How Judaism and a Yearlong Trip Around the Country Inspired a Colorado Woman to Run for Office

Dafna Michaelson Jenet says her experiences in BBYO and Hadassah gave her “the underpinnings I needed to be a legislator.” (Sophia Laster)

(JTA) — Dafna Michaelson Jenet traces her political career back to conversations around the Shabbat table as a 14-year-old. She remembers hearing her parents and their friends discuss the challenges facing Cincinnati, where they were living. But the conversations would quickly be forgotten once the day of rest came to an end.

“I was distressed by this because I truly believed that they had the answer to the problems that I cared strongly about, that were plaguing our community, and they didn’t fix them,” Michaelson Jenet said.

That feeling led Michaelson Jenet, now 45, to resolve not to complain about problems unless she was willing to solve them, a promise she calls “a driving factor” in her life.

After a career in nonprofit organizations and a yearlong trip around the country, which she documented in a book, the promise led her to local politics in Colorado, where she currently lives.

In 2016, she was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives as a Democrat with the endorsement of President Barack Obama. Last week, Obama again endorsed her, along with 80 other Democrats, ahead of the November midterm elections.

Michaelson Jenet’s legislative focus is on helping struggling youth, a passion that stems from the challenges faced by her son, Eytan, 16. He struggles with a severe learning disability but was unable to qualify for an individualized education plan in school, a setback that Michaelson Jenet believes contributed to his attempted suicide at age 9.

“I knew that I had the access, the privilege, the means to be able to get my son the help he needed, and I was still failing my son, failing him so much that he wanted to end his life,” she told JTA in a phone interview Tuesday.

Through volunteering at juvenile correction facilities, Michaelson Jenet came in contact with boys who faced similar problems but had far fewer resources available to them than her son.

“Who was fighting for them? Ultimately when I was asked to run for this seat, I realized that I could make such a significant difference for children like my son and that I could work to end youth incarceration,” she said.

Michaelson Jenet has introduced a number of bills to help young people in her state, including to allow children as young as 12 to obtain confidential mental health services. Other measures expand access to free school lunches and provide sexual abuse prevention training to early childhood providers.

Her journey to politics was a roundabout one. In 2008, she decided to quit her job at a Denver hospital in order to travel America and meet with people who were making a difference in their communities. Each week she visited a new state. Her subjects ranged from Alfred Tibor, a well-known sculptor who created art to commemorate the Holocaust, to a woman in a small community in Alabama who started an afterschool program to keep local youth from becoming involved in gun violence.

Michaelson Jenet filmed the encounters and wrote about them on a blog.

“No matter what they looked like, what they sounded like, how much money or education they had, I [felt I] could show people that they had the power to solve the problems in their communities,” she said.

The project caught the attention of writer Maya Angelou, who interviewed her on the “Oprah Radio Show.” Michaelson Jenet also spoke about her journey on “CBS Sunday Morning.”

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