Meet the Vogelsteins

Recently The Associated and the Baltimore Jewish Times partnered together in honor of The Associated’s 100th birthday to capture the historical perspective of 2020 and the importance of our community during this time period with the My 2020 Journey Writing Contest.

In our Budding Authors category (ages 20 to 34) the brother and sister team of Tobias Vogelstein (age 28) and Atara Vogelstein (age 27) took home first and second place respectively.

We wanted to find out more about this dynamic and creative duo.

What prompted you to enter the My 2020 Journey Writing Contest?

Tobias: I hadn’t been taking part in all the other COVID-related writing prompts, so when my mom told me about this one, I identified with its connection to our Jewish community and thought I might as well try expressing my view. Also, my sister Atara was worried that she should not enter if I was going to, but I guess I needed to show her that even if we both entered, there was no way our pieces would be similar.

Atara: My mom! Debbie Vogelstein. To say she is an active member of the Baltimore Jewish community is an understatement. She’s also an avid reader of the JT and forwarded both me and my brother the contest details.

How did you come up with your winning entry?

Tobias: I have been studying storytelling for several years, particularly the methods of the screenwriter author, Blake Snyder, who is known for saying, ‘We tell stories because we must, because we are little tuning forks divining wisdom from beyond. They are the same tales, told again  and again over centuries, but we like and need to hear them, and  there’s a very good reason: because they let us know that when we get up every morning life is worth it. And it is.’

I’ve always been a huge fan of stories, I have enjoyed attending a youth Shabbat minyan since 2004, where a D’var Torah is given each week. I have realized that many of the themes we use in stories are the same ones derived from the Torah. By blending my interpretation of the parsha with certain storytelling principles, I discovered that I could bring a unique perspective to the minyan. By the time I heard about your contest, I only had about three days to write a piece, but luckily, I already had thought about community through the lens of the Torah.

Atara: It was a Friday morning during quarantine when I opened her email and sat down and started writing stream of consciousness. I let drift out much of what had been on my mind with Covid, ongoing racial injustice, and the tragic and bizarre states of the world.

Give us a little bit about your background. Where did you go to school? How were/are you involved in the local Jewish Community?

Tobias: I started going to school at Beth Tfiloh, where I was crowned, Best Reader, in kindergarten, but I had to attend a succession of other schools after a diagnosis of brain cancer and surgery and treatment that robbed me of much of my vision, hearing, and most tragically, my ability to read print.  I eventually graduated from Pikesville High School and Towson University, where I majored in electronic media and film. I continue to engage in as many quality online writing seminars as possible in my quest to write and publish children’s books.

Before the pandemic, I walked to shul every Shabbat and yom tov and participated in the youth minyan. With my family over many years, I have enjoyed swimming and hanging out at the JCC and have attended many events sponsored by The Associated. Growing up, I attended several Jewish day camps, including Beth Tfiloh, Milldale and the JCC, and participated twice in Maccabi Artsfest. Because my aunt has been a longtime leader of the Levindale Auxiliary, my siblings and I have participated in several Jewish holiday events for the residents there. My favorite childhood extracurricular activity was performing magic shows for local Purim carnivals and other special events. Additionally, two winters ago, I was invited by Towson University Hillel to serve on its Annual Inclusive Shabbat panel of speakers, since I am both vision and hearing impaired. As a writer, finally, I am constantly thinking about stories, which I already established are full of messages from the Torah.

Atara: I grew up in Baltimore where I attended both Yeshivat Rambam (z”l) and Beth Tfiloh. My family has been involved in the Baltimore Jewish community for decades, and I inherited much of this spirit. I took it with me to Israel after high school where I studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum, and then to NYU, where I was involved in Hillel as a student leader through clubs focused on Israel-activism, student community engagement and socially-applied theatre programming. My undergrad courses and experiences led me to pursue a Master’s in Drama Therapy at NYU, through which I developed a greater clinical and artistic skill set to be able to respond to individual and communal needs. But my foundational education, that started at home, largely spurred my career choice to become a therapist and work with individuals and communities in need of care and support.

As you and your sibling both won first and second place respectively, has there always been a competitive nature to your relationship? Have you ever competed previously?

Tobias: No, not really. It is mainly me asking her to give me feedback on my writing. I would say that everyone else in my family is competitive in the athletic department, but Atara is one of my only other siblings who pursues both arts and sports. 

Atara: Despite being in a family of eight siblings, Tobias and I have always had an extraordinarily supportive, lighthearted and easygoing relationship. (I’m sure his answer will be a lot funnier than mine!) This may be the first competition we’ve ever entered together and did so unknowingly. I actually emailed my mom after she sent me the contest details to say that Tobias should enter – only to be told that he already had. My siblings and I had a good laugh at the prospect of mine and Tobias’ competition. Bets were placed and I waged mine in his favor!

Do you have aspirations of continuing to write and obtaining more recognition of your future work?

Tobias: Definitely!  I hope to publish a children’s story, but I also would like to offer my services as a story coach. I believe that entertainment is the greatest gift we can offer humanity; and while my own fiction skills may have something left to be desired, helping others to entertain the world is nearly as good. In addition, it would give me the chance to consume more stories.

Atara: I find myself continuously aspiring to write more. I have always loved the act of writing for personal expression and studied the craft at length at NYU. I’ve had goals since probably middle school to publish my writing (mostly poetry and short stories). I had a writing professor once tell me that to be a successful writer, you have to make it a full-time job. While writing is not something I do full-time, I would love to get more of my work out there, and hopefully beat these odds. I have collections of experimental poetry and short stories in the genre of creative nonfiction…know any publishers?

If you could look back on your younger self and give yourself advice on what the year of 2020 would be like and how you would handle it, what would you say?

Tobias: Reserve lots more library books before the library closes for several months!

Atara: The same thing I told myself while working on an acute psychiatric unit during grad school – “expect the unexpected.” I do my best to be present with what I’m experiencing and to find space to work through it—that might be through writing, getting outside, creating meditative moments or movement…unexpected circumstances are easier to handle if you can find even a moment of connection, grounding, or release. I make it a priority to find time for this.

This contest showcased the importance of community. How important has your personal community environment been to you during this time?

Tobias: Well, that’s a bit hard to say. Being deafblind, I have always been perhaps more dependent on my community than others. The virus has limited my in-person resources and made me depend even more on my family for fun and guidance. As I mentioned in my contest entry, the pandemic has kept me from joining my mentor in shul each week and interrupted my pattern of writing and delivering D’vrai Torah. I’ve had to consult with my daily aide over the telephone only, and a few more people who used to come over, don’t.

Atara: Extremely important. My environment really impacts my mood, energy, stress levels, etc. I’m not someone who enjoys spending too much time online so connecting with others primarily over screens has been difficult. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to spend more time in nature and with family while quarantining or navigating this pandemic and turbulent year. I recognize how privileged I am to have safer spaces and access to loved ones and resources. The bigger challenge has been working remotely as a therapist and being more disconnected from clients in-person and from a professional community.

What are you currently doing now?

Tobias: Currently, I am answering these questions, but before that I was enrolling in an online story coach certification program.

Atara: I’m working as a Creative Arts Therapist (LCAT) and have been providing virtual therapy to clients throughout this pandemic. I’ve also just launched a site called TherapyWalks ( ) through which I will offer the option for in-person, outdoor therapy, as a way of adapting during Covid. Just as your contest asks about community, people need connection and support, and I’m playing with new ways of facilitating this.

First place, Community and Connection, By Tobias Vogelstein

Second place, At Sea, By Atara Vogelstein

To read these and all of the contest entries please visit

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