A Discussion with Naomi Abselon Gohn, Director of Programs, Washington Hebrew Congregation, Washington, D.C.
April 1, 2018
Background: In April 2018, undergraduate student May Teng interviewed Naomi Abselon Gohn as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Gohn is the current director of programs at the Washington Hebrew Congregation and also serves as director of the Tikkun Olam Values (TOV) Center. In this interview, Gohn elaborates on the various social justice programs that the Washington Hebrew Congregation is involved in and how the projects play a role in the greater Washington, D.C. community.
Could you provide some more details on the TOV Center, as well as other projects that the Washington Hebrew Congregation engages in?
The TOV Center is a physical center in the building, which is a gathering space for groups to plan, discuss, and work on different social action initiatives. The TOV Committee distributes up to $100,000 a year towards funding various social action initiatives. Much of the TOV mission is about hands-on engagement and finding ways to get our congregants involved in different missions. It’s primarily local, so we’re really working to support the local community.
In addition, I work with some large-scale service programs in the congregation. I look at the projects we participate as the “big four.” Firstly, we have the Hunger Helpers initiative, where congregants and community members are welcome to come and package meals at least once a month. We also organize a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, in which we invite all of our interfaith partners and community members to come and participate in all types of service projects. In April, we have Mitzvah Day, where, similarly, hundreds of congregants participate in different service projects throughout the city. Right before Thanksgiving, we package meals that provide people with all the resources they would need to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner. We provide those meals to the women of N Street Village, Kerry Simon House, and also to every person—students, faculty, staff, everyone—within the Abram Simon Elementary School, a school in southeast D.C. which is named after one of our earlier rabbis who also happened to found the D.C. Board of Education.
Recently, we’ve also added another day called Winter Warmth, an event we partner with Friendship Place in which volunteers donate winter clothes. Friendship Place clients can come and choose clothing for a winter wardrobe that will keep them warm. Many of them are homeless or floating between different housing options, so having clothes and a matching hat is something really important that can provide them with dignity. Volunteers are from all different faith partners and come together to provide our resources for our participants. We also have a congregant who is a hairstylist, and she went through a hard time previously in her life. She offers free haircuts to anyone who needs one that way. I would never have thought of that, but what a perfect way to marry an individual congregant’s skills and passions with the kind of service we want to do. It’s great when we make these meals and pack sandwiches—but I find it even more moving when we’re able to connect the dots between someone else’s skill sets and interests, and our service work.
We’ve also joined the Good Neighbors Initiative, which was started with Lutheran Social Services to help refugee families settle in the area. It’s designed to help refugees become acclimated to a new environment, so we can serve as “good neighbors.” We’ve been spending this past year preparing ourselves to help a family move here and also learning from other religious institutions who have been involved in the program.
In programs like our Minds Matter initiative, a non-profit can come to us for advising, whether that be assessing programs or developing business plans. We have a huge congregation of 2,500 families, many of whom want to contribute their time and energy. We want to go beyond the sandwich. People want to be fed today, and we try to provide whatever we can, but we also want to help support organizations to build on the work that we’re doing.
What I think is really interesting about the TOV Center is that it’s not just about investing capital into different projects. It’s really about getting members of your congregation involved, hands-on, in these projects. Why do you think that members of the congregation are willing to be involved in these initiatives. Where do they find motivation?
For me, my entry into Judaism was really through activism and social justice work. I grew up in a family that was very involved—my mother was a school teacher, my father works for a labor union—so this was part of my blood since the beginning. But what made me want to become involved in the Jewish community was the connection I saw between Judaism and social justice, and this idea that part of being Jewish is being engaged in the community around you and fighting for Jewish values. Part of being a Jew for me is how I treat others and how I engage in the community around me. For me, what TOV and Washington Hebrew do are live those values. There is a rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and one of his most famous quotes when marching with Dr. King was, “I’m praying with my feet.” This was how he lived his Judaism. To me, that really resonates. Washington Hebrew lives that value in all the different efforts we do. It’s important for many of our congregants that these initiatives are happening, that they take on a leadership role to do that, and the granting part of TOV is helping us with that value. We’re spending the TOV money in a way that reflects our values, teaching our congregation about some of the amazing partners we work with and helping them to build relationships with those agencies. We’re connecting the dots between someone wanting to do service and actually making that possible. This could be an entryway for someone into service. I have conversations with congregants hoping to get involved and being able to connect them with activity in service is really beautiful.
What are your thoughts on engaging with members of different faiths and making that interfaith connection from a service lens?
We as a society have become very isolated. But when you reach across the aisle, to people who are different from you, you have the opportunity to see the world in a different way and to build relationships that can strengthen the entire community. I think it’s incredible that we have these really rich longstanding partnerships with so many different faiths. During the annual Unity Walk, different houses of worship along Massachusetts Avenue all open their doors just to teach, share their cultures and religions. It’s a lovely community day. On my first Unity Walk, I thought to myself, "This is incredible." When else would I have been able to just walk into a church around the corner, and feel a sense of community kinship? But these are our neighbors.
We do a lot of interfaith projects. For example, when our Muslim friends come to different worship services and events, they often have to step out to pray. We always have a room set aside that they can go to. Recently we decided to buy prayer mats to make their experience more welcoming. If the whole point is to engage in interfaith relations, we need to meet people where they’re at. I was tasked with prayer mats. I have no idea where to buy prayer mats! But because we have a long-standing relationship, I emailed one of my All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center (ADAMS) friends to consult her. Her response was so beautiful, so grateful, and it was one of those moments where it just felt like we were doing the right thing. We weren’t just asking, "How do we get along?" but going a step further.
And in regards to social action—it’s important for us to have dialogue, but it’s more important for us to take the next step. Understanding other religions and cultures is so important, but when you’re able to roll up your sleeves and do service for your shared communities. That is where you build really strong relationships.
It seems that Washington Hebrew has a longstanding tradition of service. What would you consider some of the unique characteristics, or even challenges, of having this history in the community?
I think one of the challenges of legacy programs is that people are constantly looking for “the next cool new thing.” Sometimes, the longstanding partnerships that we have need fresh energy; people become less excited over time. We still need to maintain our partnerships with our long-term partners, to ensure that our longer lasting projects stay relevant and meaningful. That’s tough. We need to remind people how meaningful and important it is to sustain our long-lasting partnerships and projects. Part of what allows us as a congregation to be successful is that we have our longstanding relationships with partners. We maintain our partnerships so that when something happens that we need to respond to, we can pick up the phone and call ADAMS, or the National Cathedral, whoever, and say, "Let’s work together to figure out how we can speak on behalf of the religious community about this issue." Maintaining those relationships is not sexy, but it’s more important than some of the more short-term issues that pop up and catch people’s attention.
Another important aspect, I think, is the location of Washington Hebrew in Washington, D.C., so close to various other influential religious institutions. What are your thoughts on how this impacts both the work you do, and the influence you are able to have on the greater surrounding community?
We’ve been in this community for almost 170 years. We’ve been here, and we’ve seen the changes in the community, and we take the responsibility of being a legacy congregation very seriously. It’s part of our identity, and it’s important to our members and the sense of pride they feel. We need to be a part of making this community what we want it to be, and it’s a driving force for us.
Do you have anything you’d like to say to younger people who are perhaps more reticent about participating in faith-based social justice?
This is a connection to my faith. I have struggled with my faith, but I have found meaningful connection to my Judaism through activism. I don’t do this work because I’m human, or American, or any other universalisms. That’s part of it, but I see my desire to be involved through my faith. The opportunity that I have to help others see the connection between this religion and culture we are a part of, and how that has played out throughout history, is a way to build a community. Everyone is looking for a community and social action is one way to enter. People can struggle with faith and that’s healthy—as long as we’re creating entry points to understand that we can struggle and be part of the community.
And we need to keep in mind why we are doing this as Jews. If we’re not adding that component of what our faith teaches us about this, then we’re missing a huge aspect of this. People can go and do service work somewhere else. Why is it important for us to be doing this as a Jewish community? We need to keep in mind our history of involvement, our biblical and Talmudic text that teaches us: this is very much a part of who we always have been. Our interfaith work has definitely been based on that. We talk about Sarah and Abraham opening their tent and welcoming the stranger—you can’t really get a more primary source than that to base our work off.