Local director helps breathe life into reinvigorated Young Judaea

There was a time when Young Judaea — the first Zionist youth movement in the United States — was the hottest thing going for young American Jews.

But a lot has changed since the organization's founding back in 1909 and its heyday in 1967, when the peer-led, pluralistic movement became sponsored exclusively by Hadassah.

When Sharon Pearlstein first became Young Judaea's Western regional director a year and a half ago, she could count the number of locally run clubs on two hands. Today, largely thanks to her efforts, there are at least 30 clubs up and running throughout Northern California — from Berkeley to Vallejo, Sonoma, Saratoga, Sacramento and Santa Cruz.

The clubs have attracted more than a hundred kids, from third grade through high school.

"My biggest challenge has been in recreating the Young Judaea identity," she said. "Kids today are so busy and pulled apart in so many ways it's hard to get them to fit anything extra in their lives."

Working out of Young Judaea's Berkeley office, Pearlstein is responsible for the California-Nevada-Hawaii region of Young Judaea, which offers bimonthly local club meetings, regional conventions and Israel programming.

Pearlstein views her new job as twofold. Her first order of business is to ensure the smooth operation of Young Judaea's social, cultural and educational programs — along with its camps and trips to Israel. At the same time, she is working hard to increase awareness of Young Judaea within the Jewish community.

Currently, she is spreading the word through direct contact with a myriad of Jewish organizations. In addition, talks are in the works to begin an afterschool program with San Francisco Jewish day schools.

"Our name is out there. Our phones are ringing. Now people are calling us, asking how they can get involved," she said.

When programming for Young Judaea, Pearlstein likes to plan events that make learning fun, such as a hiking-camping trip that incorporates both environmental and spiritual components.

Pearlstein brings experience in the American Zionist Youth Movement's Israel programs department to her position. Her job there involved encouraging U.S. and Canadian Jewish youth to go to Israel.

Born and raised in New York, Pearlstein credits time spent in Israel during her college years with helping to solidify her ties to the country. She also spent three years living in Japan where she and her husband taught English as a second language and were very active in Tokyo's Jewish Community Center.

These days Pearlstein is keeping busy settling into her job while juggling the demands of her full-time career with a new baby and newly purchased home in Fremont.

She said her hope for Young Judaea is that people will once again come to see it as an "excellent chance to develop both leadership skills and a strong Jewish identity — in a fun, relaxed environment."