Jasmine Tarkoff, M.S.O.L.I. '21
Please tell me about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
I was raised in a multi-cultural family with an Indian Muslim father and a German Protestant mother. My parents immigrated to the U.S. and eventually landed in the Bronx, where they became best friends with an Orthodox Jewish couple who became my Godparents as I had no other relatives in the U.S. While this was my first exposure to Jewish traditions, I had not yet “made it my own” since it was not adopted by my own family. My connection with Judaism became more personal and deeply meaningful later in life after marriage to my husband Rob and the birth of our three children. My husband and I have been married twenty-three years and our children are now 22, 20, and 17 years old. Shortly after getting married, we joined a synagogue, Temple Isaiah, and all three kids attended pre-school there. At the pre-school, we were invited to join a Chavurah and over time I was asked to help lead various volunteer efforts at the synagogue. It was Judaism, in the form of studies, ritual, and tikkun olam that provided me with guidelines for how to raise a family, how to lead, and how to act in the world. While Judaism is something that entered my life from the outside at various points, welcoming it in, formally through converting, ushering my children through their B’nai Mitzvahs, and ultimately pursuing my own adult Bat Mitzvah, I have come to discover how central Jewish traditions and teachings are to how I want to live my life, both personally and professionally.
With a B.S. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Computer Systems Engineering, my professional experience was primarily with large technology companies. As I took time off to raise our family, I became passionate about issues of social justice and served on a number of nonprofit boards, formed a coalition of faith institutions that work on advocacy for issues of poverty, and served as the President of our synagogue. Over the years and especially toward the end of my presidency, I realized I was looking for something more than volunteer leadership work. I was curious about shifting from the lay and board side to the professional side of the house. Most importantly, I wanted to advance my leadership skills grounded in Judaism – in our tradition and values. I applied to the M.S.O.L.I. program because I hoped to gain inspiration, guidance, and a network of similarly passionate individuals who could help me identify and usher in this next phase of my growth and connect with the right place to pursue it. While I was not the typical Zschool candidate, I was so grateful for the opportunity as the education and experience at Zschool has been transformational for me!
How has the Zschool prepared you for your career?
Zschool deepened and expanded my knowledge of the history of the Jewish people, and the evolution and development of the Jewish nonprofit ecosystem in the U.S. To be an effective leader of a Jewish nonprofit, this knowledge and contextual awareness is invaluable. Zschool attracts the leading practitioners in the Jewish ecosystem to come and speak about their organizations, including all the challenges, opportunities, and issues. As someone who didn’t have great exposure to the overall ecosystem, the ability to learn the labyrinth of organizations and their connection to our survival and thriving as a people was incredibly enlightening.
A second huge asset of Zschool is the access to study with industry experts and world class faculty. In the fall I had the privilege to write my thesis with Dr. Sarah Benor on “The Influences, Barriers, and Opportunities to Engage Clergy in Social Justice Advocacy.” In the spring I pursued a capstone project with Dr. Erik Ludwig.
I was so fortunate to be able to learn how to do research with a nationally acclaimed researcher like Dr. Benor. She taught me the importance of identifying or creating a rigorous framework when pursuing research on a complex topic. I was able to use this learning in other classes and am using it currently in my professional life. Similarly, I felt so lucky to study the lean start-up methodology with Erik – as someone who is excited by innovation and entrepreneurialism I fell in love with learning this approach as it favors experimentation and iterative design over traditional “big design up front” development. The combination of my thesis and my Capstone gave me the intellectual confidence to pursue the project I am working on now.
As an M.S.O.L.I. this past summer, I had the privilege to learn from industry experts like Gali Cooks, CEO of Leading Edge, Barry Finestone, CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation, Adrian Breitfeld, CFO of AJU as well as Drew Kugler and Stefan Teodosic – some of the best and most sought after consultants in their field. I had listened to people like Gali speak to audiences of hundreds of people before coming to Zschool – now she was my professor, answering my emails and offering feedback on my work! The huge value of bringing in these industry experts is that they are able to uniquely combine the theoretical with practical real life stories and scenarios – the learning really comes alive. Imagine reviewing a HBR case study on the best practices in board governance, and then hearing from the CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation about his personal experiences with board governance. This experience was incredibly powerful. Most of our professors would also generously bring in colleagues, like Dr. Steven Windmueller, to join class as guest speakers to share different perspectives and their wisdom. It made for an incredibly rich learning environment.
A final gift of the Zschool education that cannot be underestimated is the values and culture of the environment. Zschool leadership has created a learning space where this highly diverse group of students each feels welcome, included, respected, and honored.
I could tell you numerous stories of how each of these leaders showed up for me and my fellow students in so many big and small ways – whether it was offering guidance on a challenging internship at 5:00 pm on a Friday, providing feedback on a presentation that just didn’t seem to be landing, or guidance on how to think about our futures. This leadership team leads with presence, love, and caring but they also set a high bar for excellence and expect students to strive to be the best they can be. As students we can’t help but take this culture and approach with us as we pursue our next steps.
The Zschool education continues to influence and inform my work and my leadership, but the impact is not just professional. For me the transformation has been personal too.
What project(s) are you working on now?
Today I am working to advance my research and work around my Capstone project, which focuses on leveraging unused faith institution-owned land to build Tiny Homes (or micro-communities) as a way to quickly and affordably address the homelessness crisis in my county. My ultimate goal is to create a toolkit (or playbook) and a set of best practices that can be syndicated nationally. This will create a nonprofit oriented “opensource” model that anyone can benefit from and leverage. Over the next few years, I hope we will complete several projects that will become the foundation for defining and sharing this toolkit for building quick and affordable housing that can be delivered alongside needed support services. In many cases today, faith communities are land “rich” and operating “poor” and they aspire to find ways to leverage their existing resources to help the underserved. Together with a local homeless services provider, Hope Solutions, I am already actively working with three faith institutions and looking to bring on several more.
What is your favorite memory from your time at HUC-JIR?
Graduation and the days leading up to it were magical as I was able to physically be with my M.S.O.L.I. colleagues so we could all graduate together. It was an incredible experience to spend several days with my classmates after knowing each other only over Zoom. It was a great way to connect more deeply and also complete the circle of learning together for two years.
The theme of this month’s newsletter is gratitude. What are you most grateful for this year?
I am deeply grateful for the relationships I developed with my teachers, classmates, and the leaders of Zschool. I now feel I have a strong network of Jewish professionals that I can lean upon throughout my personal and professional journey.
How would you describe HUC-JIR in one word?
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to spend time with my family, particularly engaged in sports (hiking, skiing, pickleball, and water sports – we have three very active young adults who don’t like to sit still!).