Sarah Pooner was not brought up Jewish and did not affiliate with Judaism until less than a year ago.
But after she led a support group for Jews like herself of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish heritage, Pooner concluded that all of them were indeed Jewish. She then took the big jump and decided to spend the fall 2000 semester in Israel at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva.
After making monumental leaps in her Jewish identity, Pooner returned to her San Francisco home following her second year at University of Pacific in Stockton.
She didn't have plans for the summer. Because she "wanted to know more about Judaism before going to Israel," she wanted a job in the Jewish community. She stumbled upon the S.F.-based Jewish Vocational Service, where she was told about a program the agency runs — the Kohn Summer Intern Program. Pooner was selected.
In retrospect, she said, "It was really cool how it happened. It was really good luck."
Pooner spent her internship at the S.F.-based Israel Center, working on the Israel Project. The project was begun to counter anti-Israel sentiment on campus, train Hillel leaders, and provide cultural and educational programs.
Pooner was one of 27 college students who spent the last eight weeks participating in the Kohn Summer Intern Program, working at Jewish agencies in the Bay Area. The paid internship program celebrated its 15th anniversary this summer.
Deborah Louria, director of Jewish programs at JVS, has overseen the intern program for seven summers. "It's a real model at excellent work experience and Jewish community building," Louria said.
Indeed, this year the participants have gone beyond their work in Jewish agencies to add new dimensions to the program. One is service to the broader community, which the interns coordinated themselves. They took time off from the Jewish agencies they serve from Monday through Thursday to volunteer at Glide Memorial Church's soup kitchen and at the Tule Elk Park Nursery and School-Age Children's Center. They donated money to buy books for the center, which they read to the children.
The interns met as a group on Fridays to discuss work issues as well as Jewish community and religious topics. They also met with "Generation J" author Lisa Schiffman to discuss Jewish identity.
With Louria's mantra of "keeping what works well and adding some innovation," the program has maintained internships with agencies that have been involved since the program's inception and has introduced others.
Joshua Turov, a U.C. Berkeley senior, worked at the Anti-Defamation League, an old-timer in the Kohn program. He spent much of his time arranging meetings between congressional representatives and ADL board members about hate crimes and refugee-protection legislation.
The intern also dealt with some of the crises that ADL regularly addresses, including hate crimes.
Last month, the ADL was angered by two groups of protestors in Reno. One was white supremacists who raised Nazi and Confederate flags in support of five skinheads who had pled guilty to fire-bombing a synagogue. The other was Jewish Defense League members who burned Nazi and Confederate flags in front of the courthouse.
Turov spent an afternoon on the phone with ADL board members trying to get different perspectives on the situation and helped his supervisor write a press release. The ADL was particularly concerned with this issue because many people confuse the militant JDL with the ADL.
Sarah Davidson, a U.C. Santa Cruz sophomore, spent eight weeks seeing what lies on the opposite end of the hate spectrum: warmth and acceptance. She was the first Kohn intern to work at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, a San Francisco synagogue with a history of reaching out to the gay and lesbian community.
Davidson helped coordinate Sha'ar Zahav's programs, working to get a teen group off the ground and arranging a teen trip to the Jewish Film Festival to see "Peace of Mind." She also organized a contingent in the gay pride parade and planned a swing dance party for Tu B'Av, the ancient Jewish celebration similar to Valentine's Day.
Although Davidson worked at a synagogue last summer, her experience this year offered a different experience. Sha'ar Zahav, she said, "makes Judaism available for people from all different perspectives to fit into their lives and their own spirituality. It doesn't exclude anybody."
This summer's experience also serves as a model for the type of community work Davidson plans to devote much of her life to. "Because Judaism is important to my identity, I would like to work with Judaism," she said. But she would like to do so "as a part of the larger community, not Judaism as its own community."
Other interns included: Micha Alter, Jewish Family and Children' s Services of the East Bay; Andrew Baker, Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay; Heather Barondess, Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center; Josh Bukstein, Jewish Bulletin; Hannah Engel, JCF Endowment; Ilya Filmus, American Jewish Congress; Abby Jacobs, Jewish Bulletin; Ariel Jacobs, Jewish Museum San Francisco; Ruth Kalnitsky, Congregation Emanu-El; Julia Khait, Jewish Vocational Service; Michael Khavul, S.F.-based JFCS; Shana Kirsch, Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay; Elizabeth Klebaner, Bay Area Council for Rescue and Renewal.
Also, Alexandra Kleinerman, New Bridges; Jessica Kronish, Hebrew Free Loan Association; Robyn Kurland, Bureau of Jewish Education; Sarah Lapin, Jewish Community Relations Council: Mariah Martin, JFCS of the East Bay; Aaron Saxe, Jewish Community Federation, South Peninsula; Laurie Tamis, American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Naomi Topkis, Jewish Home; Josh Tulkin, S.F.-based JCF; Corey Weber, Jewish Community Online; Amy Weiss, JVS.