(JTA) — Years before they were a couple, Shelley Greenspan and Reuben Smith-Vaughan were just two Amazon employees wearing ugly Hanukkah sweaters to a company holiday party.
Both were working in Amazon’s Washington, D.C., office in 2017 when they each donned their sweaters — Greenspan in a hot pink number with a sparkly blue and gold dreidel; Smith-Vaughan with a blue and neon green Star of David emblazoned across his chest — for the annual holiday party. As they remember it, they were the only two attendees in Hanukkah sweaters.
But while they shared their amusement with each other, any sparks remained confined to Greenspan’s sweater.
“It did give her the knowledge that I was Jewish,” Smith-Vaughan said, noting that his ethnicity is not obvious from his name.
“And not someone just Jewish, but proud enough about it to wear a sweater to a holiday party,” Greenspan added.
Five years later, Greenspan is helping to plan Hanukkah gatherings of her own, as the White House liaison to the Jewish community. And she and Smith-Vaughan are married. But the path to both roles was hardly straightforward.
The year after the Amazon Hanukkah party, Greenspan took a job with the State Department and lost touch with her sweater buddy. That lasted until April 2020, when, isolated at home at the start of the pandemic, the pair matched on the dating app Bumble.
For their first date, which happened over Zoom, Smith-Vaughan asked about her cocktail preference in advance, then dropped two small bottles of gin and tonic at her building’s lobby by bike. Back at home, he poured himself a bourbon, and they video-chatted over drinks.
There was an immediate connection, despite their very different Jewish upbringings.
Greenspan, 32, is originally from Miami Beach. She attended a Reform synagogue, a Conservative overnight camp and an Orthodox day school growing up before spending the year after high school in Israel, through Young Judaea’s gap year program. After graduating from the University of Florida, she entered the corporate world and then politics, working on both Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and “Jewish Women for Joe” in the Biden campaign.
Smith-Vaughan, 34, grew up on a coffee farm in Nicaragua, in a Jewish community so tiny “we were taken out of school when someone passed away to make a minyan,” or prayer quorum required for mourners, he recalled.
His bar mitzvah was held at the nearest functioning synagogue, 250 miles away in San Jose, Costa Rica. His father, Arturo Vaughan, serves as the Israeli honorary consulate in Managua, Nicaragua.
A graduate of American University, he is still at Amazon, now the director of Latin America public policy.
Their courtship followed the early-pandemic playbook, which Smith-Vaughan said “speeded things up really aggressively.” On their second date, they played tennis outdoors. On their third, he cooked dinner at her apartment, but they remained far away from each other.
By the fourth date, at her apartment, they broached the conversation about whether to date exclusively — or, in the lingo of the moment, whether to “pod” together.
“No one knew how to date during Covid, there was this ‘let’s all figure it out together,’” Greenspan recalled. She added, “There was never any ‘What are you doing tonight?’ because no one ever had any plans then.”
Road trips became a favorite way to spend time. It was after a jaunt to Bar Harbor, Maine, that Greenspan realized she didn’t want to see Smith-Vaughan go home. Meanwhile, he said he knew she was the one when he found out that she always carries a Washington Nationals baseball cap in her bag — he is a major fan.
“Shelley is the most caring, loving, kind and elegant human being I’ve ever met,” Smith-Vaughan said. “She is kind to a fault, always wanting to help people.”
“Reuben is the most honorable person I know,” said Greenspan. “His presence feels like home to me. He’s so optimistic and joyous and positive, his energy is infectious.”
In November 2021, during a Thanksgiving trip to North Carolina, where Smith-Vaughan’s mother lives, he proposed on the tennis court.
While wedding planning can be all-consuming, Greenspan said she had a particularly “absurd” few months when it overlapped with her new job. The position requires someone knowledgeable about Jewish communal life and able to represent the disparate viewpoints held by American Jews to the White House, as well as represent the administration to American Jews.
“I’d be calling rental companies while going into briefings in the White House,” she said.
The couple were married Sept. 18 by Rabbi Aderet Drucker, executive director and community rabbi of the D.C.-based Den Collective, a nondenominational spiritual community organization, at the District’s Salamander Hotel.
Their wedding weekend began with a Shabbat dinner at Compass Coffee’s roastery, which is co-owned by a Jewish veteran, and honored the groom’s coffee-farm upbringing.
On Saturday, guests could attend a Nationals game — against the Miami Marlins, the bride’s hometown team. The group was allowed onto the field before the game.
Their custom kippot featured a print of the D.C. skyline in the lining, and the groom and men in the wedding party all wore White House cufflinks with Biden’s signature (available at the White House gift shop). Their custom ketubah features coffee beans, the D.C. skyline and barbed wire, to honor the bride’s Holocaust survivor grandparents.
The reception didn’t only feature toasts and dancing; the bride offered a d’var Torah, and when the groom joined her to thank everyone for coming, he surprised her by singing “Eshet Chayil,” A Woman of Valor, that some Jewish men sing to their wives on Shabbat.
“Reuben has a beautiful voice and doesn’t really sing in public very much,” Greenspan said. “I wasn’t expecting it and it was so meaningful to me, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Then she added, “He still sings it to me every Friday.”
This story is part of JTA’s Mazels series, which profiles unique and noteworthy Jewish life events from births to b’nai mitzvah to weddings and everything in between.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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