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I am The J: Director of Jewish Life Tzlil Bandy McDonald extends a welcoming embrace

Over the past 12 years, Tzlil Bandy McDonald has directed and implemented programs that foster engagement between North America and Israel. A former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama, Tzlil holds a master’s degree in Jewish experiential education from The George Washington University.

A woman with shoulder-length hair poses in the high-ceilinged lobby of The J
I want to create a space of Jewish and Israeli immersion where the walls live and breathe our heritage as a continuous cultural experience that resonates with the heartbeat of our tradition.,” says Tzlil (“tse-LEEL,” which means “sound” in Hebrew).
LJCC: What does being Jewish mean to you?

TBM: Being Jewish holds a profound significance for me, shaped by my upbringing in Israel. It goes beyond religious affiliation; it’s a cultural identity rooted in shared memory, the Hebrew language, and an unwavering connection to the people, state, and land of Israel.

The narratives of my family’s Holocaust experiences and their Aliyah, or immigration to Israel has profoundly shaped my Jewish and Israeli identity. These stories have instilled in me a deep commitment to the concept of Jewish peoplehood, recognizing our role as guardians of a rich heritage.

What excites you about your new position, and what are you hoping to accomplish here at The J?

My vision is deeply influenced by my upbringing in Beer Sheva — the city of Abraham and Sarah. Just as Abraham and Sarah embraced guests who were lost and in need of warmth and acceptance, I aim to extend the welcoming embrace of our community to Jews in Birmingham who might not know there’s a place for them under our tent. I want to help continue to build an inclusive and immersive space where every individual, regardless of their journey or background, feels valued, understood, and at home within our vibrant LJCC community. I want to create a space of Jewish and Israeli immersion where the walls live and breathe our heritage as a continuous cultural experience that resonates with the heartbeat of our tradition.

Embracing the concept of “L’dor v’dor” — from generation to generation — I want to help The J continue to impact future generations.

What’s your “dream” event that you’d like to see at The J?

I would love to see a moving and meaningful commemoration of Israeli Independence Day, or Yom Ha’atzmaut in Hebrew. Despite the challenges we face this year, particularly in the wake of the October 7 massacre, I envision an event that would transcend traditional celebration. Instead, it could become a platform for storytelling and a space to honor the memories of heroes and communities that have been lost.

Tzlil lives in Birmingham with her husband Nathan and their children. (L-R) David, Nathan, Jonathan, Juda, and Tzlil. David and Jonathan attend the Cohn Early Childhood Learning Center while Juda is enrolled at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School.
How did you end up in Birmingham?

Over a decade ago, I had the privilege of serving as a community shlicha* in the Jewish community of Central Alabama. I met Nathan, and our connection deepened as we lived in Israel, with Nathan participating in the Masa** program. At the close of 2015, we returned to America and got married. 

About two years ago we relocated to Louisiana for my husband’s work. Last summer we returned to Alabama to get closer to family while seeking a more vibrant Jewish community.

You’re a long way from your friends and family back in Israel. How are you coping with the current situation?

Navigating these challenging times away from home is indeed difficult, especially when my family and friends have been traumatized, my home has been penetrated, and our security has been completely shaken by seeing the pure evil by Hamas. To cope, I’ve taken an active approach, focusing on educating the Birmingham community about the true story of Israel. This includes shedding light not only on the impact of the Hamas attacks but also on the enduring challenges Israelis have faced for almost two decades while living under the constant threat of deadly Hamas rockets.

In an effort to foster support and unity, particularly during times of need, we’ve initiated a space in the lobby called the “living room.” It serves as a gathering place for people to come together, share experiences, and offer mutual support. The overwhelming support and outreach from both the Jewish community and our Christian friends have deeply moved me. This surge of solidarity has significantly increased my motivation to continue working toward building understanding and fostering connections during these challenging times.

*A program of the Jewish Agency for Israel that embeds young Israeli emissaries in Jewish communities around the world.

**A public service organization that is a collaboration between the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren HaYesod, the Jewish Federation of North America, and the Israeli Government.