Jason Pressberg wasn’t always deeply connected to the Jewish community, but that all changed when he went on a Birthright trip to Israel at the age of 19. From there on out he became increasingly connected to his heritage and began working in the Jewish nonprofit world, with positions at Hillel on three university campuses, the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, AIPAC and The Algemeiner, before recently beginning a new role as director of development at Americans for Ben-Gurion University in the Greater Washington and Baltimore areas. Now, Pressberg hopes to bring the mission of Ben-Gurion to the area and forge connections that can help more people realize its purpose.
What are your responsibilities as director of development at Americans for Ben-Gurion University?
In my position as director of development with Americans for Ben-Gurion University, I am working with our amazing leaders and my colleagues around the country to grow awareness about the university, raise much-needed funds to benefit the university and the Negev, and all of Israel, and to educate our communities about everything Ben-Gurion. Both his legacy, his leadership and the debt we owe to him.
How did you become involved in Jewish nonprofit work?
I’m a success story of the Birthright Israel program. I participated in the trip when I was 19. And for me, nothing has been the same since. I feel like my adulthood was playing catch-up for the Jewish experiences I didn’t have as a child. And I followed my heart to work hard on behalf of the causes that I’ve come to care about and to cherish. I’ve advocated on Capitol Hill lobbying for a stronger U.S.-Israel relationship. I’ve worked with communities to grow every area of Jewish life, whether it’s serving those in need or strengthening religious and spiritual life. I’ve led a newspaper that is of tremendous importance in today’s world to get positive messaging out and the truth about the Jewish community, about Israel. And now I find myself very importantly representing one of the great universities that the Jewish people have created. And that is leading the way to the recovery and growth of the Negev, the place that David Ben-Gurion has told us very clearly will lead to the success of the state of Israel in the 21st century and beyond.
Can you tell me about that impactful Birthright trip?
Before Birthright, I had a very rudimentary understanding what the Jewish people are. I would have defined the Jews as a small, mostly insignificant group of people that are really a religious group. After Birthright, I understood this complex idea of Jewish peoplehood. It’s a concept that I think is very beautiful. And it means that Jews can have a tremendous diversity within ourselves. I also fell in love with the landscape of Israel. Before going on Birthright, I would have again through ignorance assumed that the majority of Israel was rolling sand dunes and desert with no hope of cultivation. On Birthright, I went to the Negev, I visited different Ben-Gurion’s grave. I remember very clearly visiting farms where they grew the most delicious fruits and vegetables. And I had this immediate understanding that Israel is much more beautiful than I had imagined before. I also love to this day [Theodor] Herzl’s principle, calling it the old-new and the ‘Altneuland.’ Both the old and the new are all over Israel. And certainly, that’s true in Tel Aviv, with this ancient land having the most exciting technology springing forth from Ben-Gurion University and so much more that’s happening.
What excites you about working in the DMV area?
I’ve been here since August of 2019. I have three children who attend Jewish schools in the area and belong to a synagogue that we love very much. And even though my wife and I are from New York and two of my three kids were born in New York, my daughter was born here. And for the five of us, this is home. We are intent on fully integrating ourselves into the Greater Washington, Baltimore, DMV area. And even though I live in Greater Washington, I’ve often traveled to Baltimore, whether it’s to visit the museums on the harbor, or previously, in my role with AIPAC, I went to the regional office twice a week that was in Baltimore. So, I have a deep love for the city of Baltimore, but Greater Washington is home.
What are some of your goals and plans to accomplish in your new role?
A big one is to bring residents of these two areas with me to witness Ben-Gurion University for themselves. It’s very clear to me and should be to everyone that the Negev needs to recover from the events of Oct. 7 and what’s happened since, and the institution that’s going to lead to that recovery and to its future growth is Ben-Gurion University. It is the largest employer. It’s the largest thing of any kind. It’s the institution that all of Israel is looking to lead the growth in the Negev. And again, getting back to David Ben-Gurion, I want to quote him directly, ‘Israel’s future lies in the Negev, and it is in the Negev where the creativity and pioneering vigor of Israel shall be tested.’ This was Ben-Gurion’s mission and it’s my mission to fulfill this here in the DC Baltimore area. I will be bringing Ben-Gurion University professors and leaders to our area and bringing residents of our area with me to Ben-Gurion University as well.
How does your Jewish identity tie into your job and daily life?
I’d say the most important thing I do outside of my work is raising my children. I have them in what I believe to be the world’s best Jewish day school [Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School] where they’re getting the greatest education, both Jewish and secular. We’re partners with them [the school] by celebrating Shabbat every week and every holiday and hosting Israelis in our home. We are doing everything we can to give them the very best Jewish education and Jewish values. Jewish traditions dictate the way I live my life, whether it’s the way I treat people, both my colleagues and anyone involved in Americans for Ben-Gurion University, and people I interact with in any other capacity. Before going to Israel for the first time, I would not have listed Jew as an important way in which identify, and now Jew is my primary identification. It’s the lens through which I see the world. It’s the way that I eat. It’s the way that I travel. It’s the way that I think. It’s the way that I learned. It’s the way that I teach being Jewish and my connection to Israel means the world to me.