You don't want to miss this one! Dena's ambition to help others, deep Sephardi roots, and GUCI camp filled summers, make her a true mensch! Read all about this future lawyer below.
Alyssa: Tell us about your journey to Houston!
Dena: Both of my parents are from Houston, so we’ve always had a familial connection here. Then right before I started high school my family decided to move to Houston from Ohio, we planned only being here a year...that was in 2009...most of my family has since left Houston, but I am still here! I went to college, came back, moved to New York, came back. Houston is kind of like a magnet for me.
Alyssa: So would you describe yourself as a Texan or a Houstonian?
Dena: Definitely a Texan, because I was born down in McAllen, the valley, but more so yeah, I’m a Houstonian.
Alyssa: We know from the Jewston Story Slam that you moved around a lot as a kid. What was that like?
Dena: In retrospect I believe that moving shaped me into the person I am today. I learned how to make friends wherever I went. Even now in law school, I have a group of friends who I met 3 or 4 months before we even started law school, and we’re still sticking together through all the crazy! It was hard as a kid, leaving your friends is never easy, but when I moved to Houston and started high school I got to reinvent myself. I was always shy growing up, and when I got to Houston that pretty much went away and I became very loud! I learned how to talk to people and become a good conversationalist.
Alyssa: Why did you move around so much?
Dena: My Dad is a Rabbi, so we moved around when he got jobs at various synagogues. We’ve been in McAllen, Ohio, and Houston, but since I went off to college they have continued to move and now my second home base is in Charlotte North Carolina!
Alyssa: Did you ever want to become a Rabbi like your dad?
Dena: I actually have one of those books that I made in kindergarten, and in the section that says “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I didn’t put a normal kid answer like astronaut or superhero...I put, “I want to be a Rabbi”! That being said, as I got older I realized that wasn’t where I wanted to take my life and my parents never pressured me to do anything, they let us follow our own paths. My dad didn’t grow up wanting to be a Rabbi, in fact, I think he was planning on going to law school!
Alyssa: What led you to law school?
Dena: I have always wanted to help people, so that initially led me to social work, and receiving my MSW. While I was studying that, I realized that I would need to join the legal system in order to do the most for my clients. So here I am, in law school!
Alyssa: What’s your favorite part and least favorite part about law school?
Dena: Right now it’s hard because my law school experience this second semester has been so weird because of Corona, but I think my favorite part has been my community. Not just my group of friends, but my entire section. There are between 80 and 90 of us and we are like a big family! We commiserate together, we celebrate together, and the fact that I landed at a law school that enables that has been amazing. My least favorite part has to be the long hours, which is partially by choice, but I realized very early on that I can’t focus in my apartment, so I usually get to campus around 7 in the morning and leave anywhere in between 7 and 10 in the evening. Since being at home so much because of Corona, my electricity bill has more than tripled!
Alyssa: Have you been able to find Jewish community in Law school?
Dena: At South Texas College of Law we have the Jewish Law Student Association! It is a small group, but it’s been really great to have a group of people that I can connect with on a Jewish level. We have had a few events over the year, but the one that stands out to me was our school wide Purim party! We pulled in as many people as we could who were walking through the halls and coming out of the library with delicious food and games. It was special to get to share Jewish tradition with non Jews and explain what the holiday was all about. It led up to a lot of other conversations with my friends and classmates. I’m also excited, because next year I will be the president of the STCL Jewish law students association! I plan on working on getting even more Jewish law students engaged!
Alyssa: When you’re not at law school or a Jewston event, what are you up to?
Dena: This past January I recently got into Hot Yoga! Before the world shut down, I was going to yoga three times a week. It’s a great stress reliever and I feel like it cleanses my body and my soul. There are a lot of difficult cases to read in law school, so to cleanse my mind and body it’s a great exercise. I still do some yoga at home during this time, and I’ve also decided to start training for a half marathon at the end of October! Aside from that my number one stress relief is cooking. I love to cook, so that’s been a bit of a blessing in disguise during this quarantine, because I get to cook three times a day and I’m getting to cook new foods, and have ordered lots of new gadgets for the kitchen like my new cast iron grill pan!
Alyssa: Did you go to Jewish summer camp?
Dena: I went to Goldman Union Camp Institute (aka GUCI)! I started going as a camper in 2003, a year earlier than kids are usually allowed to go because my dad was a camp Rabbi! My last summer there was 2012, which was the summer I did Avodah, a counselor-in-training program. The only summers that I wasn’t there were in 2007 when we took a family trip to Israel, and 2011 when I went to Israel with my camp’s gap summer. I’ve only ever missed camp to go to Israel, so not a bad life! I was heartbroken when I heard that GUCI wouldn’t be opening this summer due to the Coronavirus. I couldn’t help think of all the campers whose last summer as a camper was this year, because I remember how special that summer was, how special I felt there. I was thinking about the kids who won't get to go on their Israel trip with camp, and those who won't get their Avodah experience. Camp GUCI holds such a special place in so many people’s lives. My newsfeed has been flooded with people posting about all of their camps, and on the GUCI alumni facebook group they are planning virtual reunions with their Avodah groups and toasting to those who won’t get that experience. It is necessary to shut camp down, but it is such a loss. Camp was my constant, even when moving around, I always had camp to come home to.
Alyssa: Tell us a little bit about your Sephardi background!
Dena: My family is really interesting because my dad’s side is Ashkenazi, and my mom’s side is Sephardi. My family is very mixed when it comes to traditions, but when my mom lived in Seattle, she was a part of the Sephardic Seattle Network and was connected to a sephardi genealogist and was able to trace our ancestry back to Spain! My Abuela, my mom's mom, was born in Turkey and then ended up in Cuba before coming to the US. My grandfather was born in Cuba, but his parents were actually Turkish. He moved to the US from Cuba as well. We always thought that they met in Cuba and moved to the US together, but recently we learned that they actually met in the US! We have a lot of different traditions and cool family history. I think my mom has an old Sephardi Haggadah that has been in the family for many generations, and old family documents. I studied abroad in Spain during college, because I speak Spanish, and wanted to strengthen it, but mostly because I have always felt a strong familial connection to Spain. One of the experiences that stood out to me the most, was Passover. I got the opportunity to go to an Orthodox shul, which was the first time I was exposed to the full Sephardi seder. I find such joy in connecting with other cultures, and here in the US our seder’s are in English and Hebrew, but there it was in Spanish, Hebrew, and a little bit of Ladino. When I lived in Ohio and I was studying for my Bat Mitzvah, there was a song that my cantor would sing in Hebrew, but for my Bat Mitzvah she did it in Ladino, which was really special. It’s little things like that that connect me to my past. One day I want to travel to all the places my family is from in order to trace my family’s roots, and learn about their experiences.
Alyssa: When Jewston comes together we... Dena: Create Community!