Lena exudes warmth. I met up with GatherBay’s new Community Coordinator at Hidden Cafe in Berkeley, and went from having a frazzled day to feeling instantly welcome, at home, and among friends. That is Lena’s particular magic: whisking you into a space of camaraderie and glow—a quality that will surely come in handy as she starts bopping around the Bay for lively coffee dates with community members.
After a clink of our tea cups and a couple l’chaims, we got into it: the elusiveness of categorizing Berkeley, being a theater kid, Lena’s cosmic-feeling road to Gather, and the tremendous power of being able to openly express who you are. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason: Hi, Lena! So, what was it like to grow up in Berkeley?
Lena: When I think about Berkeley, it reminds me of a Dr. Seuss book I read as a kid. You could fill in answers to questions like: “I have this many forks in my house.” There was one question of, “I live in a rural, urban, or suburban community,” and I did not know what to put! Berkeley is this weird middle space where it’s on the smaller side but you can still go see Phoebe Bridgers at the Greek. There’s so much culture here and it’s not a place where you have to drive or where everything is downtown. You can walk to the grocery store or even just get your eggs from 7-Eleven.
I loved growing up here. I was really fortunate to have both sets of grandparents close by, and I went to public schools, so the worlds and people I interacted with on a daily basis felt really varied. Even back in elementary school, I took chess, carpentry, quilting, and Kids ‘N’ Clay. I played sports (even though I was not good at them). I dabbled, which was so lovely, and then found theater, which was the thing I zeroed in on.
What made you fall in love with theater?
My parents were big patrons of the arts, and I’m not talking about opera. They would take me as a six-year-old to Jesus Christ Superstar. At seven, we went to Hair. Those types of outings were constant—they were so open to taking me and I was so clearly enraptured. When I was in first grade, I had to memorize part of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to perform onstage, and that was scary but I also really liked it. Over the years, I got involved with programs and classes and productions and I still pursue acting now! Theater takes up a big part of my brain. I truly believe that so many messages can’t get across without art. To be part of sharing those messages has been the biggest joy.
You’ll have to give me some recs! (Shout-out to Les Mis and Aida.) Jumping to your job with Gather (!!), have you always been involved in community work?
I’ve always loved connecting with people. I went to both Willard and King Middle School, which is unusual, and I remember meeting people at King and thinking about kids I knew at Willard who had things in common with them. So I was already thinking in that distinct connecting mode then. When we all went to Berkeley High, I was able to make some of those friendships happen.
Berkeley High was quite a bit bigger—we had 3,200 students—so it was deeply helpful to feel like you knew a few people. I was always inviting people to Associated Student Body (ASB) events and trying to build community through theater. My thinking was the same—when you go into a room, it’s less overwhelming if you know someone. Being known turns that feeling of being overwhelmed into feeling meaningful and special. And less alone!
And you ended up doing that professionally, too, right?
Yes! I’ve had several people-oriented roles like working front of house at Berkeley Rep and so much of that job is just being nice to people and making their first impression warm, genuine, and welcoming. In the last few years, quite suddenly I was doing a lot of stuff in the theater world that happened to be Jewish. That was right when all the Kanye West stuff was going on and a rise in anti-semitism.
I tend to keep my reactions close to my chest but it mattered so much to me that I was playing Jewish characters and being very openly Jewish. I did not grow up wearing the Star of David or anything like that. My Bat Mitzvah class was only six people. I know, really surprising, but I did not grow up with close Jewish friends. With the recent spike in anti-semitism, I was feeling anxious and uncomfortable, even in the Bay.
There were times I felt that in New York City, which is a famously Jewish-friendly and hyper-liberal place. But a lot of stuff went down to the point that I stopped wearing my “Schwartzman” travel soccer jersey on the street as a middle schooler. Dark attitudes can lurk in surprising places sometimes.
Because of all the “explaining” fatigue I had growing up, it has felt so important for me to find more comfort and connection in the Jewish world and find more places where I didn’t have to explain that part of my identity. A friend of mine suggested I join the Shtetl email group [Editor’s note: this refers to an informal Google group where people share Jewish events, housing opportunities, and miscellaneous queries], which is great, and that’s when I saw an email Caroline sent out about Gather!
We met for coffee, which is so funny because I literally got to experience what my future job would be without knowing it. I had no idea that they were hiring! I truly was just interested in finding more community. I’m so happy with how it all turned out and am honored and so, so excited to be working with Gather! I can’t wait to start taking people to coffee.
This is all feeling . . . kind of epic to me!
The timing was very “meant to be” in that right at the moment that I was feeling like I was going to more Jewish events and wanting community, the universe was like, “Here you go.” I actually get really emotional doing anything Jewish. This ancestral part of me is like, “Thanks for letting us be here.” It almost feels like somehow all my ancestors breathe a collective sigh of relief when I engage in Judaism—which manifests as me crying. I’m ALWAYS crying at Jewish events [laughs]. Because for so long, I was either always having to explain that part of myself or it just wasn’t coming up in conversation.
Okay, yes, definitely epic. So, what Jewish-y realms have you explored recently?
I started going to Base Bay, which is wonderful. I’m part of a Jewish learning class called IYUN, which is themed Jewish learning and text study where you talk about things like sex, love, and relationships, the history of Judaism, and pop culture. I’ve been dabbling, going to Kehilla and Urban Adamah. I worked with the Yiddish Theatre Project. The Late Night Shabbat at Temple Emanu-El for young adults is highly recommended. Doing all these Jewish things feels so good.
You’re a superdabbler again, like back in elementary school! Now, onto our little lightning round. Kindly tell us a book, movie, song, or piece of theater that you love.
There’s this song called “Hurricane” by Waxahatchee, Plains, and Jess Williamson, which does such a good job of characterizing the person the song is about and is so beautifully sung, I can’t stop listening to it.
What’s the Bay’s best-kept secret?
Point Molate is a spot in Richmond—the last exit before you get on the [Richmond-San Rafael] bridge. If you turn right, there’s a little park. You drive through what used to be an old winery, casino, and army barracks and keep winding until eventually you hit a hidden harbor with a little dock and some houseboats. There’s a commune with a farm…and some goats and a very cute restaurant! The spot is open air and feels like another world.
What was the last time you felt some kind of spiritual connection?
I saw the play English at Berkeley Rep recently, which was amazing—it’s about Iranians learning English. At the end of the night, the production had a chalkboard where you could write a language you wish you spoke and I wrote French because that’s what my grandparents’ first languages were. I had this moment where I was so honored to have a family with a vast history I can connect with. My mom is Ashkenazi and my dad is Sephardic—those worlds are so integral to who I am, and I felt such love and gratitude for having powerful Jewish role models who carried me through growing up.
Want to have coffee with Lena? Curious about East Bay Jewish life? Let us know!
GatherBay Profiles is our interview series spotlighting the vast array of community members doing rad things! Released twice per month, the series aspires to celebrate GatherBay’s greatest treasure—the people around us. Want to be profiled? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.