Rabbi Ira Dounn is a born connector — one who has engaged with Jewish students from the United States to Uzbekistan.
“Making an impact with students in real time, that’s what I find most meaningful,” he said.
Rabbi Dounn recently celebrated his one-year anniversary serving as a senior Jewish educator at Princeton Hillel. Although he still considers himself a “newbie” on campus, the 35-year-old has already left his mark as an innovator.
To encourage creativity through a Jewish lens at Princeton Hillel, Rabbi Dounn launched Co-Create, an incubator program that supports original student projects, including a Jewish Theater Fellowship and a Social Justice Fellowship.
His program inspired the first-ever Collegiate Moot Beit Din, an oral argument competition hosted at Princeton University in April 2018. Using ancient Jewish texts, six teams of college students from across the country sought to determine if Jewish law permits the torture of terrorists.
“We’re bringing the ideas of our students to life,” Rabbi Dounn said. “That’s why we’re here.”
He stumbled upon his passion for engaging with young leaders while serving as an assistant coordinator at the Bukharian Teen Lounge in New York City. Rabbi Dounn, an Ashkenazi Jew from New Jersey, worked closely with Russian-speaking teenagers whose families emigrated from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Israel.
After a three-year stint at the lounge, his knack for community building encouraged him to continue working with students at various Jewish organizations, including the New York-based synagogue B’nai Jeshurun and the pluralistic teen movement BBYO.
And some of his former students have found themselves following in his footsteps.
Rachel Gordon, a digital marketing associate at Hillel International, first met Rabbi Dounn at her childhood home. When she was 17, Gordon hosted a BBYO event at her house — coincidently the first event Rabbi Dounn attended as a BBYO professional.
Although they now live nearly 200 miles away from one another, Gordon said Rabbi Dounn inspires her to infuse energy and heart into her work as a Hillel professional.
“Rabbi Ira was there for me during the most crucial parts of my Jewish journey, and now I have the opportunity to impact the lives of Jewish students,” Gordon said. “He’s the prototype of a Jewish educator.”
And Rabbi Dounn has continued to mentor students — just college-aged ones nowadays.
“I’m just getting to know this community, my community,” Rabbi Dounn said. “This is just the beginning.”