“It’s always a conversation starter,” said Josh Bender, the new CEO of Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. While he has the same last name as the family his new agency is named for, he’s not related to them.
“I do feel like I have to have an asterisk next to my name and always be explaining that I’m not related to the wonderful Bender family,” Bender said.
Bender began work at the Rockville JCC on Dec. 1, taking the reins from Michael Feinstein, who held the position for the past 12 years. Bender, 44, has spent his career as a Jewish community professional, beginning with the JCC in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., near his hometown of Kingston. Heading the Bender JCC is a return to his roots, he said.
“The Jewish community was everything for me growing up in my family,” Bender said. “And my identity, so much was formed by the Jewish experiences I was fortunate to receive along the way in the Jewish day school, and in Jewish camp environments, growing up at the JCC. So coming to Bender JCC, I feel like I’m coming full circle in many ways.”
Bender, 44, earned his bachelor’s degree at Pennsylvania State University. After graduating, Bender said, he wasn’t sure what to do with his life. So he moved back home. He and his three brothers had spent a lot of time at the Jewish Community Center in Wilkes-Barre. So when he learned the JCC was looking for a youth and camp director, he applied. He worked there for two years, but still wasn’t sure what career path to take.
“First I was dipping my toes in the water,” Bender said about his first job. But he decided to jump head first when he took a job as education director at Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore. In 2005, Bender earned a master’s degree in Jewish education at the Baltimore Hebrew Institute.
Two years later, he became director of education at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington. In 2013, he was hired as head of the lower school at Krieger Schechter Day School in Pikesville. Three years after that, he became executive director of Beth El Congregation, a 1,700 family synagogue in Pikesville.
Bender said he wanted to lead the Bender JCC because it was an entry point for so many people into the Jewish community.
“I’ve always been very much guided by Jewish values that are at the root of the work we do,” Bender said. “And so for me, it was clear that the JCC had a mission that spoke to me.”
Heidi Brodsky, chair of Bender JCC’s board of directors, was part of the search committee that hired Bender. She said the committee was impressed by his professional background and previous work experience.
“Josh has a vast amount of relevant experience in all aspects of our JCC, as well as great vision of how to build on our strengths to create an even stronger asset for our entire community,” Brodsky said. “He is talented, experienced, committed to the Jewish communal world and is ready and willing to roll up his sleeves despite the incredible challenges that this global pandemic has brought to our community.”
Lisie Gottdenker, Bender JCC past president and search committee co-chair, said Bender’s job experience and leadership style made him an ideal fit for CEO.
“He has an infectious enthusiasm for the JCC movement,” Gottdenker said. “He believes strongly in the vision of the JCC as the Jewish community’s town square, that the JCC is often a portal to the Jewish community for individuals and families, a door into a lifetime of Jewish communal engagement.”
Bender commutes to his new job from Baltimore, where he lives with his wife and four children, ages 1 to 14. Once the kids are out of school, Bender said, the family will move to the Washington area.
Bender hasn’t been able to meet with many people in person due to the pandemic, but in his JChats, a Facebook livestreamed series, he interviews leaders in the local Jewish community,“And that’s just an illustration of how I am getting to know the community through the pandemic,” he said.
Bender said his immediate priority is managing the day-to-day operations of the JCC through the pandemic. He wants Bender JCC to remain “relevant, vibrant and meaningful to the Jewish community and the broader community.
“We’ll have a lot of learning and reflecting when we get to the other side” of the pandemic. “That will help, hopefully, make us stronger in the future.”