“Their job is to look after Israel. Ours is to look after them.” That is the motto of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), founded in 1981 in an effort to ease the burden that IDF soldiers and their families carry on behalf of the Jewish community worldwide.
While its international headquarters are in New York City, the FIDF Mid-Atlantic Region was founded in Baltimore and has grown to include chapters in DC and Virginia. In this Q&A, Josh Stevens — a local resident and manager of FIDF NEXT Midatlantic — discusses what led him out of the classroom and into the professional-staff ranks of BBYO and now FIDF.
When you won The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Young Leadership Award in 2013, you spoke about what Birthright meant to your personal Jewish journey. Tell us about your connection to Israel and the Jewish community today.
Growing up, I was friends and neighbors with Modern Orthodox yeshiva-attending young Jews as well individuals whose post-b’nai mitzvah involvement in Judaism was limited — so I had a slightly polarized understanding of what it meant to be Jewish in America.
I firmly believe that on Birthright, like any Israel mission, the greatest impact happens on the bus. On Birthright, it was the dialogue that I had with Israeli soldiers pointing out the direction of the kibbutz where they grew up or the conversation I had with the American participant who found out he was Jewish from a journal left for him under a Christmas tree that drew my connection to Avraham Infeld’s reference of Judaism being a people.
My personal connection to Israel and the Jewish community is less about geographic lines and more about the people. I don’t have a Holocaust survivor or victim in my family that defined my personal connection to the adversity our people had to overcome to get to where we are today. In a weird way, the bonds I have forged with my peers in Israel and the diaspora have created a form of lineage that connects me to a place I now consider my homeland and a community here where the roots I have established will nourish the next generation of my family.
For nine years, you were a fifth grade teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. Why did you leave the classroom to become a Jewish communal professional?
I loved teaching so much. As a child of two teachers, I knew teaching was a rewarding career path. But after getting back from the first DC Community Taglit-Birthright trip in 2005, I found myself completely immersed in Jewish communal life.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington did such an incredible job of engaging Birthright alumni like me with Shabbat dinners and programming. At Federation and other organizations, I took on leadership roles. This provided me with a type of growth that teaching couldn’t. It also provided me with a community.
My passions were shifting. I knew that it was time for a change. During seasonal breaks, I found myself on Israel missions or working at Capital Camps. During free time throughout the year, I would find free moments to send board emails or rush out of school for program planning meetings. A mentor introduced me to BBYO, where I was asked to provide Jewish leadership training to teens. This seemed like a natural transition. So, I took the leap and haven’t looked back (except on snow days).
How can young adults connect with Israel locally?
Perhaps I’m biased, but I feel FIDF provides the most direct way to locally connect with Israel, offering tangible ways to connect to a land thousands of miles away. FIDF offers a wide array of missions to Israel and programming at home that allow the community to hear firsthand experiences of brave troops during and after their service.
FIDF NEXT, our community of young leaders, also provides a connection to Israel. One such local opportunity is through our Battalion Adoption program. Under the leadership of our chairs, Scott Fishkind and Glenn Benson, we have sponsored a combat unit. In many ways, this program is a microcosm of FIDF’s programs, in that soldiers in adopted brigades are supported in a way that empowers them to focus exclusively on their mission of protecting the Jewish homeland.
Another opportunity is through our community engagement programming, such as our second annual Latke Vodka party coming up during Chanukah. Due to the hard work of our chairs, Alix and Paul Bortnick and Miriam and Micha Weinblatt, tickets sold out in just two weeks.
Based on your work with young people, what are your thoughts about the future of Jewish life in the DC Metropolitan area?
Jewish life in our community has grown so much in the last 10 years with the emergence of GatherDC, OneTable, and PJ Library. As they move forward in partnership with preexisting institutions of Jewish life, our community members will be provided with the resources to choose their ownapproach to live their life Jewishly. If we can commit ourselves to assuring a high level of inclusion and a low barrier of entry, we will continue to thrive.
The greatest thing organizations like BBYO and Capital Camps do is that they provide a safe space for youth to be engaged Jewishly at an age where they would otherwise be home playing Fortnite or getting lost in social media. I say “safe” because the most common phrase I heard from participants was that they felt free and safe to explore their Jewish identities how they pleased. That is because both pluralistic organizations committed themselves to inclusion — whether it was based on gender, sexual orientation, disability, level of Jewish observance, race, etc.
What makes you showcase your leadership skills more — supporting Israel engagement with FIDF or parenting twin baby girls?
Attempting to do both is the greatest test of leadership I have ever experienced. I’m grateful to have an incredible wife who provides the level of support that allows me to make both a priority.
By Jason Langsner
Jason Langsner is the volunteer chair for Israel Bonds Washington New Leadership and formerly served as the vice chair of communications for The Network at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.