2018-04-25 / Local News

New to Cherry Hill, SOI congregant Ilana Weiss is making her mark


FAMILY: Husband Jeffrey; girls Naama 8; Meira, 6; Adira, 4; and Ahuva, 2

SYNAGOGUE: Cong. Sons of Israel

FAVORITE MOVIE: “Back to the Future”

FAVORITE BOOK (besides the Torah!): “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell


FAVORITE PLACE TO WORK: Starbucks or the JCC Lobby

When Ilana Weiss, 34, and her husband Jeffrey started out life together as newlyweds, the young couple often discussed where they hoped to raise their future family.

Both Yeshiva University graduates, they were not wed to a particular region or even to the United States. They pictured a Jewish community large enough to suit their educational and social needs yet small enough that they would feel they could make a difference in a meaningful way, Weiss explained.

Following their first year together in Israel and then stints in Halifax, Canada and Omaha, Nebraska, the Weisses honed in on their Goldilocks community. It was Cherry Hill. She knew it from Shabbatons while growing up in Fairlawn, NJ. Once they decided, Jeffrey, a rabbi and Boston native, found employment at Kohelet Yeshiva Lab School as a Judaics Specialist. Weiss was able to stay on with the Omaha-based non-profit company where she worked. They moved over the summer in 2016.

Less than two years later, the mother of four young daughters is in the throes of developing a women’s cabaret-style musical set to hold auditions in October. Weiss is also known for her weekly parsha food projects that have a following on Facebook. She also became a SOI board member and was co-chair of the Orthodox synagogue’s welcoming committee.

Still, given the family’s track record of living off the beaten path, she is often questioned about their choice to live here of all places.

“People always point out that my husband works in Philly and I can work from everywhere,” she said. “But we like the feeling of a smaller community. Cherry Hill is a better fit for us.”

Weiss latched onto the cabaret project when she learned that Leah Spector, 13, a fellow SOI congregant, was seeking help to create Shabbat-friendly performance opportunities for women.

In Leah, a born performer who has found her creative outlets in the secular world limited, Weiss could relate. As a kid, she loved performing as well, but she ended up giving up on the acting bug as she grew more observant and busy in youth group activities.

“I remember going through what she was going through,” said Weiss, who works remotely as the Associate Executive Director of RESPECT, an organization dedicated to using theatre to address bullying, abuse and mental health.

“I thought it would be great to give women an outlet to perform,” she said. “I find it important to find ways to connect Jewish people regardless of their background and affiliation.”

The two successfully obtained a $1,400 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation for funding and are currently drumming up interest in the show, which is slated for January.

While Weiss was originally thinking the production would be a smaller-scale talent show, Leah’s ideas were far grander. They compromised on a cabaret that would be fully choreographed.

Like the musical, her parsha project became bigger than expected. As Weiss explains it, the idea evolved from a desire for a fun way to generate family discussions on Torah portions each week. Given the demands on her time, the creations are usually not elaborate. For example, for Parsha Pinchas, about five daughters who make a case for receiving their father’s inheritance, she made a dirt cake to represent the land they would inherit.

She started posting pictures of her creations on Facebook more as a way to remember what she made than any other reason. But one week, when she forgot to post, she heard it from friends who had come to look forward to seeing the deserts.

“I realized it was becoming something not only for my family and guests,” she said. Since then, she has posted her pictures as a puzzle for people to solve. Now in the second year, she has moved on to challah creations for the parshas.

“One of my friends a couple of weeks ago noticed that all I did was put toppings on the challah and asked if I was getting lazy,” she said. “Nope. The point of it is to have conversations about it every week. It doesn’t have to make my life totally crazy.”

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