When Shauna Waltman reached the end of her undergraduate degree, she felt disconnected from the Jewish community. Instead of walking away for good, Waltman, now 31, decided to go on a Birthright trip to Israel.
Little did she know she would not only meet her future husband, Jeremy, on the trip, but she would also begin the exciting and rewarding path toward becoming a leader in the Jewish community.
“When I was in Israel, I was reminded of how good it feels to be a part of something bigger than yourself,” she said. While on the trip, Waltman ran into her former camp counsellor, Michael Soberman, who was the director of Canada Israel Experience at the time.
As soon as she got back to Canada, Waltman contacted Soberman and asked about job opportunities in the Jewish world. She felt an urge to reconnect with the Jewish community, and decided that she wanted to apply her training from the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business to something that she felt strongly about. But she wasn’t yet sure what that would be.
“I found myself back at home and really struggling with what I wanted to do now that I was all grown up,” said Waltman, but it wasn’t long before she found her calling in Jewish community work. With Soberman’s guidance, she eventually became the co-ordinator for March of the Living Canada, and later, the director of Toronto’s Birthright Israel Alumni Community (BAC). As co-ordinator of March of the Living, Waltman helped to recruit new groups of participants who would take the emotional and educational trip from Poland to Israel. She attracted university students, adults, educators and even politicians to sign up for the unique experience.
It was clear that Waltman had a talent and a passion for community engagement, and when she became director of BAC, she was able to direct her work toward people her own age.
“As a child, as a teenager and as a university student, there are so many great opportunities available to Jews… As a young adult, those opportunities aren’t always as obvious,” she said, adding that it became her goal to find new ways for Jewish young adults to connect with their community. Waltman planned numerous events and activities to keep former Birthright participants engaged, and through that, she brought Toronto to the forefront of Birthright post-programming as well as Birthright trip leader training. Toronto’s BAC is now the second-largest one in North America.
More recently, Waltman became the director of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Community Connect, what she calls “a grassroots organization inside an established organization.” She works to engage her peers, Jewish people in their 20s and 30s, in programming, networking and leadership opportunities in the Jewish community.
“We consider ourselves the change-makers, we consider ourselves the innovators, we consider ourselves the people driving the movement for and with our peers,” she said of the Community Connect team.
Waltman’s dedication and hard work earned her the prestigious Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association (JCSA), which she was presented with at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Denver, Colo., this past November.
“There are so many great young people working in the field, so to be recognized as the top of that is a really amazing honour,” said Waltman, adding that working with her inspiring team of Jewish young adults is “the best award” she could ask for.
Waltman explained that working for the up-and-coming generation has helped to reverse some of the community disengagement that many Jewish young adults experience as they leave university. “I relish the opportunity to create a world [for] that [age group], and I think we have,” she said.
It was Soberman, now the director of National Initiatives for the Next Generation at the UIA Federations of Canada, who nominated Waltman for the award. “She’s somebody, I think, who really wanted to work in the community for all the right reasons,” he said. “Quite simply, she’s a star.” Soberman added that the award is an important step forward in recognizing the impact of young adults in the Jewish community.
Although Waltman, who is completing a master’s in Jewish professional studies at Spertus College in Chicago, is as modest about her accomplishments as Soberman is proud of them, she realizes the importance of her work.
“It’s about showing the next generation that it’s possible,” she said, explaining that, as a new mother, she has discovered the significance not only of building up the Jewish community for the future generation but also of giving them the tools to continue to build it for themselves. Waltman said she hopes her one-year-old daughter, Hannah, will also contribute to creating a relevant and meaningful Jewish community when she grows up.
Although not too long ago, Waltman saw herself drifting away from the Jewish community she grew up in, she said making the choice to reconnect and to forge her own path in the community is one of the best decisions she’s made. Referencing the famous Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, Waltman said of her decision, “I chose the road less travelled, and, as they say, that made all the difference.”