Dr. Jason K. Wagner: Making time for “doing Jewish”

by | May 25, 2012 | Uncategorized

Jason Wagner, MD, 27, lights up when he talks about his ketubah that he and his wife Shauna signed at their wedding on Nov. 12, 2011.

“It was so cool to explore ketuba.com on the internet and design our own document. We chose the graphics and also the wording.” It came as no surprise to him that he and his wife preferred the same phraseology. Compared to the others, their selection defined their relationship as husband and wife, their goals and vision as a family, as well as their shared desire to be actively involved in the Jewish community.

Wagner was raised in a home where family, community, Judaism and academia were of paramount importance. His father,Dr. Alan Wagner, an ophthalmologist, was a driving force behind Jewish Healthcare International (JHI), a global coalition of healthcare professionals who dedicate their time and expertise to communities throughout the world that need services and education to enhance their medical infrastructure. His mother, Jody, a lawyer, was Treasurer of Virginia appointed by Governor Mark Warner in 2002 and Secretary of Finance under Governor Tim Kaine from 2006 to 2008. Since September, 2005, the family has owned and operated Jody’s, a retail and wholesale operation best known for its gourmet flavored popcorns and fudge.

Growing up, Friday night included a festive Shabbat dinner with family and friends celebrating together. Two afternoons a week, Wagner attended The United Hebrew School and on weekends, he went to Beth El’s Sunday school. In sixth grade, his Hebrew School class travelled to Washington, D.C. to see the Holocaust Museum. Fascinated with its history, it made a lasting impression because his maternal grandfather was a survivor.

Many of his childhood reflections include wonderful memories of his three siblings, Rachael, Lizzie, Max and his cousin, David Laderberg. As a young boy, Wagner spent his summer days attending local JCC camps. When he was eight years old, he went to Timberlane, an overnight camp in Wisconsin where he met many Jewish kids from Illinois and Arizona.

On March 28, 1998, Shabbat HaGadol, Wagner celebrated his Bar Mitzvah with one of the longest Torah portions of the year. “I think I finally had my Haftorah memorized by the time we arrived at Beth El that Saturday morning,” Wagner laughs recalling the seemingly impossible task. Cantor Jacob Tessler assured Wagner that if he could master the necessary skills to lead services and chant from the Torah and Haftorah, he would be able to conquer any future challenge. The cantor’s words still resonate with his student.

Wagner participated in the Maccabee games when he was 14 and 15 years old, playing basketball. Held in Cherry Hill, N.J. his first year, he enjoyed the event’s ceremonies and discovered shaved pastrami on rye from a local deli. He loved meeting teenagers from around the world. In ninth grade, his ball skills became an essential tool as a counselor at the JCC summer camps for two basketball sessions.

Through high school, Wagner belonged to BBYO-Old Dominion Chapter 370, serving as president twice, and also as vice president of Virginia Council. His involvement required attending conventions and state-wide meetings. Keeping busy, he interned as a medical researcher at the Diabetes Institute during his 10th and 11th grade summers.

Upon graduation from Cape Henry in 2003, Wagner travelled to Poland on March of the Living and then went on to meet a Birthright group in Israel. Designed for effect, the 18- to 26-year-olds started out with lots of room on the buses, comfortable hotel accommodations and wonderful food. With each passing day, the conditions worsened for the 25 students. Reaching their last stop, having travelled with their suitcases on their laps in a small bus, cramped, with little food, they arrived at Birkenau, the extermination camp next to Auschwitz. “We felt raw,” relates Wagner.

“When we landed in Israel, we were still shaken. Initially, we found it hard to relate to the Birthright kids who were looking to have fun. It took us a few days to feel safe and move from despair to jubilation,” relates Wagner. “After the initial shock, I loved the country and stayed after my Birthright experience ended.” With an open-ended plane ticket back to the States, Wagner’s parents had to call him to come home for Northwestern University’s orientation.

Off to college, Wagner began his academic undergraduate education, studying political science and journalism. Preferring problem solving to research, he switched his major to social policy with a concentration in health regulation offered at Northwestern’s renowned Annenberg School of Education and Social Policy. Through his college years, he stayed involved with Hillel and became a member of the fraternity ZBT.

Involved also with AIPAC as an undergraduate student, Wagner attended the Washington D.C. Policy conference several times. As a volunteer he became an AIPAC consultant for the University of Texas in Austin. In addition, he held the position of president of Students for Israel at Northwestern, setting up conferences on other college campuses.

Granted the Governor’s fellowship to study government health policy in Virginia, Wagner lived in Richmond the summer after his graduation. Under the Governor and Secretary of Health, Marilyn Tavenner, he examined issues pertaining to both Medicaid and healthcare workforce shortages. Taking the time to consider career choices, Wagner realized, “he could be a lay policymaker or a lay administrator, but there was no way to be a lay physician.” With his new awareness, he made the decision to go medical school.

In order to accumulate the necessary pre-med credits, Wagner entered a one year accelerated master’s program for Applied Biology at EVMS. Moving back to Tidewater, he became involved with UJFT’s young adult program called, “Gesher City.” Webbased to promote Jewish conversations beyond Tidewater, the members were also asked to enroll in local interest specific activities. Wagner joined the biking, movie watching and sushi eating subgroups. The program eventually evolved into UJFT’s Young Adult Division (YAD).

Taking on one more activity, Wagner became a BBYO advisor. Although he knew he was giving up his limited “free” time, he was happy to supervise the teens at their local meetings as well as the national conventions and inter-community activities. His younger brother, Max, became one of his chapter’s members. That year, he applied to EVMS’s medical school and was accepted. With graduation, he spent the summer at the University of Pittsburgh, participating in a research fellowship focused on vascular surgery.

In September, 2008, Wagner needed no encouragement to attend the first Purim party sponsored by YAD. He went alone, knowing that he would see childhood acquaintances as well as have the opportunity to make new friends. Registered with YAD, Erica Solomon, then YAD director, invited him to other events. “Although, I had very little free time, YAD made it so easy to socialize. Everything was arranged. All I had to do was show-up,” he says. “I had no Jewish social life at school, so it was perfect.”

At the start of his second year in med school, September, 2009, he met his future wife, Shauna, at the group’s first happy hour. New in town, she had called the Federation, looking to become affiliated. The two became friends, both serving on the Super Sunday steering committee. “She always made me laugh. We really enjoyed
each other’s company.”

In time, Wagner became co-chair of “Happy Hour” with Melanie Stein and then Jake Shuman. This past year, he sat on the screening committee for the Jewish Film Festival to represent the interests of the 20 something generation. He has been a pilot since the age of 16. He rides a motorcycle, scuba dives, skis, travels and repairs watches, a skill that, ironically, helped him through a med school interview.

On May 19, Wagner received his medical doctorate from Eastern Virginia Medical School. He is off to the University of Pittsburgh for his integrated residency in vascular surgery, taking one of the 36 spots in the country.

On an accelerated track for so long, Wagner has created a path for his future. Knowing that his free time is once again limited, he will be forced to make deliberate choices. The one thing that he knows, for sure, is that his days will continue to hold many more “happy hours.”

“I really have YAD to thank for that,” he says. “My wife’s humor has a direct link to my funny bone.”

by Karen Lombart