An Encounter in Israel Leads to a Wedding at Ramah

Alex Kress and his fiance, Michal Kogen, both 26, met during their study abroad program in Israel while they were still in college. They are now weeks away from their September 6 wedding at Camp Ramah in Ojai California, the summer camp Kogen grew up attending. Kress, a native of Philadelphia, is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, in Los Angeles. Kogen, originally from Los Angeles, is a corporate recruiter at Gainor Staffing. The two have been living together for one year in L.A.’s Studio City.

FORWARD: How did you meet and come to live together?

ALEX: We met while studying abroad through a Masa Israel Journey program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I got invited to a pickup basketball game, and Michal was also playing. We were on the sidelines, and she was having a little asthma flare-up; she swore she was okay. A couple days later we were set up by a mutual friend and had our first date at Rimon on Ben Yehuda on Valentine’s Day (Cue: Awwwww). After years of living apart we finally had the opportunity to move to Los Angeles together last summer.

MICHAL: After college, Alex was living in Cincinnati and I was in New York City. In the summer of 2014 we moved to my hometown of Los Angeles and got a great apartment together in Studio City.

How did you find your home? ** ALEX:** When we first moved to L.A., Michal’s parents found us an apartment based on some geographic borders and basic requirements. In the middle of that lease we began walking around our Studio City neighborhood, looking for another place. When the lease was up, we quickly moved into our new home, which we absolutely love.

Who takes out the garbage?

ALEX: Both of us stuff our normal-sized garbage bags into the absurdly tiny square door to the trash chute.

MICHAL: He is better about taking out the recycling.

How are household chores divided among you?

ALEX: We both do everything — unless it involves cleaning the bathroom. I do that alone. Side note: They should make a Roomba for steps. Vacuuming steps is my least favorite chore.

MICHAL: When he’s in school, I take care of more household chores, since I work from home, but it’s great when he’s on summer break and I come downstairs to clean dishes. Also, the bathroom is all his territory.

Who makes breakfast?

ALEX: Generally I make breakfast on the weekends, and we’re on our own during the week. Now that eggs are so expensive, though, we might have to skip that meal altogether.

MICHAL: He isn’t a breakfast person. He brings me breakfast sometimes when I’m working and he is on break.

Describe your typical week.

ALEX: During the workweek we wake up early, between 5 and 6, because Michal works New York hours. I head to school around 6:30 to avoid traffic, and usually arrive when campus opens at 7:00. We usually make dinner most nights, or order sushi if we’re feeling lazy. Fridays we generally do something for Shabbat, often with Michal’s parents, who live close by. Saturdays and Sundays we spend time with our friends, catch up on chores and homework, exercise and enjoy some downtime (read: watch Netflix).

MICHAL: Typically I am up around 5 a.m. during the week, since I work New York hours. Alex has started to adopt that schedule and gets up early to drive to school and avoid traffic. I work all day until he gets home, around 3:30. Typically our nights consist of making dinner or ordering sushi, and working out. Recently we’ve been playing basketball or tennis together. We like doing Shabbat dinner with my parents and spending time with friends over the weekend.

What’s the most unusual thing we’d see on your household budget?

ALEX: Lots of books — I’m a little obsessed with building my rabbinic library. Michal is very ready for me to have an office so I have a place to put them all.

MICHAL: We budget out frozen yogurt because I typically make him go too many times a week.

What do you love the most about the space you live in?

ALEX: We have a patio attached to our bedroom that has a beautiful balcony covered in vines and flowers. It gives us some privacy and looks beautiful. Prime location for Sunday morning reading and a cup of coffee.

MICHAL: Our building has a great rooftop where we can have dinner while watching the sunset.

ALEX: A few nights ago we played heads-up over a bottle of Rose. Highly recommended.

What’s the one story that gets told and retold in your home?

ALEX: I’ve got the proposal story down to a science.

MICHAL: New Years Day, Alex and I went for a morning walk. I complained the whole time that I was cold and hungry. As we approached the Philadelphia Art Museum, we walked around back and stood in a beautiful gazebo overlooking Boathouse Row — my favorite view in Philly. After a few minutes, Alex took a step back and got down on one knee. I didn’t even notice at first and when I turned around, he asked me to marry him and I said “duh!”

What would you serve at your ideal Sunday brunch?

ALEX: I usually make scones and a frittata. We grab Middlebar bloody Marys from the farmers market, get an assortment of bagels and lox and make some top-notch coffee from Ruby Coffee Roasters. Our brunch game is pretty on point.

Do you have an ideal Sabbath dinner?

ALEX: I love hosting friends and family for Shabbat dinner in our home. The best Shabbat dinners reach into the wee hours of the morning and involve multiple bottles of wine and tons of laughter.

MICHAL: I think my ideal Shabbat dinner will take place the weekend of our wedding. We’ll be at Camp Ramah surrounded by our family and friends, eating food and singing.

Who’s your favorite Jewish comedian?

ALEX: Jon Stewart. How I will miss “The Daily Show.” I’m also a huge fan of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Brilliant show.

MICHAL: Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart.

What is your favorite room in your home?

ALEX: The kitchen; we love cooking and food in general. As gifts from our registry come in for our wedding, our kitchen is getting an amazing upgrade. Thanks, family and friends!

MICHAL: I would say the whole downstairs. It’s an open concept so the kitchen, dining room and living room all flow into each other.

What is your favorite piece of art or photograph in your home?

ALEX: We have four albums framed on our office wall. My albums are Buddy Rich’s Big Swing Face and Billie, Ella, Lena, Sarah! Michal’s albums are “My Fair Lady” and, most importantly, “The Sound of Music.” It’s an awesome piece of our home that speaks volumes about us.

What is your happiest or saddest memory in your home?

ALEX: Michal moved us into our new home while I was back east working at URJ Kutz Camp this summer. Coming home and seeing Michal after two months, as well as the amazing job she had done with our home, was really special.

MICHAL: My happiest memory in this new home is when Alex saw it for the first time. He was away all summer when I did all of the unpacking, and seeing his excitement made me so happy.

Describe your home life in three words.

ALEX: Laughing, cooking and Netflix.

MICHAL: Humor, coffee and “Friends,” the show.

If you could change one thing about where you live, what would it be?

ALEX: A smarter thermostat. Ours likes turning the AC off in the middle of the night. We’re kind of in a fight. Maybe it needs a smarter user.

MICHAL: His/her sinks would be great. I make Alex shave in our guest bathroom.

If you could change one thing about your Jewish practice, what would it be?

ALEX: We, the Jewish people, have a weekly excuse to enjoy at least one bottle of wine. Most weeks Michal and I fail to achieve that goal. We need to do better.

MICHAL: I’d like to try and host more Shabbat dinners.

Is there an active Jewish community near you? If not, how do you create your own?

ALEX: Yes, very much so. I don’t think I have ever lived in a community with as many options as Los Angeles. You could easily celebrate Shabbat in a different shul every week for a year.

MICHAL: There is a very active Jewish community. During my Masa Israel program my appreciation for staying active in the Jewish community was taken to a new height. It is really nice for me to be back in the L.A. Jewish community that I grew up in.

What’s one Jewish thing you do that defines your Jewish identity?

ALEX: Well I go to rabbinical school, so…

MICHAL: We keep a kosher home.

Does being Jewish distinguish you from others around you? If so, how?

ALEX: Everyone has their own brand of Judaism. I have never seen more diversity of ideas and thought than within the walls of HUC-JIR. I think we each use religion to inspire ourselves in different ways, and that certainly distinguishes us from one another internally. More broadly, Judaism’s focus on social justice and lifelong learning are the distinguishing characteristics that I hold most dear.

What one moment stands out in your mind when you felt most connected to Judaism?

ALEX: When the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality was handed down this summer, I was at URJ Kutz Camp surrounded by 200 Jewish teen leaders and another 100 amazing staff and faculty. We gathered together in close quarters around the only TV in camp to hear President Barack Obama address the nation and celebrate a long-overdue victory. There was a sense that so much of what we believe as progressive Jews came to fruition in that moment. The crying, the cheering, the smiles, the love, all reflected the purest of what Judaism has to offer.

MICHAL: The first weekend Alex and I were living together, right before we ate dinner on Friday night, I lit candles and Alex said Kiddush. That was the first time we got to feel connected to Judaism together in a home we had built together.

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