The child of a Jewish father and a minister mother, Rachel
Cohen grew up singing in her church choir and, until seven
years ago, knowing virtually nothing about Judaism.
Last week, she was named one of five "New Jewish Leaders to
Watch" by the Professional Leaders Project, having started the
group Shabbat Hoppin' to introduce Jews without much Judaic
background to Shabbat services.
How did she come so far so fast? It was all because, as a
student at the University of Pennsylvania, she learned about a
That trip happened to be the inaugural Taglit-Birthright
Israel mission, and Cohen said that she "fell in love with the
people, religion, tradition, country." When she witnessed
Birthright founder Michael Steinhardt being moved to tears
when their plane landed in Israel, she determined to become a
part of something that could make that much of an emotional
An Alexandria resident, Cohen was one of two local leaders
honored by PLP, a three-year-old organization dedicated to
recruiting and retaining lay and professional Jewish leaders
in their 20s and 30s by bringing them together with seasoned
Jewish leaders for mentoring and networking. The group held
its third annual ThinkTank last week in Santa Moncia, Calif.
District resident Jacob Feinspan, senior policy associate
for the D.C. office of the American Jewish World Service, took
a more conventional route to becoming a rising young Jewish
leader. He credits his many years working at Union of Reform
Judaism camps for first exposing him to an environment where
Jewish values were "part of the way things work."
Feinspan, 27, was the first staffer in AJWS' Washington
office four years ago, following a one-year stint as a
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Eisendrath fellow.
Last summer, he created the Organizing for Social Justice
program to bring AJWS's positions on Darfur and global AIDS to
the attention of presidential candidates. Staffers were hired
in the early primary states, where Feinspan noted that regular
voters can literally sit down to dinner with the candidates,
to focus on those topics. As a result, he believes, a number
of the presidential hopefuls have "much better positions" in
those areas than they did earlier in the campaign.
Each PLP Jewish leader is assigned a mentor, and Feinspan
credits his, Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish
Alliance, for, among other things, convincing him to expand
his Jewish involvement by joining the board of Jews United for
Justice, where he is now a vice president.
After her life-changing experience in Israel, Cohen, 29,
returned to college, but found that while she immediately
wanted to "make myself of service to the Jewish community,"
she didn't have the basic knowledge necessary to attend
Shabbat services or study Torah ‹ and no one was offering to
But she kept in contact with Birthright, regularly calling
to inquire if the organization had started an alumni program,
and three years ago she was directed to the first PLP
There, with so many top Jewish leaders and funders in
attendance and many lamenting the issue of intermarriage, she
told her story of being a child of intermarriage who couldn't
find a place in the Jewish community.
"You didn't lose me, but you're going to if you don't build
more bridges to people like me," she said, and "in that moment
I became a Jewish leader."
Cohen, an assistant to former United Nations Ambassador
Nancy Rubin specializing in human and women's rights issues,
has since taken classes at the D.C.-based Jewish Study Center
and become active in the D.C. advisory committee for
Birthright. The Shabbat Hoppin' organization she founded is an
attempt to reach out to individuals like her, by forming a
group of people lacking a Judaic background who can visit
various Shabbat services to discover the right fit for them.
Both Cohen and Feinspan said they were inspired by the
energy of the PLP gathering.
"Ideas were flying around all over the place," said
Feinspan, who said that one can't help but be optimistic about
the future of Jewish leadership after spending time with the
300 or so people, two-thirds of whom were young leaders, at
the three-day conference.
Cohen said that as a "new Jew," one wants to get involved
in everything, but she received valuable advice from a top
federation leader who told her she could be turned off if she
spread herself too thin.
Instead, Bob Aronson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of
Metropolitan Detroit, advised, "Don't do everything you can
do, only do the things you can do best."
For his part, Feinspan said he's glad that PLP has helped
him in making a home professionally in the Jewish communal
"I find it to be incredibly rewarding to work in a Jewish
context," said Feinspan. Not only does it make him feel
"connected and complete" to know he can talk to his co-workers
about their Shabbat plans, but he has seen during the past
five years how important the "intersection of Judaism and
social justice" is.
"It's a really powerful way for many people to connect with
their Judaism," said Feinspan, "and I want to be a part of
helping establish" it as a "central part of Judaism for
everyone. ... I think creating [an opportunity for people] to
have a stronger connection with Judaism and also changing the
world around them is what I want to be doing."