Rena Nasar First, the executive director of campus affairs at StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy organization, was selected as one of the New York Jewish Week’s 36 to Watch (formerly 36 Under 36). This distinction honors leaders, entrepreneurs and changemakers who are making a difference in New York’s Jewish community. SWU Campus trains student leaders from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Brazil in order “to proudly bring Israel to their peers of all backgrounds.” A Syrian Jew, Nasar First also seeks inclusion for Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews like her in Jewish spaces. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband.
For the full list of this year’s “36ers,” click here.
New York Jewish Week: Tell us about yourself and the work you do.
Nasar First: At StandWithUs Campus, I oversee a team of regionally-based professionals who connect with local campuses and offer them our resources and support with both educational Israel programs/campaigns and responsive strategy to campus antisemitism. I’ve been with the organization for almost eight years, and began my career as a local coordinator in the New York area. Through my leadership as the executive director, we’ve enhanced the department’s efforts with the introduction of three new positions. I’ve also expanded our international campus efforts — I now regularly consult with staff in Canada, the U.K., Brazil, the Netherlands and Israel to coordinate efforts, share best practices and together build an international network of student leaders around the world.
Outside of StandWithUs, I’m working to bring Israel education and engagement resources and programs my community in Brooklyn. I’ve worked with community organizations and institutions to organize programs with expert speakers and interactive workshops that empower and inspire.
How does your Jewish identity or experience influence your work?
One of my personal goals is to see more Sephardic/Mizrahi representation in the Israel education and activism space. As a Syrian Jew, I emphasize the importance of exploring your personal story and family heritage and using that to build the foundation for your leadership and activism. I’ve been invited to speak on several different panels about my own history and the importance of elevating Sephardic and Mizrahi voices, including with the Israel Policy Forum and CAMERA. I’m so excited to be part of the Sephardic Jewish American Diversity and Inclusion Initiative with JIMENA, which is designed to tackle the lack of representation and bolster Sephardic communal infrastructure and empowerment.
Was there a formative Jewish experience that influenced your life path?
Hearing my grandfather share stories about growing up in Syria, fleeing to Israel and fighting in the War of Independence in ’48. He would always tell me to be proud, be brave and trust in God. His words and stories shaped so much of my personal life and professional career.
Who is your New York Jewish hero?
What is your favorite place to eat Jewish food in New York?
Mill Basin Deli.
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