Growing up, Max Moline attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, and Camp Ramah in Palmer, Massachusetts. He also participated in United Synagogue Youth in high school and in Hillel at Northwestern University.
But when he graduated, he didn’t realize that he could build a career in the same Jewish institutions that he grew up enjoying. So instead, he spent six years in the marketing, public relations and journalism fields.
About five years ago, though, he was laid off from a PR job that he didn’t love. Moline decided that “it was time for a change.” He reached out to his collegiate Hillel director, Michael Simon, who contacted Rabbi Mike Uram at the University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel chapter, who connected Moline to Addie Lewis Klein with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. (Moline lived in Langhorne at the time, where his last job was located.)
And it was Klein who set the young man on his future course. She introduced him to Melanie Gerchberg of NextGen, the Jewish Federation’s organization for Jews under 40. Gerchberg hired Moline as assistant director. It was April 2018, and the Jewish community man had finally discovered his Jewish community.
“Pretty soon after I started, I was able to walk into a room and feel instantly like I belonged,” Moline said.
As the now 32-year-old explained, he loves walking into a room and making connections. At NextGen, he was able to do that by helping other young Jews in the Philadelphia area connect to Jewish life and learn about philanthropic opportunities. One year later, he replaced his mentor, Gerchberg, as director. Three years and three months into leading NextGen, he was asked by Jewish Federation to become its director of community development.
Moline oversees a network of eight kehillot in the Philadelphia area representing different regions in the five counties. He works with synagogues and other organizations to reach every Jewish person in the area, regardless of synagogue affiliation, depth of observance and financial situation.
His goal still is to connect Jewish people to Jewish life, which is no easy task in 5783, as Moline the millennial well knows. So he uses Chanukah candle lightings, Purim carnivals, Shabbat dinners, film festivals highlighting Jewish filmmakers, volunteer events and even apple picking to do the job.
“We try to create something for everyone,” said Moline, a member of Adath Israel on the Main Line. “We’re creating connections not just with the Jewish Federation and Jewish community but among members of the Jewish community.”
Moline explained that the trend of people “being less and less interested in Jewish institutional life, and in synagogue membership specifically” started before COVID. He believes part of the trend can be attributed to his generation having kids later than previous generations. But he also thinks that the pandemic, with its proliferation of opportunities for virtual communities, did not help. As Moline concluded, “it’s no longer a given that people join synagogues.”
But synagogues and other Jewish organizations still have a lot to add, Moline said. They just need to meet people where they are — like they did in previous generations.
“If we don’t meet people where they’re at, they’re just not going to come,” he said. “If we continue to respond to the needs of younger generations, then it will happen later. But if we don’t adapt to the needs of the younger generation, then it’s going to go away.”
It’s a question that is not just on Moline’s mind professionally, but personally as well. Moline and his wife Jenny moved from Philadelphia to suburban Bala Cynwyd last summer and are expecting their first child, a daughter, this July.
At the same time, the Jewish community professional is about to take on a Wexner Field Fellowship through the international Wexner Foundation. The fellowship includes “professional development, education in leadership and Jewish learning,” according to a news release. It also connects its fellows to a “vast network of more than 3,000 professional and volunteer leaders in North America and Israel.”
“I want to position myself to be a leader in the Jewish community and to take on a next role that allows me to impact the present and future of the Jewish community,” Moline said. “I don’t know what that role is. I think this will give me the opportunity to find out exactly what I’m passionate about in the community and how my skills align with that.” ■