Evan Willner, 24, knows good Israeli food.
“Israeli cuisine is one of the most unique,” he said.
He recommends local restaurants Yesh, Lebanese Taverna, or Cazbar for falafel, but laments that he hasn’t been able to find very good jachnun, a Yemenite pastry similar to a rolled up baklava, in Baltimore.
Willner is the Israel and overseas engagement associate at The Associated. In this role, he helps Baltimore’s young adults “find meaningful and impactful ways to connect with the land, people, and culture of Israel via travel experiences and educational opportunities,” he said. “To be a part of someone else’s Jewish journey is rewarding and in a way has enhanced my own personal Jewish identity. The challenge is knowing that not everyone needs that type of connection — just because it is important to me, does not mean that it is important to everyone.”
Willner, a member of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation, holds a bachelor’s in international relations from Elon University. He also studied at Tel Aviv University. Though born in Indianapolis, he grew up in Owings Mills. He resides in Baltimore with his Rottweiler rescue puppy, Laila.
Talk about that intersection of your Judaism and work.
Am Yisrael chai — the people of Israel is a big one for me. Connecting other Jewish people helped me understand our global peoplehood. When it comes to my job, I am essentially providing others with the opportunity to broaden their sense of global Jewish peoplehood and find what Jewish values are important to them. Enriching my personal Jewish identity has been such a journey for myself, so why not play a role in someone else’s if I can?
How can readers get involved?
The highlight programs within my portfolio are Baltimore Onward Israel, Birthright Israel, and Masa Israel Journey.
Baltimore Onward Israel is a two-month summer internship in Tel Aviv for current college students and recent graduates. The program cost is $600, highly subsidized by The Associated.
Birthright Israel is a free, all-inclusive, 10-day trip to Israel for ages 18-32. A common trend for participants of Birthright is to extend their trip and participate in an Onward Israel program.
Masa Israel Journey offers long-term Israel travel programs.
How does Judaism affect your life?
I have had a handful of Israel experiences in my 24 years. I had my bar mitzvah on Masada, spent a semester at URJ’s Heller High School, participated on Birthright, interned with Onward Israel, and spent a semester at Tel Aviv University during my collegiate senior year. I have family in Jerusalem. I live, sleep, eat, and breath Israel, the first place I want to go. Mediterranean food and the diversity of Israeli cuisine is my go-to meal. I am committed to finding the best shawarma and falafel in every town I go to. Mixing work with something that I am so personally invested in has its benefits and challenges. I try my hardest to find ways to separate the two.
What are the best and worst things about Baltimore?
Baltimore contributed so much to the U.S. and the world since its earliest colonial days. [Its medical institutions], such as Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland, have saved countless. But with all the positive history also comes the stain of slavery and racial inequality. We cannot dismiss that many of today’s struggles in the Baltimore area have long, deep, and painful roots stemming from our racial history of inequity, accessibility, and educational opportunities.
As a Jewish community worker in the city of Baltimore, it is my personal responsibility to love and care for my neighbor no matter race, religion, or creed. A stronger Baltimore means a stronger Jewish Baltimore, and vice versa.