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Kylie Unell, 28, Aspiring Jewish Philosopher
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COMMUNITY36 Under 36 2021

Kylie Unell, 28, Aspiring Jewish Philosopher

@kylieunell

The Jewish Week’s annual 36 Under 36 honors young leaders, entrepreneurs and change-makers who are making a difference in the life of Jewish New York. For the full list of this year’s “36ers,” click here.

What do you do?

I am currently a dean’s doctoral fellow at New York University, studying German Jewish philosophy. I founded an organization called Rooted, built to help young Jews feel confident about living a life guided by Judaism through social media content and beautiful gatherings. I am a writer, a podcaster and over the last few months have, unexpectedly, become the co-producer of a successful pop-up comedy show on the Upper West Side called Sweepstakes Comedy.

How does your Jewish identity influence your work?

My Jewish identity informs my work almost completely. Having been raised in a number of Jewish environments around Jews of all different denominations and backgrounds, I have a unique ability to speak the different “languages” of Jews across the world. I have come to know so many different types of Jews in my life, both in person and through the work that I do as a future scholar of Jewish philosophy. The experience of exploring my own Jewish identity through these different lenses helps me go out into the world and bring together Jews of all different backgrounds with the hope of showing people that we can look past our differences and focus on what we share in common.

Was there a formative Jewish experience that influenced your life path?

Reading the “Nineteen Letters” by Samson Raphael Hirsch as a sophomore in college. It was the first time I witnessed a Jew making no assumptions about what things mean in Judaism and explaining even the most basic of concepts. That book provided answers to some of the most basic questions that I felt too embarrassed to ask or had trouble communicating out loud. Questions like why does the Torah matter? Do the Jewish people serve a particular purpose in the world? The very fact that he raised these questions to begin with changed my life completely. From that point on, I wanted to create spaces in which basic questions about Judaism, the ones that seem so simple you don’t dare raise them, could be asked and contemplated in an open unassuming environment. The goal of my work is to show that there is no single answer to these questions and that we are all figuring it out no matter where on our journey one may be.

In one sentence, what was your best experience as a Jewish New Yorker?

Going to the Apple store and talking to one of the employees who, upon learning that I’m Jewish, let me know that he, though you wouldn’t know it, is Jewish too. When it came time for me to leave, he waved and said, “layla tov.”

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