Last week, BJN posted this piece about the Birthright NEXT High Holiday outreach initiative. This week, we have a BJN 4 Questions for Dr. Jenni Skyler and Daniel Lebowitz, a Boulder NEXT alumni couple who met through the NEXT network and are now married and even work together. A bit of background on the Birthright NEXT programs:
- 279,000 Birthright Israel alumni live in communities across the U.S.
- More than 7,000 Birthright Israel alumni have hosted more than 16,800 Shabbat experiences for their friends, using NEXT toolkits and resources to create Jewish experiences with a total attendance of more than 235,000 young adults. Through NEXT’s national partnership, Moishe House residents have hosted more than 1,000 additional NEXT Shabbats. Each experience attracts an average of 27 young adults.
- The Shabbox includes songs, ritual materials, explanations, prayers, etc.. to make for a warm and meaningful Shabbat.
- NEXT also has similar initiatives for Passover Seders as well.
- More than 150 local organizations in 41 cities are listed in the search-by-city directory for alumni at birthrightisraelnext.org, connecting alumni to organizations, projects, meet-ups, and ways to get involved in their local Jewish community.
- NEXT has helped resource and support 145 “engagers” from different organizations at six convenings throughout the country. They learn the tools and build expertise to effectively connect with young Jewish adults.
Jenni moved to Boulder in 2007 to finish her PhD in Clinical Sexology, and Daniel arrived in 2010 after finishing his Master’s in counseling. Both looked to the NEXT alumni network to connect with 20’s and 30’s in the Jewish community.
1. Tell us your Birthright stories: how and where did you get recruited, and how did the trip affect you?
JENNI: I discovered Birthright through a Jewish friend from high school. She said, “let’s go on a free trip to Israel!” It sounded like a fun opportunity to get away. What I didn’t realize at the time was how Birthright would forever change my perception of Jewish culture and history, and most importantly my Jewish identity. I came back from that trip more resolute that I wanted to marry a Jewish man and raise a Jewish family.
DANIEL: I was looking for a trip to take after my undergraduate studies. A friend of mine mentioned Birthright. It sounded like a great opportunity. Being a history major, I immediately started reading everything I could about Israel. On the trip, I had an amazing cultural and spiritual experience that made me realize I wanted to live a more Jewish life with a Jewish partner.
2. It sounds like NEXT came along at just the right time for each of you. Tell us how you got involved and how NEXT (and Jewish geography) led you to each other?
DANIEL: I learned about ongoing Birthright programs while doing my master’s degree at Wisconsin. I took the opportunity they offered to host a few events. When I graduated and moved out to Boulder, I immediately sought out the NEXT community because I knew it would be a good place to connect with Jews in my age range that were also interested in living a Jewish life. I haven’t looked back since.
JENNI: NEXT is a Birthright alumni program. My trip leader connected me to the community liaison in Boulder when I moved here in 2007. Initially not knowing many people, I found it enjoyable to make friends, especially ones that had a common Jewish heritage. I started attending potlucks, hikes, and other events, and soon starting hosting my own Shabbat dinners through NEXT. I took a small sabbatical to do a post-doc in Atlanta for a year, and returned to Boulder to open my private therapy practice, The Intimacy Institute. Like any dedicated entrepreneur, I lived and breathed business for almost a solid year until I woke up one day and realized I had been neglecting social and outdoor activities. Eager for balance, I called up a friend from my Birthright program and asked if he would be interested in going on a backpacking trip in a few weeks. He said he already had a commitment to two other NEXT alumni friends of his to do a “Boy’s Trip”. Though I didn’t know the other two guys, I pleaded that I could easily fit in with the boys, so he said he would check with them. One guy was comfortable with me joining; however, the other guy (my future husband), hemmed and hawed about a girl joining the trip. He was eventually convinced for us all to meet before excluding me. We met in person a few days later, and let’s just say he was more than fine with me joining the trip!
3. How has NEXT helped you two build your community in Boulder? It kind of sounds like the Shabbat dinner program has taken on a life of its own. Are you continuing to find new Birthright and NEXT alumni coming to town? Does NEXT still have a way to connect newcomers to the community?
NEXT has helped us build community, find friends, and eventually, find each other. We are both so grateful to both Birthright and the NEXT alumni program. We continue to welcome new people to the community and make new friends. Though NEXT no longer has a local community liaison, the program recently launched High Holiday events to sponsor. We are hosting a Rosh Hashanah brunch through NEXT this coming Thursday.
4. It must have been a real jolt as you learned that your personal and professional interests and goals aligned so well. Tell us about your overlapping practices and how working together as relationship counselors has impacted your relationship?
On our legendary backpacking trip, we started to form a friendship. We realized we had so much in common, from our passion in mountaineering, to our desire to live sustainably off the land. One of the strongest commonalities we had was in therapy. I had been a sex and relationship therapist for a few years at that point, and Daniel, who came from a whole family of therapists, was toying with the idea of going back for a second master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. We discussed the idea of doing retreats, seminars, and workshops together. As we started to dream into this idea, we eventually joked that we would have to get married to one another because our future significant others (that neither of us had yet) might get jealous if we run all these business projects together. Of course, there was far more truth in our joking. We finally said, joking aside, maybe we should really take this for a test drive. A year later we went on another hike where Daniel proposed. A year after that, we got married in a meadow overlooking Maroon Bells—the location of our first “Boy’s Backpacking Trip”. This high holiday season, we celebrate our first year anniversary. We feel blessed to be such a compatible team, not just in marriage, but also in business. Daniel did decide to go for that second masters and graduated this past spring. He opened his private practice, Root Connections Counseling where he focuses on grief therapy, men’s work, and sexuality. We also team up together at The Intimacy Institute where we have already done a talk on prostate cancer and sexuality. This new year, we are excited to hatch many new projects, in business, community, and family!