Jonah Geller wants to help the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center put “the ‘J’ back into the JCC.”
Geller started in January as the organization’s new chief innovation officer. In that role, Geller said he is charged with overseeing some of the JCC’s programs – such as its food pantry and inclusion programs – as well as supporting the non-profit’s work in fostering Jewish identity in the community.
That objective was one that attracted Geller to the job. Jewish community centers around the country are interested in playing a bigger role in supporting the development of a Jewish identity, Geller said. The Milwaukee organization “is not just talking about it but now doing it.”
Prior to joining the JCC in Milwaukee, Geller had a career working in Jewish camp and conference centers. He then took a role as the CEO of the York JCC in York, Pennsylvania.
Geller said he was drawn to this field of work based on the role JCCs played in his life as a child. Depending on where he lived, Geller said, his family would access programs such as day camps, pre-school, swimming lessons and other activities.
“I knew that if I was not going to stay in Jewish camping and conference centers my entire career, my next move would likely be, and I would want it to be, to a Jewish community center, just based on the impact that all those JCCs had on me, especially when I was a child, young adult and an adult.”
In the coming months, Geller said he looks forward to learning more about Milwaukee’s Jewish community and working with the JCC’s senior program director to determine how to elevate the organization’s offerings.
Mark Shapiro, the JCC’s president and CEO, said Geller’s position was created after the organization’s past chief program officer left for another opportunity. The JCC determined it needed to broaden its focus beyond programming to consider what the Jewish community would look like years down the line. That, Shapiro said, would require innovative thinking.
Shapiro said Geller would focus on some of the JCC’s intangible services and how the organization engages the community. Examples include taking a different approach to sparking Jewish connections and growing volunteer opportunities. Volunteerism, he said, is a “great gateway to community engagement.”
“Day to day, it’s about Jonah being able to both manage the direct service of program with the less defined job of trying to identify how we bring people and voices to the table to identify what’s next in our community,” he said.
Geller said the outcomes of innovation can take time to materialize. Working with people to develop and take pride in a Jewish identity could resonate years down the road, he said.
“What we want to do is convene children and families and adults and whomever to learn more about Judaism, to become more familiar and more comfortable being Jewish, to enhance their Jewish literacy, to want to be active Jewish members of the community,” he said. “Any way I can be helpful in doing that, I’m in.”