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IST director is Samet’s dream job

Josh Samet

Josh Samet may have just become CAJE’s director of IST in May of this year at age 40, but he’s been prepping for the job ever since the third grade, in one leadership position after another

He just didn’t realize it.

Josh Samet was different from most Jewish kids at the age of eight. He already had a sense of a greater Jewish community beyond his own family and synagogue. You see, his mother Diane Samet was a religious and preschool music teacher who rode the circuit between several synagogues and schools from 1978 to 1991.

Josh would often go with his mom to the different synagogues, and that experience, galvanized by his family’s commitment to Judaism, set him on a path that has led to his dream job.

While being exposed to different congregations, Samet’s home base was Temple Sinai, where his parents Diane and Barry and sister Kerry were active members, in addition to Diane’s teaching position there.

After her music teaching stint, Diane became the director of Temple Sinai’s religious school in 1991.

When she retired in 2006, she and Barry were awarded lifetime membership at Temple Sinai.

 Josh Samet says he loved growing up at Temple Sinai, being with the same kids from kindergarten through confirmation. Among his fondest memories are those of spending Shabbat and High Holidays with his family at Sinai.

“Every week, we would light the candles and go to services at Temple Sinai. We had a strong Jewish household.”

“It’s who I am.”

Samet was a camper at Camp Shwayder at age 15. The following year, he was a counselor-in-training there, and worked as a Shwayder counselor all through college.

He was a teaching assistant at Sinai from age 12, and also taught there after college, about 11 years altogether.

Samet loved his involvement in NFTY, the Reform movement’s youth group so much that he was on the board of both Temple Sinai’s youth group and Temple Emanuel’s Friedman Club.

Samet faithfully attended Hebrew High, and even returned for 12th grade after his Israel Summer Tour summer. Not very many kids did that.

While Samet’s commitment to Jewish teens results from the sum of all these experiences, the most pivotal for him was his much-anticipated participation in the 1990 IST.

“I knew when I was in third grade that I would be going on IST. All of my Bar Mitzvah money went toward it.”

The experience was all — and more — that Samet hoped it would be. And in the back of his mind, the dream of directing IST began to form.

Samet graduated from Cherry Creek High School in 1991. He went to University of Arizona in Tucson, where he majored in Jewish studies, minored in sociology and was active in Hillel. He spent his junior year at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Before he decided to major in Jewish studies, he pondered pre-med and sociology degrees, but when he received Jewish studies credits for his junior year at Hebrew University, he decided that his true passion was, indeed, Jewish studies. He graduated in December, 1995.

After graduation came employment at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, Calif., Shwayder Camp, and in telecommunications. At one point, Samet moved to Boston where he was the youth educator at a Conservative synagogue for a year.

Then it was back to Colorado for more teaching and more telecommunications.

An important development began to unfold in January, 2007, when Samet visited his grandfather, Sam Ochman, in Tucson. He swung by his old haunts at Hillel at University of Arizona and kicked around the idea of working with college students.

Serendipitously, while he was in Tucson, Samet learned of an opening for the director of Hillel at CSU in Ft. Collins. He applied for the job, met with then-Hillel State Director Pat Blumenthal and was practically offered the job on the spot.

Samet is grateful that his grandfather had the opportunity to kvell over that accomplishment before he passed away shortly thereafter.

Samet enjoyed leading Hillel at CSU for three years, but Jewish single life was difficult in Ft. Collins, so when the position of Hillel director at DU opened, Samet applied and moved back to Denver and held the position until May of this year. By the way, Samet now has a steady girlfriend, so his strategy obviously worked!

During his years at Hillel Samet staffed three Birthright Israel trips for college students and young adults, and he staffed IST during the summers of 2011 and 2012.

He particularly enjoyed the relationships he forged with the ISTers during those summers. Many have stayed in touch with him as they have gone on to college.

These experiences, he is certain, pushed him closer to his true passion — working with teens.

When the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE) restructured earlier this year, the position of director of IST and teen engagement was created, and Josh Samet was the man for the job. He had finally met his destiny.

He says he has always — consciously or not — hoped that he could direct IST. To him, this would be the dream job.

“And now I have this privilege to serve in a position that I have always seen and wished that I could do. This is my passion, seeing these teens grow through this powerful IST experience.”

As IST director, Samet recruits the participants, works with a trip organizer, hires the American staff and makes adjustments to the program, based on feedback from the Israeli staff from last summer.

He is also working with community organizers in Denver’s partner city of Ramat Negev to develop meaningful programming for the ISTers next summer.

Next summer will be Samet’s fourth time staffing IST and his 10th trip to Israel.

He is proud that CAJE’s IST is the longest running community trip to Israel in the country.

“We’ve sent 2,400 students to Israel on this trip since 1972.”

The four weeks in Israel, preceeded by four days in Poland is subsidized by the Jewish community through JEWISHcolorado, local synagogues and individual donors.

Samet says that finances need not be a deterrent to any teen who wishes to participate. He cites “all kinds of financial aid,” including the IST Angels, a group of IST alumni for whom the experience was so important, that they contribute financially to make the trip more affordable.

The second half of Samet’s title is “teen engagement.” It’s a new concept, still in formation.

Hebrew High, the long-running community Hebrew school for ninth through 12th graders run by CAJE for many years, folded due to falling enrollment. Apparently, teens are not attracted to sitting in classrooms at night once a week after a day of school.

“Teen engagement” is CAJE’s new approach to retaining the Jewish interest of post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. Nothing about the program is set in stone. Samet is holding a meeting Oct. 17 with six families “to see where this takes off.”

Samet envisions “teen engagement” not as social youth group like NFTY, USY or BBYO, but as a way to connect with other teens in small groups through social action projects and study.

Previously, IST was the carrot at the end of the stick for Hebrew High. Attendance through 11th grade was required to go on IST during the summer between 11th and 12th grades. The 11th grade curriculum was largely focused on preparation for the Israel trip.

Now, without Hebrew High, students who sign up for IST will be invited to activities, such as a retreat, a Shabbaton, a tikkun olam program and other meetings to enable the participants to get to know each other, and wrap their brains around the idea of group activities and camaraderie that will be a large part of their IST experience.

“They will have the opportunity to prepare for their four days in Poland and talk about their expectations of IST,” Samet explains.

Accouterments in Samet’s office at CAJE reflect his love of Israel and another passion — Denver sports teams and the Arizona Wildcats — but there is one particularly curious item on the wall. It’s a board with numbers, one through 80. Number 54 is circled. That’s how many ISTers are needed to fill one bus for IST 2014.

As of this interview, the last week of September, Samet has been able to draw lines through number 43 — that’s how many kids have signed up for next summer’s trip. Once he fills one bus, he will work to fill a second one.

He’s thrilled with the enthusiastic rate of early registration. It reinforces his passion for the job and the cause.

Josh Samet feels he is living the dream, “doing something every day that is exciting and fulfilling. I feel very, very fortunate.”

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Larry Hankin

IJN Associate Editor |

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