Cohort V Connects with San Diego’s Jewish Community

Gathering for their first seminar in early January, Cohort V of the Executive Leadership Program arrived in Boston eager to learn, connect with one another, and explore the seminar’s theme: the North American Jewish Community. Serving a wide spectrum of organizations across the Jewish nonprofit sector, fellows brought diverse perspectives and experiences that fostered rich discussion throughout the week. This was particularly evident during the group’s inquiry project, in which fellows conducted virtual interviews with members of San Diego’s Jewish community. Interviews anchored around core themes and population segments that emerged as a result of San Diego’s recently released community study. Darren Schwartz, San Diego Federation’s Chief Planning and Strategy Officer and Cohort III graduate, helped guide the study and was an integral partner throughout the inquiry project.

To gain a glimpse into Cohort V’s experience with the inquiry project, we asked two fellows to share their reflections below. Thank you to Jackie Zais from Gather, Inc, and Mark Young from JCC Association of North America!


 Jackie Zais’s Reflection:

“I have spent most of my career utilizing relationship-based engagement (RBE) to connect Jews in their 20s and 30s with the Jewish life they want to pursue. However, my organization’s research into the communal use of RBE has shown a significant gap in leveraging this methodology to engage people outside of this age group, particularly seniors who are not being served at all with RBE specifically.

Participating in the qualitative interview with the San Diego community, specifically the 55+ community, was crucial to connecting stories to a life stage with which I have had little direct professional experience. It was a pleasure to get to know the three individuals my partner and I spoke with, and we wanted to spend more time with them. This personal experience of listening to their stories has been invaluable in my work conversations with funders, meetings with our Board, and trainings for external organizations.

Many communities find having a primarily 55+ or senior crowd a problem, and the Jewish
world is obsessed with getting young people. However, learning more about the San Diego community and understanding the needs of this large and active life stage helped me widen my eyes to the engagement we can be doing. During a workshop for a synagogue with an active but aging membership, the group was eager to discuss how to get more young people to join and become members. However, I redirected the conversation towards the importance of their 55+ community and how it could be an asset and a value-add to the community rather than a problem.”


Mark Young’s Reflection:

“Last month, Cohort V’s first seminar of the Executive Leadership Program took place in snowy Boston. A key highlight, particularly for me, during this week’s seminar was our experiential inquiry project, interviewing rank and file members of the San Diego Jewish Community.

In addition to furthering each cohort member’s learning and professional growth, a goal of the inquiry project was to help the San Diego Jewish community build on findings from their recent community study. They invited us to engage in qualitative research to further understand the personal and community needs of three distinct subsets of Jewish households: 55+, LGBTQIA+, and mixed heritage (or interfaith) households. Our 31 interviews, collectively conducted in pairs among the 20 cohort participants, helped us identify themes and frame questions for the San Diego Jewish Federation. We also noted important differences among our interviewees which, as Mandel Institute guest faculty Janet Aronson pointed out, are just as important and insightful as common trends.

Interviews illuminated rank and file Jews struggling with the Israel-Hamas war, feelings of belonging (or lack thereof) within Jewish life, or simply a nostalgia to feel connected to a Jewish experience they felt earlier in their lives. When one interviewee was asked what is missing for them in San Diego Jewishly, they both lightly and seriously responded, “We just need a great bagel shop!”

Earlier in the week, Mandel Institute Faculty members Devora Steinmetz and Mara Benjamin taught a series of classical and modern Jewish texts that helped illuminate the centuries old discussion of whether engaging in Jewish life and Judaism is a commandment or a personal choice. We noticed this toggle in real time during these interviews, revealing that, for many, there was a deep seeded obligation to engage in Jewish life even if they are choosing to not engage in the institutional aspects of Jewish community. Perhaps this highlights a desire to engage in Jewish life in ways that people find personally meaningful. For example, while one might attend a synagogue tot-Shabbat, others might gather with their friends from their Honeymoon Israel Cohort.

I found the experience eye-opening and humbling, and for us Jewish professionals aiming to grow in our leadership, a gift beyond measure.”