Opening Minds, Bridging Differences, Living Jewish Values.

Alumni Spotlights

Heschel is proud to have alumni around the world with impressive accomplishments, both personally and professionally. We will be posting these spotlights regularly and encourage you to share your stories with us. Please contact us at alumni@heschel.org for more information or to send us your spotlight.

Alumni Spotlight: Elana Nussbaum Cohen '19

How do you foster healthy dialogue among college students discussing polarizing issues with peers? And how long does it take to write a book about it? For Narrow Bridge Fellow Elana Nussbaum Cohen ’19, it took just over a year of weekly discussions with her fellow Fellows about Israel, Palestine, Zionism, and antisemitism.

Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, Associate University chaplain for the Jewish community at Brown, created the Narrow Bridge Project to bring together Jewish student-leaders of groups engaged with Israel and Palestine advocacy on campus, including Students for Justice in Palestine, J Street U, and Brown Students for Israel. She encouraged the fellows—including Elana—to share their opinions respectfully, learn to adapt their rhetoric, and make space for other ideologies. The result is a free, downloadable guidebook entitled Love Thy Neighbor: A Guide for Tackling Antisemitism While Committing to Justice for All, with sections on the definitions and history of antisemitism, race, and Zionism, among other crucial subjects. 

“We wanted to bring out this resource to level the playing field with definitions (who are Jews? What is the land of Israel?) and questions: why is Israel so complicated, and why does it foster antisemitism in the process?”

Elana, who is studying sociology and data science, has a strong basis in Jewish history, thanks to her education at Heschel. She is also the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Working on the guidebook, then, exposed a series of interpersonal surprises. “I had newfound key insights in understanding how antisemitism operates—interstitiality, punching up vs. punching down, middlemen—which makes antisemitism a very unique type of oppression.” All definitions, by the way, are very helpfully included at the end of the guidebook, which has a click-through function while reading online for streamlined learning. 

“Being in a pluralistic Jewish environment surrounded by Jews [at Heschel], there were a lot of things that we just understood without needing to talk about them,” says Elana. “That wasn’t the case in college. There wasn’t that same understanding or education about what Judaism is and how there are different types of Jews. All of that was very natural coming from Heschel. But this was a way for me to explore issues further.”

Of course, discussing fraught political tensions is often difficult. But it was essential to the heart of the project. “Coming to this project, we all thought we knew a lot and had a lot of opinions, but we came together and said ‘hey, I don’t know as much about this, so let’s chat about it.’ That’s where the real learning and the real growth happens. Learning to engage with other people whose values differ is really important.” It took months, Elana says, for the group to even come up with a definition of Zionism they all felt comfortable with. “We have to engage with each other  otherwise we’ll perpetuate this lack of awareness which could aid  in perpetuating antisemitism.” 

Since the project has been completed, the fellowship has also ended. “Our goal now, broadly, is to get this resource out to other communities,” Elana says. Especially on other college campuses who might not previously have had access to such a cohesive resource. “We want other communities to use [the guidebook] to get the conversation started, to bring empathy to issues around Israel and Palestine.” To download the guidebook and learn more, visit lovethyneighborguidebook.com, or feel free to reach out to Elana to bring the guidebook to your community or discuss further at elananussbaumcohen@gmail.com

Alumni Spotlight: Tobias Citron '11

Tobias Citron (’11), is helping concepts for a better world become a reality. Primary, where Tobias works as a Senior Associate, is all about investing and incubation: from the bud of an idea to growth and product-market fit. Tobias is integral in scouting and forming entrepreneurial endeavors, especially those based in New York.

“Heschel taught me to be intellectually curious and always ask the next question,” he says. “This is a skill and mentality I take with me in my current role, where identifying the right questions is critical.” It’s not easy to invest in early stage businesses; typically there’s no data or revenue that the company is generating, so Tobias has to evaluate the founders and their market opportunity. This entails drawing from his early education which focused on analysis and deep research. 

“My job is twofold: it’s to meet with founders and evaluate their businesses, and to help them succeed after we make an investment. We only invest in businesses we think can be life-changing for businesses or for consumers—it’s really exciting to be at the ground floor for that. We get hands-on with founders and help them along the way, which is fulfilling. Everybody’s very smart, thoughtful, and team-oriented.”

Tobias’ career started in consulting for federal government agencies, following his public policy major at Princeton. In that role, he realized something. “I came to believe that the biggest catalyst for real change wasn’t policy and regulation, but the creation of new businesses and entrepreneurship,” he said. It requires foresight to identify successful ventures. One company, Marker Learning, is an online platform for recognizing, assessing, and treating learning disabilities, and is one of the first companies Tobias identified as primed for success. 

As a firm overall, Primary focuses broadly on consumer and enterprise businesses, and Tobias focuses mainly on enterprise. His own passions involve food safety and climate change. For now, Tobias is enjoying being back in New York after living in Washington, DC and Philadelphia.

Alumni Spotlight: Rebecca Cooper '11

“I definitely did not expect to finish my degree in public health and then find myself in the middle of a public health pandemic. It was a challenge to balance living and working through something that I’d only learned about.”

When Rebecca Cooper (’11) started her job at the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) in Washington, DC in the fall of 2019, she didn’t realize how quickly her work on the Population and Public Health team would become so public-facing. Her largest project was working to improve routine vaccination among pregnant people and children in six states. And now, of course, rhetoric about vaccination has become quite prescient.

Since the onset of COVID, “Everyone’s worlds had turned upside down. Needs became essential to the pandemic and preventative care took a backseat,” Rebecca says. “I’d been working with state officials on routine immunization rates for HPV, TDAP, and flu vaccines, but then it shifted to COVID vaccinations and vaccine plans. The overarching goal of improving public health and working with medicaid officials has stayed the same, but the immediate needs shifted to COVID response… It’s incredible how quickly my work on immunization policy had become relevant.”

NASHP is a nonpartisan forum of policymakers and state officials across the country working to implement innovative solutions to health policy challenges. Much of Rebecca’s work is tied to collaboration with public health officials and Medicaid directors. And of course, the past two years have been very difficult and tiring for all workers in public health. “Living through a public health pandemic personally and also trying to help policy response from a professional perspective has been difficult.” 

But Rebecca has continued to learn and grow. Personally, she is most interested in the intersection of public health modernization and how public health can work alongside the healthcare system. “It’s often really separate,” she says. “The pandemic has highlighted the cracks in these systems and how they often don’t work together. Everyone can be healthier when all the systems work together, so it is especially important from an equity perspective to focus on historically marginalized communities, and those which tend to be underfunded. This work and impact at the local level is really meaningful for me.”

Her dream role would be to lead a state Medicaid or Public Health program. “Right now my focus is on uninsured and underinsured people on public insurance programs. That tends to overlap with historically marginalized communities and my interest in giving back to communities.”

She can trace her interest in science to Heschel chemistry classes with Isaac Secemski and biology classes with Ruth Kentor Himelstein, which in turn informed her undergrad global health studies at Washington University, and a MPH in Health Policy and Management from George Washington University. She also participated in Avodah, a Jewish social justice service corp, after she graduated from Heschel. “Avodah was really transformative, and a lot of it is because of the foundation I had from Heschel—both in terms of thinking critically and also thinking about life from a Jewish perspective and what kind of person I want to be.” She also has a close-knit group of friends from Heschel that she speaks to on a regular basis, and who have been key to helping one another throughout the pandemic. “They’re part of what influences my day to day life. We talk on the phone usually weekly, if not daily, and keep each other apprised of our life decisions, both big and small. I am grateful to have had such supportive and close friends in my life for over a decade.” 

Alumni Spotlight: Lucy Panush (Heschel Alum)

Spring of 2020 found Heschel alum Lucy Panush in a similar position to many people, including some friends of hers from Heschel: in a virtual lurch with her senior year at Northwestern University cut short due to COVID. But it turned out that her Zoom audition for the First Broadway National Tour of Tootsie: The Musical, a comedy based on the movie of the same name, was a success. Though Lucy got the offer in September 2020, she had to wait until the entire Broadway industry restarted in summer and fall 2021. In time with Broadway reopenings in New York including Wicked and Waitress, the Tootsie tour kicked off in September 2021, joining a number of shows on the road including Ain’t Too Proud and Mean Girls

Lucy chatted to us from Houston, TX, and Kansas City, MO, just two of the 27 cities on their 9-month itinerary. “I absolutely love being on tour,” she said. “My favorite part is asking the locals of each city their favorite parts of town and going there. In all honesty, I am quite lucky in that this is actually my very first professional theatre gig!”

Of course, it took years of training to get her where she is. After attending Heschel from Nursery to 9th grade, her theatrical education included The School At Steps Pre-Professional Program, where she was dancing 27 hours a week while also going to Children’s Professional School full time, and American Tap Dance Foundation Tap City Youth Ensemble. She studied Ballet, Tap, Jazz, Modern, Contemporary, Hip-Hop, and Theatre Dance, and at Northwestern, enrolled in the School of Communication as a Theatre Major with a certificate in Musical Theatre. 

As for all Theatre Major seniors, Lucy created a showcase for managers, agents, and casting directors. But graduation in the pandemic meant that students had to create a series of videos (either monologues or cuts of songs) to send around, instead of a live showcase.

In June 2020, an agent who had seen Lucy’s showcase videos reached out to her and, after seeing Lucy’s rendition of a song from Tootsie called “What’s Gonna Happen” sung by a character named Sandy, asked if she would be interested in submitting for the Tootsie tour. Lucy got called in to audition for Sandy, which required filming herself performing the song she already knew, in addition to two cuts (short scenes), and a dance combo which she taught herself off a video. “This was the beginning of the pandemic so a lot of shows were doing everything virtually, and you had to teach yourself material.”

Two weeks later, Lucy got a callback for Sandy. After setting up her computer, light, and speaker in the living room, she got on a Zoom with the creative team of Tootsie, which included the director, book writer, choreographer, music supervisor, casting team, and some members of the production team, all on the Zoom call. Despite how difficult it was, Lucy says it was one of the best auditions of her life. A second callback followed, this time a chemistry read for Sandy and some actors auditioning for the character of Jeff, the role playing opposite Sandy. 

And then? Silence. “Even though I thought I had done a good job, I had to let it go and move on with my life,” she said. And then a month later, to her delight, Lucy got the offer for Ensemble/Understudy Sandy in the Tootsie tour. “When I auditioned I had no intention of... getting it. This industry is just SO competitive. I did it because the opportunity presented itself.” 

But of course, in July 2020, actually beginning the position was more than a year away. 

“The first day of the rehearsal we found out some actors [like me] had been waiting a year and a half and some had just found out they got it a month before. The casting process for Tootsie had been a long time—but the creatives said ‘you were all hand selected’. I feel it because we have SUCH an AMAZING cast.” Even some of the actors Lucy auditioned with during the Sandy/Jeff chemistry read are part of the company.

Currently in Kansas City, the Tootsie tour will move to Baltimore MD, Washington DC, and Naples FL, all before January 2. “I am just so beyond grateful to be doing this right now and to be bringing laughter to people across the country after this hard (almost 2) year/s,” Lucy said. For tickets to see Lucy and her Tootsie castmates and for tour information, visit https://tootsiemusical.com/.

 

Alumni Spotlight: Zachary Levine ('09)

While building healthy food, fitness and wellness retail brands in New York and San Francisco, Zach Levine (HS ’09), noticed something wasn’t working about healthcare. “As I spent more time in the health and wellness space I realized consumers were interacting with alternative medicine and wellness services on a daily and weekly basis but had virtually no touchpoints with traditional primary care. As I dug deeper, I started to realize how broken our healthcare system had become and how polarizing and disjointed many of our solutions were.... What if [healthcare] wasn’t an either/or but a both/and?” he said. “We’re seeing the same thing occur with capital investments in telehealth-only or mental health-only businesses. It’s not that these solutions can’t be helpful; it’s that they are not truly addressing Whole-Person Health.”

 So he decided to do something about it. Wholesome Roots Health, which Zach started in February 2021 with co-founder Geoffrey Talis (MS, MD), is dedicated to blending lifestyle medicine with traditional primary care and mental health services, treating the mind, body, and spirit collectively with individual care and attention. 

It’s a community-centered, membership-based primary care platform focused on blending and streamlining care for every person as an entire whole. It’s care for the mind (therapy, support groups, education), body (primary care, chiropractic, and nutrition), and spirit (lifestyle, meditation, and creative expression).  

At Wholesome Roots Health, a member’s journey is uniquely based on their case, and includes facets from functional medicine as well as homeopathy. One struggling with chronic stress might take supplements for body wellness, get acupuncture and chiropractic intervention, life coaching sessions, see a therapist, receive a heart rate monitor with data tracked in the Wholesome Roots app, and see a functional doctor. Other suggestions might include meditation practice, classes to boost creativity, and medication as needed.

“The past year and a half has been an incredibly challenging time for so many of us but it has also been a time of deep reflection—a narrowing in on what we truly value for ourselves, for our families, and for our communities,” Zach says. “[At Wholesome Roots Health], we focus deeply on asking the right questions, allowing our members to feel heard and supported, and providing evidence-based alternative and conventional treatment recommendations that align with each members’ values and needs. I couldn't think of a more valuable use of my time.”

Zach, who was recently married over the summer by Heschel founder Peter Geffen, has many other exciting developments in the works. Wholesome Roots is launching virtually in April 2022, with its first in-person location opening in summer 2022, and a second in winter 2022. The brick and mortar spaces will offer treatment rooms, communal spaces, complimentary tea, coffee, and snacks, aromatherapy, traction tables and therabody devices, and select wellness products for purchase. For updates and more information, visit https://wholesomerootshealth.com/.