One-man Institute finding ways to spark Jewish youth

The Institute for Modern Judaism sounds as if it might be some stodgy agency holed up in an office somewhere doing research, taking surveys and publishing its findings. But it’s not.

It’s a 3-year-old organization based in Walnut Creek, and it was established by a then-22-year-old who really digs working with Jewish youth — whether it’s leading them in song at Camp Tawonga, speaking to them at TribeFest or DJing at their b’nai mitzvah parties.

Now Noah Zaves is trying to continue his agency’s educational and programming efforts while attending graduate school some 3,000 miles away.

Noah Zaves

Zaves, 25, recently enrolled in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., a program that has more than 600 alumni working in Jewish agencies all over the world. He’s pursuing joint master’s degrees in business administration and Jewish professional leadership.

“The thing that I’m really hoping to add here is the business side of things,” Zaves said via phone from his Boston-area apartment. “As a hopeful future camp director and director of other kinds of Jewish nonprofits, I’m really excited to learn the business side, stuff I’ve been doing for years without really knowing how.”

But can he really run the Institute for Modern Judaism from across the country? He is the only true staff member, although others are brought in to help on an as-needed basis.

“We’re still pursuing gigs as much as we did before,” he said. “We’d done several national dates before I left the Bay Area. I’m working with synagogue schools [and] a number of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization regions who are putting on programs. Their goals align particularly closely with mine: building Jewish identity through American Jewish culture.”

Noah Zaves (left) on a 2011 trip to the Oakland Zoo with teens from Dreidel AZA and Oakland BBG chapters

Zaves established the IMJ in 2009 to “engage Jewish teens and young adults with their heritage, identity and culture … through a variety of interactive workshops and seminars, as well as consulting and institutional development,” according to the agency’s website, The IMJ runs interactive workshops across the United States for Jewish teens and young adults.

As a teen himself, Zaves was highly engaged. Not only did he have an internship at the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, but he also became the youngest winner of its annual volunteer award. He also has gone to Camp Tawonga every summer since he was 10.

After graduating from Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, Zaves went on to earn two degrees from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., one in music composition and conducting, and the other in a self-designed history/culture major (he did his senior thesis on the Jews of Portland at the turn of the 20th century).

“I was going to go into marketing, journalism. That was my plan when I graduated,” he said. “Then all of a sudden I rolled back into [the Bay Area and] people kept asking, ‘Would you teach Hebrew school class? Would you work at camp?’ I realized I’m good at it. I understand how to get students excited, what parts of Judaism appeal to fourth-graders, to ninth-graders, to young adults. Students started enjoying the classes. I figured I could stick with that a little longer.”

Not long thereafter, he founded the IMJ.

Zaves and fellow first-year Hornstein program student and Lauren Fredman in a classroom at Brandeis University

Zaves has coached teachers and teen volunteers in Midrasha, the popular East Bay teen learning program. He has also taught in supplementary educational programs at three big congregations: B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, Kol Shofar in Tiburon and Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.

This year, he has presented his workshop “From Bernstein to the Beastie Boys: The American Jewish Music Experience” around the Bay Area and also in Las Vegas at TribeFest (a North American gathering for Jewish young adults, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America).

Additionally, Zaves has sketched out some plans that IMJ has yet to implement (due to a lack of money). One idea is called “ShofarRV: The Six-Pointed Party Spot.” It would be a decorated recreational vehicle that would park outside concerts and events that attract Jewish young adults. Another idea is called the “Los Angeles Adventure,” a Jewish-themed trip for Bay Area Jewish seventh-graders from congregations too small to sponsor their own trips.

Independent of IMJ, Zaves has spent 15 consecutive summers at Camp Tawonga, most recently as a program director and Jewish educator. He also is a Jewish song leader, an occasional b’nai mitzvah DJ and a BBYO chapter adviser.

Right now, he isn’t sure what his future — or the future of the Institute for Modern Judaism — holds after he completes his postgraduate work in two years.

“I’m still figuring out what job I want. Then I’ll have a much better idea of where I’ll end up,” he said. “I’d love to become the director of Camp Tawonga. But in the more short term, I’ll continue to work in Jewish teen programming, youth groups and camping.”


Institute for Modern Judaism,, (925) 212-5679 or email