Let’s Meet Jewish Person of the Week – Becky Koren
It took Becky TEN years to convert, but she did not let that stop her. Learn more about Becky’s story and her work with Sharsheret!
Where are you from?
I’m from a small town in Northern NJ. I’m a third generation New Jerseyan on both sides (maybe not something to draw attention to…) I grew up in Oradell, NJ – about 20 miles from Manhattan. Or, if we’re playing Jewish geography, it’s about a 15 minute drive from Teaneck. I was a public school kid from K-12, and then I went to college at Colgate University in upstate NY. I received my Masters in Social Work from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.
What did you do Jewish growing up?
Honestly, NOT MUCH. My upbringing was not very traditional in that my dad is Jewish and my mom is not, but I have two brothers from my dad’s first marriage who who have a Jewish mother, so they had their bar mitzvahs, went to Hebrew school, visited Israel, etc., so I was exposed to Judaism mostly through them. We observed the holidays culturally in our house (lighting Hanukkah candles, going to Seders, etc.), but there was never any religious component for me..
Tell about your experience on Birthright?
I think it’s safe to say that those 10 days on a hot bus in Israel in May of 2007 changed the entire trajectory of my life. I was convinced by a friend to go on the Colgate Hillel trip with her. I was skeptical, and laughed off the idea at first because I felt zero connection to Israel and didn’t even know if I qualified because I wasn’t “100%” Jewish. After being assured that I was eligible, I convinced my parents to let me go, and ended up having an incredible experience. I fell in love with the language, the culture, and the beauty of the country. After that trip, I returned to Colgate for my sophomore year, started taking Hebrew (I was learning the alef bet for the first time, while most other kids in my class had many years of Hebrew school under their belts), and ultimately declared a Jewish studies minor and wrote my thesis on the history of Jewish life at Colgate.
Tell us about your experience converting?
I ended up converting three times(!) First, a conservative conversion with Rabbi David Levy during my senior year at Colgate, then again with Rabbi David Wolkenfeld here in Chicago, and then finally with the Rabbinate in Israel. The whole process start to finish was about 10 years.
How did you meet your Husband?
I like to say we met through a mutual friend. That mutual friend just happened to be the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel…
What do you do for work?
I just returned to Chicago in January after a year and a half in Israel. As soon as I came back I started working for Sharsheret in their newly opened Illinois regional office as the Illinois Program Coordinator. Sharsheret is a Jewish breast and ovarian cancer organization that was founded 18 years ago in Teaneck, NJ. This is the fourth regional office in the country. I am an LCSW, so I spend part of my time providing individualized support to Jewish women and families affected by breast and ovarian cancer and the rest of my time doing outreach and education in the community.
Tell us more about Sharsheret and the work you do?
There’s two arms to what we do, and both are so important. The first arm is that we’re providing individualized support to Jewish women and families affected by breast and ovarian cancer – and this is something that doesn’t exist anywhere else. We address the cancer diagnosis piece as well as the Jewish piece – whether you’re culturally Jewish or ultra-orthodox – we have appropriate resources, including a network of 14,000 peer supporters to assist women who are recently diagnosed and want to talk to someone who has down a similar path before. The second is that we’re out in the community providing much-needed education about increased cancer risk in the Jewish community.
What is important for young Jewish women to know about their risk for Breast and Ovarian cancer?
Individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are at an increased risk for carrying a BRCA mutation, which drastically increases ones chances of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer. In the general population, 1 in 500 people will carry one of the BRCA gene mutations. In the Ashkenazi community, that number goes down to 1 in 40. That’s a staggering number, and that’s why there is a need for an organization like Sharsheret. There are so many misperceptions out there, like that the BRCA gene mutation can only be passed down through your mother (false). Or that there’s no point in finding out if you carry the gene mutation, because there is nothing to do about it anyway – but that is just not true. There are so many ways to be proactive and mitigate your cancer risk if you know you are a carrier.
Upcoming Sharsheret Chicago Event June 13th!
What do you do for fun/to relax?
I love to read, binge on Netflix (I am a big fan of Shtisel, Fauda, and all Israeli television), and spend time with my husband and son. My husband and I also love getting a babysitter on Saturday nights so we can explore the local restaurant scene.
What do you do Jewish now?
In addition to my job, my 14 month old goes to Gan Gani, an Israeli Hebrew-immersion daycare; we go to synagogue every weekend and take our son to Tot Shabbat; and speak Hebrew in the house (well, at least my Israeli husband does…don’t tell my Ulpan teacher)!
What is your favorite way to spend Shabbat?
Every week we like to have a nice Friday night dinner after a hectic week of work and hardly seeing each other. On Saturday, we go to synagogue and take our son to Tot Shabbat in the morning. Then we usually have lunch in the community somewhere and spend the rest of the day relaxing, having play dates, and going for walks when the weather allows.
Top three things on your Chicago bucket list?
1) Hamilton. I saw it already but I am desperate to see it again before it closes next year
2) Chicago Botanic Gardens
3) Ravinia in Highland Park!
Now complete the phrase…When the tribe gathers…
The Israelis are always 45 minutes late