Connecting to community: “Spark was the launchpad we needed”

After three years of living in Los Angeles, Brett Gershkowitz and Michael Vonnoh were ready to come home.

In November 2022, the couple — who married two months earlier — moved back to Boston. Shortly after, a friend told them about CJP’s upcoming Spark experience, a celebration of Israel’s 75th Independence Day through learning, community building, and travel.

“I was the one who said, ‘We’re going. I don’t care what it takes,’” says Michael, who was raised on Long Island in an Italian-Catholic family. “In my head, Israel was an elusive place. I had never been before, but I was excited to learn more about Brett’s culture, the religion, and the Israeli people.”

So, Brett (who had been to Israel four previous times) and Michael registered for the April 2023 Spark Community Experience trip — and joined a bus of young adults who traveled through Israel together.

“In L.A., we were missing that sense of belonging,” says Brett, a Newton native who grew up deeply involved in Greater Boston’s Jewish community. “We knew Spark would be a great opportunity to meet new people, reconnect with old friends, get our feet wet at CJP, and just learn more about the organization. Spark was the launchpad we needed.”

Among the couple’s Spark highlights: hearing a Palestinian man’s story of growing up in Israel, joining the dancing and singing of a Bar Mitzvah celebration they stumbled upon by the Western Wall, exploring Tel Aviv’s shuk (market), and finding community in their bus mates, who quickly became friends.

Feeling energized

In the three months since the trip, Brett and Michael say they feel “energized” and ready to jump into CJP — and Jewish life. They’ve both interviewed for CJP’s Hineni Volunteer Network and Michael is in the process of becoming a mentor in the Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters LGBTQ program. Together, they’ll serve on CJP’s new Young Adult LGBTQIA+ committee to help design and shape more inclusive programming.

They’ve also continued to build their own traditions as a couple, including attending services through Temple Israel’s Riverway Project and finding time to sit and enjoy a meal, whether it be a Friday night Shabbat dinner or a Sunday supper, a nod to Michael’s Italian background.

“Everything I love about being Italian — family, food, traditions, and music — Judaism has that wrapped up into one,” Michael says.

Diving deeper into CJP

Brett says his desire to serve the Jewish community was inspired by his childhood years at The Rashi School, Camp Micah, and Congregation Mishkan Tefila. He also watched his parents, Paul and Laurie, lead within CJP, their synagogue, and Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, an organization that’s long supported Brett’s younger brother, Jake.

“My parents have been trailblazers for me and my siblings with their Jewish involvement,” he says. “They’ve served on numerous boards and done hands-on volunteering, always inspiring tikkun olam (repairing the world) in us by taking actionable steps to help the community.”

For Michael, he’s ready to dive deeper into CJP because he loves how “people are at the center of it all.”

“CJP encourages people to show up as their whole selves, which I think is so special and important,” he says. “CJP really talks the talk and walks the walk. It’s not just about investing money in one thing; it’s about making actual impact on the communities they serve. And CJP does that.”