Sen. Dafna Michaelson Jenet discusses life after October 7

Jul 1, 2024 | Article, JCRC, Newsletter

Sen. Michaelson JenetSenator Dafna Michaelson Jenet is just finishing her first year representing District 21 in the Colorado State Legislature, after serving more than seven years in the House. She has worked on a variety of issues, ranging from mental health resources for youth and adults, healthcare costs, women’s rights, gun violence prevention, and union and labor rights.

In 2021, she spearheaded a bill that provides free therapy sessions to school-aged children in Colorado and led to the creation of the “I Matter” program. At the beginning of the 2024 legislative session, she made the continuation of I Matter, which was slated to expire on June 30, her priority, and on June 4, Governor Polis signed a bill into law to continue the first-of-its-kind youth mental health program for another 10 years.

Sen. Michaelson Jenet is the only Israeli serving in the Colorado Legislature. We talked with her recently about how the months since October 7 have affected her professional and personal life.

Word came this morning that four hostages were rescued and returned to Israel, so I have to start by asking you about your reaction when you woke up and heard the news.

I actually saw it in the middle of the night. I have a bad habit of getting up during the night to see what is going on in Israel. We have been praying every day for the return of all the hostages, but even to have four lives returned—I was overjoyed.

As the only Israel-born Colorado State legislator, do you feel a special duty to Jews both in Colorado and around the world?

From my early days in the legislature in 2017, I have felt it was my obligation to represent the Jewish community and represent it strongly. I didn’t want it to just be an accident that I am a Jewish legislator. I wanted to be a Jewish legislator. Year after year, I experienced antisemitism serving in the Legislature, but I stood up for Jewish interests from the very start.

Waking up on October 7 as the world collapsed around us, I was in my role already, but it became even more important for me to speak up and speak out.

Sen. Michaelson Jenet speaks at Run For Their Lives event at Washington Park

Sen. Michaelson Jenet speaks at Run For Their Lives event at Washington Park

It seems like at every community event I attend, you are there speaking!

My calendar is more packed than ever, partly because a year ago I transitioned from the House to the Senate. But I don’t want to say no to anyone who asks me to speak, especially when it comes to our community.

How would you sum up your main message?

Am Yisrael Chai—the people of Israel live. We will continue to thrive as a Jewish community, but we must get through this horrible moment in time, and we have to get through it together. We are not going to be able to do this on our own. If you want there to be an Israel, it needs to be part of our daily life. Everyone needs to figure out what Israel means to them.

As you meet with your colleagues, fellow public officials, the wider community, what have you observed during the past eight months?

The most difficult part has been the antisemitism and anti-Zionism—the hatred and vile acts—that we have seen from community members we thought were friends.

We in the Jewish community have spent years living by Pikuach Nefesh—saving the souls of others. We have stood side by side with people at rallies, marches, protests for issues that were not related to the Jewish community, because we believe that hatred toward anyone is hatred toward everyone. And now we find ourselves alone. Those that we stood up for did not show up for us now. It feels like a betrayal.

Sen. Michaelson Jenet at Pray for Peace Vigil on October 9

Sen. Michaelson Jenet at community-wide Pray for Peace Vigil on October 9

You were born in Tel Aviv after your parents made Aliyah, and you are the oldest of seven siblings in a blended Orthodox family. Do you think the birth order influenced the way you have led your life?

Without a doubt. Both my parents divorced and remarried after we returned to the United States, but before that happened my mother was a young mother living a rough life in 1980s New York City—Queens to be exact. It meant that I had to grow up fast because I had to be there for my mother and for my siblings.

Eventually, you attended Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts where you studied drama and vocal music. Do you use what you learned in high school in your work as a state legislator today?

Every day. When you learn how to perform, you also learn how to communicate. The communication skills I learned in high school were really second to none. I use those skills to pass a piece of legislation, to support the community, and to help communicate complex issues in a meaningful way.

If I had told you as a teenager that you would end up serving as a state lawmaker, would you have believed me?

I would have believed you. I was very involved with BBYO, and at my very first meeting, they were having elections, and no one was stepping up to run for secretary, so I did! I was on the board from then on, and for several years I served as president. In high school, though, I wouldn’t have understood you because not many people understand the role of a state lawmaker. It is a very big job. They call it a part-time job, but it is the most full-time part-time job I have had in my life!

Sen. Michaelson Jenet speaks on the House floor

Sen. Michaelson Jenet recognizes members of the Jewish community on Yom HaShoah

You came to Colorado in 1995 after graduating from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. Since then, your career has taken you to the University of Denver, Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center, and Denver Health. I always think someone’s favorite job would be the one they would do even if they weren’t paid a salary. By that definition, which was your favorite?

I have loved all my jobs, and I would have worked for free at any of them! But serving as Director of the Holocaust Awareness Institute at the University of Denver was such an honor, and the work was very much aligned with who I am. I went on the March of the Living when I was 17, thanks to a scholarship from the Cincinnati Federation and BBYO. It was life-changing and inspired me to make a commitment to teach about the Holocaust.

That explains legislation signed into law by Gov. Polis on July 8, 2020.

That was my bill, along with Rep. Emily Sirota and Senators Stephen Fenberg and Dennis Hisey. It requires a course in Holocaust and genocide studies for Colorado students to graduate from high school. There were models of this legislation from other states, but we were unique because we had to figure out how to develop a requirement that would lay the groundwork for appropriate education and still give local control to schools and school boards throughout Colorado.

We are not there yet. Where there is Holocaust education, I think it is often subpar. On the other hand, there are some programs that have taken students to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It depends on the dedication and interest of the individual teacher. But ultimately, it is really going to be on the Jewish community to create a space where young people can learn about the Holocaust. It cannot be accomplished by one person or one law.

We have talked a lot about your work within the Jewish community, but you have described your advocacy for youth mental health as the core focus of your work in the legislature.

The reason I ran for office was because I could not get my son the support he needed in school. He attempted suicide in school when he was nine years old. He had been talking about dying and suicide since he was six years old, and I tried to get help for years. There did not seem to be any school within the system where I felt he could be safe.

Being elected to office, I could be in the decision-making seat. I could make an impact that would have served his needs and the needs of others. With I Matter, children are eligible for six free virtual counseling sessions. More than 12,000 kids have used I Matter. I think it is the most important thing I have done in my life.

Dafna Michaelson Jenet at JEWISHcolorado's Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) 2023 Luncheon

Dafna Michaelson Jenet at the 2023 JEWISHcolorado Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) Luncheon

Before running for office, you traveled to all 50 states on a personal mission.

My boyfriend—now husband—and I were talking about what I would do if I won the lottery. I said I would travel to every state to learn how they are engaging citizens to solve community problems. Well, I didn’t win the lottery, but I did it anyway. I interviewed 10 people in all 50 states, and I learned that no matter what you look like, sound like, or how much money or education you have, you have the power to solve a problem in your community if you take action. I wrote a book about the experience, “It Takes a Little Crazy to Make a Difference.”

I also wrote “Peanut’s Legacy,” about the experience of losing a baby at 20 weeks. The community was a great support, but I felt that the Jewish community lacked support for bereaved parents under those circumstances. It was devastating to lose a baby and not have a formal shiva. I just felt the need for ritual.

How do you describe your religious practices today?

I really struggled with Orthodoxy, but one thing that has never been in question is my Judaism. I am still a very committed Jewish woman. To me, this means less about whether you are orthodox, conservative, or reformed and more about connection to your Judaism spiritually and physically—by that I mean holding a prayer book, dancing with the Torah, going into synagogue. I have found a wonderful synagogue in Rodef Shalom.

You were scheduled to travel with JEWISHcolorado on a Public Officials Mission Trip to Israel in May, but the trip was postponed because of travel difficulties at the time. This is just one way that JEWISHcolorado is serving the same community you serve.

JEWISHcolorado plays a very significant role in the state. Having lobbyists that advocate in the legislature is so important because, without them, the voice of the Jewish community would be lost. Providing representation of Jews in non-Jewish settings like the Capitol is how people know we exist and what we do for the community.