higgins’ content, her book got me thinking about the various ways “the chosen people” depict themselves – some serious and some less so.

Is Jewish cuisine the same as kosher cooking? After the Second World War, Jewish cooking was synonymous with Eastern European food: matzo balls, flanken, chopped liver, kasha with varnishke, potato latkes. But by the 1960s Israeli foods, most with a Middle Eastern twist, appear on the table alongside the Ashkenazi, including: falafel, hummus, sufganiot, couscous, and shish kebabs. Sephardic Jews serve bourekas as hors d’oeuvres, add dates and cardamom to charoset, use more cinnamon and cumin than paprika and parsley and eat rice on Passover. Even with all these mouthfuls, it has been suggested that putting the words, “Jewish, kosher or Israeli” alongside the word “cuisine” creates a series of oxymoron’s, but that is a digression.

In a recent New York Times article, food writer, Julia Moskin, reports that, “Since the fall of Communism and the breakup of Yugoslavia, many young people from the region have arrived in New York seeking work, education and adventure. Charcoal-grilled pljeskavica and cevapi… have become common in neighborhoods like Astoria and Ridgewood in Queens, where Bosnians and Croatians, Serbs and Montenegrins now open businesses side by side. ‘As long as no one talks about politics, we can live together here,’ …”

Our nation was once described as a melting pot, an amalgam of immigrants surrendering their ethnic culture into the term, “American.” But today we are similar to a smorgasbord of distinct tastes, preserving the individuality of numerous heritages and identities. Go to a Nationals baseball game and you can nosh on Kosher Grill’s hot dogs and knishes, chow down on Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smokes, Ballpen’s burritos or Senator’s Sausage – Italian spicy style. Not only to each his own, but your taste is now my taste.

A work colleague once described me as “religious.” I demurred, and she added, “But you’re so openly Jewish.”

“I’m culturally Jewish, not religious. There is a difference.”

“But you celebrate Jewish holidays.”

Our conversation never quite came to closure. The label given to us by others comes with its own set of preconceptions and is often difficult to modify.

Many years ago I asked to serve on the board of a non-profit organization in order to represent “suburban young motherhood.” Now, I’m a not-so-young grandmother and that category no longer fits. As politically incorrect as it may sound, an organization in DC told me that they were looking for “more Asian women from Ward 4” to participate in a new program.

How do you separate this type of descriptive text from stereotypes? How easy is it to move from stereotyping to profiling, or then from profiling to acts of discrimination?

Is it a fence, wall, barrier, an act of self-protection or of mild aggression?

To many people, the lines of the grid are strongest when they become wobbly and provide for flexibility and interpretation. Then again, others say that the confining rigidity gives organization to the otherwise chaotic world.

And you, how many boxes do you fit into, Jewish and otherwise?

Ms. Trachtenberg is the immediate past-president of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. She is a former Senior Vice President at WETA and adjunct faculty member at the George Washington University’s art department, teaching the history of photography.

How I Became a Stem Cell Donor

by Erica Steen, director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service at the Washington DCJCC

I have never won anything: lottery tickets, raffles, not even board games (OK, maybe sometimes). Until a month ago. I got a phone call that “Luke” and I were winners. WooHoo!

“Luke” is the nickname my friends and I made up for the recipient of my Peripheral Blood Stem Cells (PBSC) — the donation is anonymous. And though, in the end, I don’t get anything (I actually have to give), I think I am pretty lucky to be able to give this gift. In this case, it is better to give than to receive. Welcome to the beginning of my journey…

The journey actually began three years ago. I had been working as the Director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service and for the first four months my friends commented over and over how great it was, all of the volunteering I did. But I wasn’t volunteering. I was getting a paycheck for all of our work (I guess the hours above 40 per week could be considered volunteering). So, I decided it was time for me to volunteer. I received an email promoting the NBC4 Health and Fitness Expo and thought it sounded like fun. The email was looking for volunteers to help register people for the National Bone Marrow Registry. “Well,” I thought,  “if I’m going to register others I guess I should register myself.” Over the past three years I’ve worked with the program to hold bone marrow registration drives at the Washington DCJCC in-coordination with our blood drives (we’ll be announcing a new date soon).

I didn’t expect what came next.

December is the busiest month in the Community Service Department here at the Washington DCJCC. We all tend to work 12+ hour days and it is very rare that I am sitting at my desk and am able to answer the phone when it rings. But, on December 15, Susan with Be the Match, National Marrow Donor Program got lucky. I answered. She mentioned that I was a possible match for a donor in the database. She took me by surprise. Oh. My. God. What does this mean? I’m not exactly a fan of needles and can’t even look when I give blood.  But, this could save someone’s life.

So, on December 16at noon, I went to a nearby clinic to give a blood sample just to be sure that I was the best match. Our December 25th Day of Service came and went and I headed out of town with friends for some much needed R&R. At this point it had been over 10 days and I figured there was someone else out there must be a better match for Luke. I thought too-soon. On December 30 at 11:30am (while lying on the beach) I got the call. Now, we hadn’t won just yet, but almost.

Next step, a physical. On January 8, I headed to the clinic in Annandale, VA. I met Mostafa and Karen and Dr. Nam who asked all sorts of questions, took more blood and showed me around where I might possibly spend a day hooked up to a machine harvesting stem cells.

I’ve been sitting on pins and needles for the past 6 days waiting to hear if I (or really Luke) won the stem cell lottery. And the answer is yes!

So here we go. I hope you will follow my journey over the next couple of weeks. February 1 is the day. Susan originally mentioned donating February 2 but I was going to have none of that. I saw the movie Groundhog Day.

DC Hires Old Jewish Lady to Increase Sex Appeal

I wish I had been in the marketing meeting where this one was thought up. How do we get people to think of DC as a sexy destination? Get someone who talks about sex. Oprah? Too expensive. Dr. Drew? Too many reality tv and addiction associations. Dan Savage? Too partisan and waaaay too gay. There is a sigh of exhaustion in the room, when someone says over the din, “Wait. Get me Dr. Ruth Westheimer on the phone.”

That’s right, everyone’s favorite 82-year old, former Haganah sniper and legendary sex therapist is Destination DC‘s new spokesperson for a campaign to run around Valentine’s Day. She will get an official title as “Secretary of Love and Relationships” and the campaign will make clever use of phrases like “stimulus plan” and if they get really desperate, “reconciliation conference,” “solicitor general” and “Dick Armey.”

Personally I think this is a genius idea. For a town like Washington, we need someone like Dr. Ruth to help us openly acknowledge our sexuality. The old trope is that in DC power is the ultimate aphrodisiac — but Dr. Ruth reminds us that since we can’t all be powerful, there are powered accessories that can help us out. Plus, in case you get nosebleeds or go deaf and numb after sex, she’s your go-to-lady. Face it. She’s 82 years old and from Nazis to nymphos, she’s probably seen and heard it all. There’s very few kinks one could find in Penthouse Forum or the House of Representatives that could throw her.

It’s nice to see DC re-embracing its sexual side. After the over-sexed Clinton years the Bush administration was one, long latency period. We went from one extreme to the other. Dr. Ruth is a welcome reminder that sex in DC need not be either scandalous and sinful or so sacrosanct that it can only be mentioned in the context of abstinence education. Heck, it is a healthy activity for consenting adults. A great way to spend the weekend.

So welcome to Washington, Dr. Ruth! We look forward to your advice — liberals will love you for your tolerance of all types, and conservatives will certainly admire your ability to assemble and fire a Sten Automatic rifle blindfolded in under a minute.


Community Service on MLK Day and What It Can Mean

Two pieces ran today on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s website in anticipation of the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday that focused on the role of community service in the Jewish community. Even before President Obama made a national call to service part of his administration’s identity, there was an increasing acknowledgment of the powerful role service could play in enhancing Jewish communal life. Volunteer projects that bring Jews together to act on the commandment to repair the world have the capacity to infuse Judaism with new meaning for some and to provide a sense of community cohesion. Lynn Schusterman of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation writes on JTA of issuing a call in 2007 for

the Jewish community to make service to others a top priority. I urged that we step up our commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam by increasing both the number of young Jews doing service and our support for Jewish organizations that provide authentic service programs. I envisioned a day in which an immersive service experience is a rite of passage for young Jews, as commonplace in Jewish lives as a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah.

Ms. Schusterman applauds the progress that has been made toward that goal, but urges us as individuals and institutions to make service to others a priority. Also writing in the JTA, Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block¹, director of the PANIM Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values of BBYO calls for a much-needed heshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul) about what is the goal of all this service, “Is this work a fundamental part of who we are as a people, or is it just another engagement tool?” He continues to challenge,

If it’s simply the latter, we should stop doing them; right now. There is something highly problematic about service that “uses” encounters with tragedy and poverty as a means to any ends other than the alleviation of suffering, either directly or indirectly.

While he grants that these service opportunities can be transformative, he is wary of a prescription that fits the bill of “stealth Hebrew school.” In order for these service experiences to have lasting and positive Jewish impact, they must be performed with a degree of mindfulness that one intends to perform a Jewish act with other Jews. The Hebrew word for this is Kavannah. Rabbi Kimelman-Block makes the analogy of performing service with kavannah to the difference between eating a slice of bread, and eating bread that is a Shabbat challah after the motzi has been said.

Let’s apply that analogy to Jewish service experiences. Jews simply doing service, even with other Jews, doesn’t make it a Jewish experience. It’s also not about knowledge — knowing that Judaism demands service to others is actually not particularly earth-shattering or even interesting.

What makes a Jewish service experience Jewish is the kavannah that is brought to the work, and that can develop in large part from performing the service with a group of others who are developing the same intention. That intention gives expression to the fact that I understand what I am doing to be a holy act and a Jewish act.

The challenges put forth by these pieces are twofold and worthy of amplification on the week prior to Martin Luther King Jr. Day when a lot of service will be performed — both enthusiastically and begrudgingly.

The first is to shrug off our cynicism that our service matters — it does matter, both on the individual and institutional level. The Washington DCJCC has been actively engaged in ongoing community service projects for over twenty years precisely because the difference we each can make is tangible, and the need for that change never loses its urgency. As someone who has worked here for 13 years, nothing gives me a feeling of greater fulfillment of the Jewish mission of this agency than the marshaling of our communal energy towards the alleviation of poverty and needless civic neglect.

The second is that volunteering on MLK Day is not the only goal. Beginning the process of consciously choosing committed volunteer work on an ongoing basis as an expression of one’s Jewish identity in concert with others who feel similarly is a possible companion to the experience. And like the rabbi’s comparison to prayer, it is not a state achieved in one day, but rather through repetition. Because the need in our community is unfortunately, seemingly never-ending, it also happens that we deliver our services to the community every week of the year — not just on the red letter days of Christmas, Thanksgiving and MLK Day.

So whether you join the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service and its Behrend Builders for a day of service at Ferebee Hope Community Complex in Southeast Washington, DC or at another project throughout the year, give some time for examining the Jewish roots of your service. But the first step, is to serve.

¹ Full disclosure: Rabbi Kimelman-Block and I, among other things, went to college together, have split a six-pack of Keystone Light, I stage-managed his wedding and he officiated at mine. But since he has been a national leader in running service programs for High School students for the past seven years– long before it became all the rage — he is a legitimate authority despite his past associations with yours-truly.


Sheryl A. Rosenthal z”l

Sheryl Rosenthal z'l

Sad news from our friend Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi who sent us the following rememberance:

Sheryl A. Rosenthal, 50, co-founder of the Washington District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s Community Service Program died Tuesday, January 5, 2010. Sheryl’s vision and persistence initiated a program where Jewish volunteers went regularly to visit AIDS babies at DC General Hospital. At the time most people with AIDs had a short life expectancy.  Many wrongly thought that AIDS could be easily caught by touching someone’s skin. Thus, AIDS babies – often children of parents who got AIDs through infected needles – were all too often abandoned.

Sheryl loved children.  Her goal in the program was to show these babies love and warmth – no matter their potential life expectancy. She worked with the hospital to get them to allow the volunteers to come – not such an easy task. Then she recruited volunteers and went through the challenging process of explaining that the risks of volunteers getting AIDS from holding the babies was not real. Sheryl planned activities and got stuffed animals to give out to the kids. She created warmth and love for babies whose existence basically was one of cold white rooms in a sad public hospital for poor people. Because of Sheryl these babies had a little dignity, some great hugs and smiles in their lives. She made a real difference. She showed them that they mattered.

During Sheryl’s involvement in the Washington DCJCC Community Service Program it was recognized as a “Best Program in North America” by Moment Magazine. It also was made a “Point of Light” by President George H.W. Bush.  To Sheryl though it was just a part of her way of making the world a better place.

May her family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
May her memory be for a blessing.


Blue Like Me: Jewish Na’vi Women in Our Gallery

I saw Avatar this past weekend and was blown away by its visuals and lush immersive world, even if the plot was about a half-inch deep. I was thoroughly won over by the 3D experience, and frequently had to remind myself that these 12-foot tall blue aliens on Pandora called the Na’avi were not real.  So it was a bit of a shock to walk back into work on Monday and see a room full of Na’vi women (and Jewish to-boot) in our Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery (on view through January 29th).

Well, not exactly. But certainly the Omaticaya’s spiritual leader, Mo’at would not be entirely out of place amongst artist Siona Benjamin’s blue biblical women such as Miriam, Lilith and Tzipporah. Well before James Cameron was working with his CGI characters, Benjamin has been drawing inspiration from Hindu iconography to explore the challenges and contradictions of her own Indian Jewish (and American) identity. The accompanying guide to the exhibit states, “By reinventing and re-imagining various cultural icons of womanhood rooted in ancient and historical religious sources, Benjamin’s art opens up a new cultural and aesthetic space for the contemplation of diasporic realities including American popular culture, Hindu and Jewish beliefs, Middle Eastern politics and the strains of religious intolerance.” For Benjamin, blue skin is the symbol of being a Jewish woman of color.

I emailed Siona to ask if she has seen the movie yet.  I got a reply from India that she was travelling, but hoped to see it soon. I wonder how she’ll react to a planet filled with giant blue women?

For those who are fans of the movie, I also recommend reading “Blueface, Whitenoise” by Jared Gardner in the Huffington Post which makes, I think, a very apt comparison between the themes of Avatar and The Jazz Singer.


%d bloggers like this: