A salute to graduates | Kohn intern program marks 30 summers of Jewish service

After her freshman year at Columbia University, Yelena Shuster, 27, was a Kohn summer intern at J. These days, the former San Franciscan, born in Ukraine, is a New York-based freelance writer and senior copywriter at Victoria’s Secret. She has interviewed such celebrities as Matthew Broderick, Gloria Steinem and Jeff Goldblum.

Discussing her 2006 internship at J., “I got to do some really great stuff,” Shuster said. “It definitely excited me about the industry, and it was a really great training ground.”

Yelena Shuster

For 30 summers, a select group of Bay Area college students have served the Jewish community through the Kohn Summer Intern Program. Run by Jewish Vocational Service and supported by the S.F.-based Jewish Com­munity Federation and Endow­ment Fund, the program places about 30 students a year in eight-week internships at local Jewish nonprofit organizations. Over the years, generations of students from the region served by the S.F.-based federation have developed their professional skills and learned about the Jewish communal world as Kohn interns.

Kohn interns serve for eight weeks at such nonprofits as AIPAC, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the federation, J. and other Jewish groups. They attend weekly Friday seminars focused on issues facing the Jewish community and professional development skills such as networking and job searching.

“It’s been a great way for college students to learn about professional opportunities, to test their skills and preferences in the Jewish communal world,” said Abby Snay, executive director of JVS, which works with applicants and employers to create a good match for a productive summer experience. “The art is the fit.”

The program was started to cultivate young graduates who would become leaders in the Jewish community. “We were all starting to get concerned that the Jewish community really needed to do something to build future leadership both in a professional and volunteer basis,” said Snay. Phyllis Cook, former head of the federation’s endowment fund, proposed starting an internship program after learning of a similar one in New York. “It is often challenging for organizations in the Jewish community to recruit and retain professional staff,” Snay added.

Abby Porth

Abby Porth, the associate executive director of the Jewish Commun­ity Relations Council, was a Kohn intern in 1994. Home from Brandeis Univers­ity for the summer, she interned at AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where one of her projects included organizing a conference for college students.

Calling the internship “a very formative experience,” Porth, who is still close to her adviser at AIPAC, said it helped her understand Israel’s role in the Middle East and the world. “The experience certainly opened my eyes to the possibility of devoting my professional career to the issues that are most interesting and most central to my being.”

Porth has worked at JCRC for 16 years, where interns continue to learn about the local Jewish community.

“It’s really an extraordinary program,” she said. “JVS is lauded for creatively thinking of how to engage young people in building workplace skills and appreciation for our own community and what it provides.”

At least one Bay Area family has nurtured two generations of Kohn interns.

Rabbi Daniel Feder of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame interned at the Anti-Defamation League in 1986, the first year of the Kohn program. Twenty-eight years later, his oldest daughter, Rachel Feder, was a Kohn intern at J. last summer.

“My dad did encourage me to do the Kohn internship program,” Rachel wrote in an email sent from Europe where she is wrapping up a semester abroad. “He had a very positive experience with the program when he did it. … I’m glad I followed his advice.”

Rabbi Daniel Feder and daughter Rachel at 2014 Kohn graduation luncheon

For her father, the internship was an important introduction to the professional work environment and a formative exposure to a career in the Jewish world. During his internship, he communicated with elected officials and monitored the media for comments requiring an ADL response.

Later, when he dropped out of law school after one year and was at a professional crossroads, he thought back to the places where he had really enjoyed working. Those experiences included serving as a religious school teacher at Cong­regation Sherith Israel, a counselor at Jewish summer camp and an intern with the ADL.

“I certainly didn’t think of [the Kohn internship] as being a step on the way to the rabbinate,” Feder said. “But … it was an inspiring and appealing model of professional Jewish life for me.”

Feder, now 49, said a couple of students from his congregation become Kohn interns every year. Rachel, who attends U.C. Berkeley, her father’s alma mater, was able to pursue her own interests through the Kohn internship.

“The Kohn internship allowed me to have an internship in two of the potential fields I might want to go into after college,” Rachel said. “It allowed me to work in journalism, and also work in the Jewish world.”

Daniel Feder commends the Kohn program for exposing interns to strong Jewish role models in a professional setting.

“It gave [Rachel] for the first time the responsibility to be somewhere at 9 a.m. every day during the summer and do the kind of thing where you have to dress professionally, where you have deadlines, where you’re not just responsible to yourself but to your supervisor,” he said.

The Kohn internship was a good fit for Shuster, who attended Hebrew Academy in San Francisco and wanted to maintain her connection to the Jewish world. She now writes lifestyle and human interest stories for women’s and celebrity magazines. When she was at J., she worked on stories about the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and Russian teenagers who were becoming more religious.

“It taught me to look for the human interest in any story,” Shuster said. “It taught me the true nuts and bolts of journalism and writing.”

Kohn Summer
Intern Program information is at

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.