In 1996, shortly after I graduated college, I was hired to be the University of Virginia Hillel’s Program Director. I was excited and nervous about the opportunity to work with college students who were not that much younger than I was at the time. I was looking forward to providing them the same opportunities I had experienced at Cal State Northridge’s Hillel.
At some point, while in that position, I started thinking about all of the experiences I had that shaped my life up until that moment and, I took out a small, red notepad and wrote them all down. Everything from playing sports, becoming a Bar Mitzvah, going on a 6-week trip to Israel when I was 16, learning to drive a stick shift, and many others. I still carry this notepad in my work bag and every so often I look back at it and even add items to the list, like getting married, being a dad, earning two Master degrees, and becoming the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation.
I share this story as a reminder that there are moments and experiences in our lives and society that not only shape, but also redirect, the course of our life. The same thing happens in the Jewish world. One such instance took place last month, and it will have a lasting impact on the direction the Jewish community takes for years to come.
You may have heard or read about the Pew Research Center’s Jewish Americans in 2020 survey. Just like its A Portrait of Jewish Americans survey in 2013, the Pew Research Center presented a surprising and, for some people, an alarming snapshot of not only what Jewish Americans value and how they express their Judaism, but also how they connect with the American Jewish community.
While the data from this survey is still being pored over and analyzed, there are very clear indicators within the information that will motivate Jewish organizations to rethink how to engage, and provide opportunities and experiences for the Jewish community. And speaking as the head of one of those Jewish organizations, I am looking forward to facing this challenge.
When I was earning my Masters of Social Work degree at USC, one piece of information stood out the most. And that was the need to meet the client where they are at. In order to help people, deal with life’s issues, no matter what they are, their needs need to be addressed in the way they are able to understand and learn from.
The same thing is true within the Jewish community. So often, people have felt that the only way to be involved or a part of the Jewish community is to attend services at a synagogue, join a synagogue, a JCC, participate in community events, keep Kosher, etc. However, for many, as illustrated in this latest survey, this is no longer how people express their Jewishness. Our Jewish organizations need to recognize this shift and adapt to this “new form” of Jewish expression and connection.
For a long time, this Jewish Federation has appreciated and celebrated how each individual community member engages with their Judaism. As a Jewish professional, I see it as my job to provide more opportunities and experiences that are relevant and meaningful to individuals. This idea was taught to me when I was in college by the then President and CEO of Hillel International, Richard Joel. He explained that as Jewish leaders, it is our job to “maximize the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews.” And any activity can be a Jewish one if at least two Jews are doing it.
I am looking forward to this next stage of the Jewish community’s life and helping to continue to engage community members in ways that they want to connect with and celebrate their Judaism.
Jason Moss is executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys.