Spotlight on
Emily McDonnell


Alumni Appreciation Month may be over but we are celebrating our amazing community all year long! This month we are shining the spotlight on Emily McDonnell, a former Moishe House Without Walls (MHWOW) host, who is currently a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill. Emily is studying American Studies and hopes to pursue history, archival, or museum work with a native American focus.

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Featured Alumna: Emily McDonnell, MHWOW Tucson, Arizona, 2015-2018
Current Location: Chapel Hill, North Carolina (USA)

By: Loán Lake, Senior Communications Manager
October 7, 2021


How It Started

photo of Emily McDonnell smiling

Image credit: Photo courtesy of Emily McDonnell.

Community has always been important to Emily McDonnell (MHWOW ’15-’18). The former Moishe House Without Walls host who grew up in Dinétah, the ancestral land of the Navajo nation in Arizona.  While attending college in Tucson, Arizona, Emily was actively involved in the Jewish community and had no trouble finding peers with whom she could connect. Once her college days were over, however, she found herself longing for ongoing engagement with other young Jewish adults.

Tucson (pronounced TOO-SAHN) is known as a popular city for retired adults and families with young children. As a twenty-something college grad, Emily was at a crossroads and sought to connect with new college graduates and young adults in her age group. Then she heard from Moishe House alumna Alyssa Silva (MHWOW ’15-’21), a former Moishe House Washington DC – Columbia Heights resident who had moved to Tucson and became an MHWOW host there. “I’d known Alyssa from my college days.  She invited a group of us to learn more about becoming more involved in the community and talked about hosting programs for young professionals in Tucson. That was my official introduction to Moishe House,” Emily said. After Alyssa relocated from the area, Emily, who had attended a few retreats and other programs, realized that there was a huge void in activities for people in her age group and decided to become an MHWOW host.

“Tucson has a really robust set of Jewish organizations for college students, so I was sort of at the stage where I didn’t know what I could do other than hanging out with my friends who I knew were still in the community. When I became a host, it was my first time getting involved at the post-college level,” Emily said.


Favorite Moishe House Memory

During her three-year tenure as an MHWOW host, Emily’s fondest memories include traveling to the retreats, meeting residents and community members from around the country, and learning how they practiced their Judaism and what it means to them. “I did local retreats in Oracle, Arizona, and a couple on the west coast, southeast, northeast, so I really got to see the different types of communities that exist around the [United States] and get inspired by the visons for what they could become,” she said.


Key Takeaways

There were many inspired moments for Emily but one of her biggest was the importance of pushing herself out of her comfort zone. When faced with the task of hosting a Rosh Hashanah dinner one year, she felt the pressure and responsibility of doing it well. “It was great to bring together so many people who didn’t really have a place to go, but I remember feeling that this was a daunting task. I didn’t know how I’d get everything done, but I felt empowered by the knowledge that I gained from retreats, and talking with others who had hosted Rosh Hashanah dinners. That gave me the courage to do it,” Emily said.  “Now that I’m no longer an MHWOW host and am going into my own post-Moishe House Jewish life, I know that it’s possible to host these large scale events and feel comfortable doing so.”


How It’s Going

As Emily settles into life in a new city and state, she feels empowered to continue the work she started as a Moishe House host. As a member of indigenous community in the United States, Emily is most grateful for never having to choose between her two identities – Jewish and Native American. In fact, her experience has been quite the opposite. “Moishe House has given me the confidence to talk more about the experience of what it’s like to be a Jew of Color (JOC) in more formal settings. I’ve spoken at a retreat about the parallels between Jewish and native American communities. I’ve also shared my experience as a JOC while participating in programs on racial justice through Repair the World and hosting Shabbat dinners through Moishe House.” Emily is finding it more common now to have these types of conversations than when she first started as a host. “These weren’t topics that a lot of the Jewish community was talking about. For Moishe House to give me that platform and let me run with this vision I had, it still means a lot to me. Now I feel more comfortable going into Jewish spaces – formally speaking at events or in one-on-one conversations with someone, to talk about race and Judaism,” she said.