From Owings Mills to Mississippi

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Those who have worked with her call her ambitious and passionate and say she has bright future in the Jewish community.

Owings Mills native Ali Duhan, 22, who graduated from McDaniel College this past spring, has taken her energy to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), where she recently started a two-year education fellowship.

She and seven others are responsible for becoming experts in the ISJL’s religious school curriculum, visiting member communities in the 13 states that span from Florida’s panhandle up to Virginia and over to parts of Texas, organizing and directing the ISJL’s education conference (which was held in late June) and creating and running various programming.

Owings Mills native Ali Duhan has just begun a two-year education fellowship at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. (Provided)
Owings Mills native Ali Duhan has just begun a two-year education fellowship at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. (Provided)

“I’m just hoping to learn,” Duhan said. “Everyone here is so amazing at what they do and so passionate. I would love to learn from them.”

A look at Duhan’s previous work in the Jewish community shows that she should fit right in.

A graduate of Franklin High School in Reisterstown, Duhan was an active member of Temple Emanuel, where she served on the youth group board and worked as a madricha. She was involved in Beit RJ (Baltimore Education Initiative for Teens of Reform Judaism) as well as NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth).

“I could tell that she was very passionate about the community,” said Amy Goldberg, who taught seventh grade at Temple Emanuel and had Duhan as her madricha. Goldberg, who works as a youth educator at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, also served as Temple Emanuel’s youth adviser.

At McDaniel, Duhan studied sociology with minors in religious studies and ASL/deaf studies.

“Sociology is a great lens in which to view religion especially in a fellowship like this when you’re looking at how people want to have religion in their lives,” she said.

Last summer, she interned at Jewish Volunteer Connection, where she worked on Jewish service learning projects and helped enhance programming. She also served on the J-Serve International Day of Youth Service Committee and the organization’s Students Taking Action for Change program. Erica Bloom, assistant director at Jewish Volunteer Connection, said the internship was a step for Duhan to explore the world of being a Jewish communal professional.

“She’s a force to be reckoned with. She has a lot of strengths and a lot of passion,” Bloom said. “I would support her in whatever she does.”

Duhan heard about the fellowship at the ISJL through Goldberg, who went through the program from 2006 to 2008, prior to her time in Baltimore.

“It really let me have a taste of Jewish communal work, and it sort of identified what I’m passionate about in the community,” Goldberg said. “I think this will be a good experience for [Duhan], and I think she can find more of a direction for where she wants to go from here.”

In addition to the duties all the fellows work on, Duhan is working on alternative minyanim and how to get people more engaged in different aspects of the Torah through avenues such as Kaballah. But she’s going to let those southern communities she’ll be working with guide her work.

“I like the philosophy of the institute because it’s trans-denominational and it meets the needs of the community as opposed to being like ‘oh, you need this,’” she said.

The curriculum will be one of the bigger items she and the fellows work on. It allows the ISJL’s 350 member congregations to have standardized Hebrew instruction, and through the curriculum and the involvement of the fellows, the institute provides guidance and resources to congregations with small staffs and Hebrew school teachers who don’t have strong religious study backgrounds.

Rabbi Matt Dreffin, associate director of education at the ISJL, said fellows are hitting the road this week in two groups of four and visiting several communities, and they’ll be out for the remainder of the month and all of August. Fellows will then revisit communities by themselves again in the fall and spring, where they do a sort of scholar-in-residence program in which they lead services, programs and sometimes retreats.

“We hire young, potential future Jewish professionals to travel around,” Dreffin said. “Our fellows kind of become experts in enthusiasm in the program and in the curriculum.”

He described Duhan as “a fountain of energy” who is asking a lot of questions, which is good.

“She’s not 100 percent sure what she wants to do next, and that’s partially why you come here,” he said. “She is just soaking it all up.”

But what about Duhan’s own Jewish life? To the Baltimorean’s surprise, Jackson, Miss., where the ISJL is based, has a vibrant Jewish community.

“It’s not Baltimore, there’s not a synagogue on every corner, but there is something there,” she said. “It’s a lot more than I was expecting.”

She’s connected with a young Jewish professionals group, a local synagogue and college groups as well.

“Much like every other region in the country­… we have smart Jews and we have Jews that are less knowledgeable, and we have large congregations and smaller congregations,” Dreffin said. “The biggest thing [the fellows] say about Jackson is they’re a little worried. We show them there’s a Target, it’s a real city. We have Whole Foods. It’s legit.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

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