A journey from grief to joy: “CJP really makes you feel like you belong”

When Leo Dassa came to Boston in 2016, he didn’t know much about the local Jewish community – or how to get involved. He had moved north from Florida to care for his older brother, Yoni, a dentist in Brookline, who was battling Stage 4 colon cancer. 

In March 2020 – just days before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – Leo had his first date with Leslie Hirshberg, a Swampscott native who was living in Somerville. The two hit it off, and soon after, Leslie introduced Leo to CJP – and to all that Greater Boston had to offer Jewish young adults.

Five months later, Yoni Dassa (z”l) passed away. He was 34. Leo says it was his connection to CJP and his new Jewish community that helped to pull him through his grief. 

“Yoni was my best friend and I want to carry my brother’s legacy through the same acts of kindness and thoughtfulness he would give; he’s my ‘why,’” says Leo, who spent his first six years living in Israel before growing up in Baltimore. “The Jewish community in Boston has become my ‘how’ in how I keep going.”

“There was no way we were not going to do this”

So, when Leo and Leslie heard about CJP’s Spark experience, a celebration of Israel’s 75th Independence Day through learning, community building, and travel in April 2023, they knew they had to make it work. 

Leslie, a nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who’s also pursuing a DNP-Doctor of Nursing Practice graduate degree at Boston College, swapped shifts with colleagues, and made sure she could access recordings of the classes she would miss. Leo juggled his schedule with the healthcare software start-up he founded. 

“I had been to Israel twice, once with camp and once with Birthright Israel right after college, but Spark felt like the right time to return as a true young adult,” says Leslie. “I think when I was younger, I didn’t appreciate Israel as much. But now going with a partner – and with other local Jews – I saw Spark as an incredible opportunity to form deeper connections with Greater Boston’s Jewish community.”

For Leo, Spark was a chance to learn and travel with the warm, inclusive, and authentic Jewish young adults and CJP professionals he had been meeting in Boston since 2020. 

“There was no way we were not going to do this,” says Leo. “I knew we would meet great people and make lifelong friendships. And that’s exactly what happened – the people we’ve met are amazing.”

Among the couple’s Spark highlights: the opening night celebration in CJP’s sister city of Haifa, Shabbat in Jerusalem complete with singing and dancing, visiting the Dead Sea and Masada, hearing a Palestinian man’s story of growing up in Israel, and seeing the sunset with friends on the beach in Tel Aviv.

“I’m just so glad we went,” says Leslie. “CJP really makes you feel like you belong. It was such a great experience – and especially meaningful for us that the first country we visited together as a couple was Israel.”

“We found our people”

Since returning from Spark, Leo and Leslie have stayed in close touch with friends from the trip. Together, they’ve shared Shabbat dinners and attended young adult events through CJP and the Riverway Project at Temple Israel of Boston.

“We’ve found our people, our permanent community,” says Leo. “I’m always reaching out to people to go to Jewish events. It’s fine if we go to things alone, but now there’s a 99 percent chance that if we text someone from Spark, they’ll come with us.”

The couple has also committed to getting more deeply involved with CJP. After Spark, Leslie took on a volunteer leadership role by joining the committee for the Chai Society, which recognizes young adults, ages 22-40, who make a gift of $118 or more CJP’s Annual Campaign. Leo joined CJP's Hineni Volunteer Network, and is excited to explore volunteer roles next year. Over time, he also plans to increase his philanthropic commitment to CJP. 

Although Leo says he initially came to Boston because of Yoni, it was his involvement in CJP and the Jewish community that made him feel at home. 

“For the first three years I was here, it was a tough city to navigate,” he says. “Quite honestly, it was not easy to get along with Bostonians. I’m proud to say that I’ve turned a corner – I stamped myself an official Bostonian when I began connecting with other Jews in Boston, specifically through CJP. Being part of Boston’s Jewish community helped me through losing my brother – and helped me to stay in touch with what’s truly important in life.”