Gil Preuss’s parents still live in the Rockville, Maryland, home of his teenage years, and his sister and her family live in Takoma Park. He returned to the area this summer with 15 years of Jewish communal professional experience under his belt; most recently, he was the executive vice president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the Greater Boston-area’s Jewish Federation. Preuss spearheaded several innovative programs during his tenure, giving him a solid foundation to draw upon as the new CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Sitting down with Kol HaBirah during his first week on the job, Preuss spoke about the experience he brings to his new role and the benefits he hopes it will bring the Greater Washington Jewish community.
Building a vibrant, meaningful Jewish community for the next generation is one of Federation’s primary responsibilities, said Preuss. This makes engaging students in the Jewish community, all the way from kindergarten through college, a priority, he said.
Kol HaBirah recently delved into the issue of the spiraling cost of day school tuition (see "Affordable Tuition: Paths Forward" on page 1 of this issue), and Preuss is passionate about the subject. The acuteness of the affordability crisis in Boston — where one year of day school tuition costs approximately $40,000 — prompted CJP to launch the Discover Day School Initiative.
The Discover Day School Initiative, which Preuss led, aimed to increase the affordability of day school tuition for families with middle-tier incomes. The program included all the Boston-area day schools, employing a simple calculation to determine each family’s eligibility for a grant of up to 25 percent of the cost of tuition.
“Day school affordability needs to be addressed on a systemic level,” said Preuss. His experience leading the CJP’s initiative should give him an edge when facing the challenge in the Greater Washington Jewish community as well.
Engaging Students Beyond Birthright
Preuss firmly believes that some problems can only be solved on a communal level. Day school tuition is one such problem. Engaging students in Jewish life on campus is another.
CJP’s Inspired, Active, Committed, and Transformed Initiative (IACT) capitalizes on the enthusiasm of returning Birthright Israel participants to facilitate their continued involvement with the Jewish community. The program’s reach is national: it has coordinators on 28 campuses around the country, including the University of Maryland, College Park.
The motivation behind this program is to “change the dynamic” on campus, said Preuss. Historically, campus Hillels are centers for Jewish life for students who are already engaged with the Jewish community. Individual campuses lack the resources to mount large-scale engagement initiatives, he said, but IACT aims to narrow this engagement gap.
The IACT coordinators recruit students for Birthright trips and follow up with participants once they return, facilitating their continued involvement with Jewish life on campus. Through IACT, Preuss demonstrated how federations can effect change that is beyond the reach of individual institutions.
Strengthening Macro and Micro Communities
Preuss was quick to point out that Federation initiatives should not overshadow the work of individual communities. “We all live in this tension that Jewish life happens in smaller communities,” he said. “How do we strengthen micro communities of how people engage with Jewish life day-to-day, but also create a Greater Washington Jewish community, in the sense of identity and what we achieve?”
For starters, Preuss plans to spend significant time meeting with and listening to community leaders to identify the unique needs and opportunities of the Greater Washington Jewish community, he said. He expressed gratitude that his predecessor, Steve Rakitt, laid the foundation for a strong macro community.
“One thing [Rakitt] did really well was beyond just the individuals, bringing the organizations together so we feel that we are all part of one community,” he said. “We need to be aligned to be effective.”
Preuss also expressed his awareness that Federation’s location in the nation’s capital gives it outsized influence on American Jews around the country. “What happens in our Jewish community is central to what can happen nationally in the Jewish community and outside the Jewish community,” he said. “How do we come together as a community? What values do we articulate? These are all things that can have an impact beyond our own boundaries.”
Despite the myriad challenges facing the Jewish community at large, Preuss said he remains optimistic.
“I’m incredibly optimistic, by personality and experience. I have a strong belief that the Jewish community is able, when it puts its mind to it, to solve almost anything,” he said.
By Malka Goldberg
Malka Goldberg is the Community News editor for Kol HaBirah.