Seeing the Light: Michael Jeser on His New Role as President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Diego Countyby Leorah Gavidor November 6, 2018
When Michael Jeser was forming his career ambitions as a younger man, he thought he would be a Jewish camp director. Instead his path has led to a position as the new president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County.
Jeser took the helm right before the 2018 high holidays, after 20 years working in various capacities in the Jewish nonprofit community. He ran the Hillel program at USC, worked in JCCs, and served in the Jewish Federations of Los Angeles and Portland.
Michael was born in Lewiston, Maine, where his father was the executive director of the Jewish Federation. His mother was a Jewish music educator. The family soon moved to Orlando and later to Northern New Jersey, where he attended both Conservative and Orthodox day schools and spent more than a dozen years as camper, counselor and administrator of a Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire.
Exposure to the major branches of Judaism, as well as his parents’ involvement in the community, illustrated to Michael the commitment of Jews to pluralism.
“But summer camp really cemented my sense of belonging,” he said.
College brought Michael to Arizona, where he “saw the light” of the beauty of the American Southwest. For a year after graduation he lived and volunteered in Israel, mostly in the Negev city of Sderot. Sderot is a desert community known for receiving immigrants to Israel. The experience showed him a different aspect of Israeli society than most North American Jews are typically exposed to when they visit.
“The country of Israel is a great experiment – absorbing people from a breadth of different cultures and generations,” Michael reflected. “I got to see the social issues immigrants struggle with on the periphery of Israeli society—high unemployment, substance abuse, poverty.”
“It gave me a chance to witness and observe how Israel cares for those who are disenfranchised.”
His time in the Negev concluded in 2000—right before the second Intifada—and his experiences helped form a foundation for the work he will do with the Jewish Federation to raise awareness of what’s happening in contemporary Israel.
“Part of our job is to develop lifelong connections—Israelis want to understand how their society is viewed, and Jews want to understand Israeli society.”
One of the challenges of Michael’s new job, he acknowledged, is communicating the multi-faceted mission of the Jewish Federation. His main priority as a leader is to make sure people know that if they have a certain interest or passion and want to get involved in the Jewish community, all it takes is a conversation with him or his staff to get started.
He summed up the work of the Federation succinctly, emphasizing that he did not want to put limits on the definition of the organization. He describes the Federation as a collection of passionate leaders, volunteers and donors working together to enhance Jewish life here, in Israel and throughout the diaspora.
“If we boil it down, it comes to three things: helping Jews in need in San Diego, North America, and around the world; building community; and fostering a sense of pride in Jewish peoplehood.”
Jeser sees a major part of his job as fostering relationships with other Jewish organizations. He is excited by existing partnerships and sees new conversations and ideas circulating about how to collaborate with community organizations on increasing accessibility to participation in Jewish life.
“We have a great deal of power when we work together.”
During his first 90 days at his new post, Jeser plans to meet as many people as he can.
Before he took the job, he heard that San Diego had a warm and welcoming Jewish community, and he has found that to be true. He is grateful to learn how many people are invested in and supportive of the Federation’s success. He’s also glad that leaders have been open with him about the challenges they face.
As he becomes more familiar with San Diego’s Jewish community, Michael plans to bring his knowledge and experience to crafting a vision for the Federation under his leadership.
Michael lives in Carmel Valley with his wife Laura and their two-year-old, Eleanor. He invites people to say hello at the upcoming Men’s Event on Nov. 29 at the La Jolla Torrey Pines Hilton. Guest speaker Ethan Zohn will share his experiences as the winner of Survivor Africa and a cancer survivor.