Kohn interns open eyes to wider Jewish community

It sounds like a sociologist’s experiment: Take 28 college-age Jewish youths and send them out to work in Bay Area Jewish organizations to see how different generations learn from one another.

However, the 13-year-old Kohn Summer Internship Program is not an experiment. It’s a process enabling the Jewish community to develop future leaders.

This year, the interns spent eight weeks working in Jewish agencies, from the Anti-Defamation League and Holocaust Center of Northern California to the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. The internships marked the students’ transitions from taking from the community as youths to giving back to it as young adults.

As an intern at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Ben Pastcan attended committee meetings and interviews to help hire a new teen director. Working with both kids and seniors deepened his perspective on the Jewish community.

“I think the JCC does an excellent job in trying to include everyone from all ages and backgrounds,” said Pastcan, a U.C. Santa Cruz junior who lives in Napa. “There are lots of people here you would not see at a synagogue.”

Julie Moed, the JCC’s director of youth and family services, and Pastcan’s supervisor, said he was a valuable addition.

“Ben brought a refreshing sense to the JCC. I got to revisit my passion for this work through his eyes. He allowed me to think about why this is Jewish work,” she said.

Pastcan is one of the program’s many success stories. However, some interns say that the program is not solely about successes, but also about the difficulties of fitting into roles older generations expect them to play.

Elizabeth Paul, a sophomore at Sonoma State, said participating in the program “was the next step in developing as a person, a woman and a Jew.”

Paul, an Oakland resident, worked first at San Francisco’s Jewish Home for the Aged, but found it wasn’t the right fit for her. She was able to move to the Jewish Vocational Service, where she worked on the biannual newsletter, researching JVS job-placement achievements and compiling donor lists.

While she found those in the Jewish community open and willing to support younger members, Paul said, “I don’t think the community is willing to accept that the younger generation has a different idea of what that Jewish community is.”

She described a gulf that wasn’t entirely bridged. “I feel the older generations are quite established leaders,” she said. “I ask my superiors what their day is like and I feel it would be just as meaningful if they asked me.”

In the program, which is funded by the Jewish Community Endowment Kohn Fund and supervised by the Jewish Vocational Service, interns and agencies are carefully screened to provide the best matches. To supplement their work experience, the interns meet every Friday to discuss work issues and the broader Jewish community as well as religious topics.

Deborah Louria, who has directed the Kohn intern program for five years, said it provides an opportunity for mentoring and networking that is not readily available to younger people.

“There is an organized Jewish community available, but people have to seek that out and take advantage of it. It’s a two-way street,” Louria said.

Responding to new issues confronting Jewish youth, she said, “our program has changed with the times. For example, for the past two years, we’ve brought Rabbi Eric Weiss to come discuss homophobia in the Jewish community. It’s part of the times we live in.”

Deborah Meyers, a U.C. Davis sophomore from Novato, has been interning at American Jewish Congress, working for the Jack Berman Advocacy Center. She said the program helped “integrate the interns into the Jewish community in a really healthy way.

“The Friday dialogues are very eye-opening. If anything, the program should be year-round,” she said.

Other interns include: Tagh Adler, Jewish Community Endowment Fund; Emily Baer, Jewish Bulletin; Rebecca Bostwick, JCF; Natalie Davidowitz, American Jewish Committee; Elisa Gassel, Marin Jewish Community Center; Luba Golburt, Jewish Community Information and Referral; Yanina Greenstein, Jewish Community Information and Referral; Evan Jacobs, Anti-Defamation League; Rochelle Kamins, Congregation Emanu-El; Benjamin Klafter, S.F.-based Israel Center; Louie Lauter, CenterStage, MJCC; Uriel Lewis, Holocaust Center of Northern California; Alisa Mall, Jewish Community Relations Council.

Also, Sharon Papo, Hebrew Free Loan Association; Shira Reich, Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay; Emily Rosenthal, Jewish Community Online; Sarah Sawyer, MJCC; Joshua Schuster, Jewish Bulletin; Josh Slater, Jewish Family and Children’s Services; Rebekah Usatin, Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay; Kimberley Warsett, Bureau of Jewish Education; Jason Weiner, American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Michael Winetsky, BJE; and Leah Zimmerman, BJE.