Joel Frankel was driving from St. Louis to his new home in Columbia and talking on the phone to a reporter about his paternal great-grandfather, whom he’d been named after and had been the religious leader of his pre-Holocaust community in Germany.
“I really feel that it was a little bit of a beshert for me to have the type of upbringing that I had, and all of the leadership opportunities I was given, to be able to take on a role like this,” said Frankel, who last week became executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County.
Frankel, 36, came with his wife, Leah, and sons Eli, 4, and Noah, 1. In St. Louis, Frankel had been the director of campaign operations for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and had been a member of two synagogues. He said he’ll join a couple of synagogues in his new hometown.
Frankel grew up in Cincinnati, the son of a Reform mother and an Orthodox father, he said. He attended a pluralistic Jewish day school until eighth grade while going to a Conservative synagogue. He spent summers at a Jewish sleepaway camp and was the president of his local chapter of United Synagogue Youth.
Frankel received a bachelor’s degree from Emory University in 2007, where he double majored in business administration and Judaic studies.
For a time, Frankel worked as a management consultant, helping consumer packaged goods companies to grow their lines of business. He found the work unfulfilling, but found greater meaning when he began working for a Jewish federation.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t know how much the Jewish federation was involved in,” Frankel said. “And as I grew up, I learned that the federations are really the backbone of the Jewish community in so many different ways.
“When I started working for the Jewish Federation, not only did I realize the incredible impact you could have on people’s lives, I realized how meaningful it was for me to be able to help people in different ways,” Frankel continued.
Having reached a point in his life where he felt ready to lead a Jewish federation and community, Frankel said, he began looking for executive director roles. He found the opening for the Howard County role and applied.
Frankel began working at the Jewish Federation of Howard County on July 1. He views Howard County as a special place, he said, and the Jewish Federation as uniquely situated to serve all parts of the county’s Jewish community.
“What we can do is we can serve the needs of the collective and focus on supporting the Jewish people in the community and the Jewish organizations in the community and participating as leaders in the community at large,” Frankel said. “And by doing that, what we can really do is inspire Judaism as part of people’s identities in ways that are meaningful to them.”
Frankel plans to meet with as many local community members as he can, in order to better understand the community’s dynamics and needs and how the Jewish Federation of Howard County can best address those needs.
“It’s really about working with the board of directors to establish a vision for a thriving and vibrant Jewish community, and figuring out what we need to do to be able to get there,” Frankel said. “Addressing the social services needs, building the Jewish identity, building a strong connection to the Israeli people and the Jewish people worldwide. I think those are the key things that I’ll be doing as the executive director.”