The power of the Pittsburgh Jewish community was illustrated for Jason Kunzman and his wife, Dana, when the pair moved to the city in 2001.
“We didn’t know anyone, we didn’t have jobs and we pretty quickly landed on our feet,” he said.
The community, he said, wrapped his family “in a cocoon of care.”
Kunzman accepted the responsibility to help lead that community when he was named president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh at the organization’s annual meeting earlier this month. He had served as the JCC’s chief programming officer since 2017.
Kunzman succeeds Brian Schreiber, who served as the JCC’s president and CEO for almost 25 years and is now the organization’s chief external affairs officer and special adviser to the CEO.
Kunzman’s career in Jewish communal life began in 2003 as the chief financial officer of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. He worked at the JHF during its establishment of the Squirrel Hill Health Center.
“Working with the Jewish Healthcare Foundation on such an effort that was rooted in bringing back the values of Montefiore Hospital — which was sold and [whose proceeds] created the Jewish Healthcare Foundation — I really started to better connect with how I might be able to professionally contribute to the Jewish community,” Kunzman said.
Before the JHF, he worked at the accounting firm Schneider Downs in Pittsburgh, but his resume is diverse. He graduated with an MBA from the University of Baltimore and, before moving to Pittsburgh, served as a police officer. He then worked as a forensic accountant at Ernst Young.
By 2011, he had left Pittsburgh for Washington, D.C., where he worked in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. He left government work and in 2017 applied for the chief programming officer position at Pittsburgh’s JCC.
“[I] decided to throw my hat in the ring, having very little faith or confidence that I really had much to offer,” he said. “I had this stereotype that those within the Jewish communal professional network grew up through the network. Here I was, an outside candidate. I’m so blessed that things worked out the way that they did.”
Kunzman and his staff are hyper-focused on what community means, he said. For the JCC, that community stretches from Squirrel Hill to the South Hills, from Monroeville to Morgantown, West Virginia (where the Emma Kaufmann overnight camp is located), and all points in between.
“Our sense of community and obligation really follows where we’re located,” he said. “That speaks to our openness, our sense of inclusivity. Our organization brings a willingness to be there for whomever in whichever way we can possibly be.”
That willingness to be there for the community was illustrated on Oct. 27, 2018, when the Squirrel Hill JCC operated as a central gathering point and a place where leaders from various Jewish organizations could meet following the massacre at the Tree of Life building.
During the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter trial, it was revealed that the murderer considered both the Squirrel Hill and South Hills branches of the JCC as targets. Kunzman wasn’t surprised. He said it’s important to remain focused on the safety of the JCC’s members and staff.
“It’s an obligation that we have to one another to keep one another safe,” he said. “Whether it’s members, guests in our facilities, staff, security — we’re all in this together. And I think that that really helps me feel as though we’ve got eyes and ears all over the place.”
The JCC also played a critical role during the pandemic, providing vaccines as soon as they became available to the public.
Like all community organizations, the virus was a challenge to the JCC, but Kunzman said the organization has mostly recovered. That doesn’t mean, though, that the new CEO is resting on its laurels.
“The trajectory is positive,” he said, “but there’s still work to be done. Inflation, rising costs — everything seems to be more complicated than it was pre-COVID.”
Keeping an eye on the JCC’s bottom line is Kunzman’s first priority because, he said, an organization can have the best vision, mission and aspirations but without a solid bottom line none of that matters.
The No. 2 priority, he said, is the JCC’s staff — and he is proud of his team.
“It’s our obligation to the staff, and the community to make sure that we’ve got the right people in the right places to make the trains run on time and that we’re always striving to be providing the best possible service we can,” he said.
The third challenge is to ensure that the organization is constantly in pursuit of excellence in everything it does.
“And we do a lot,” Kunzman said, “serving folks from 0 to 100. The intentionality, the rigor that is required to be excellent in everything we do — that’s hard.”
Kunzman will be at the JCC’s helm during some significant changes.
Next year, Rabbi Ron Symons, the JCC’s director of Jewish life and founder of the Center for Loving Kindness, will leave the organization. And, the 10.27 Healing Partnership, founded after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, is scheduled to wrap up operations in 2028.
The new CEO prefers to think of the transitions as opportunities.
“I have a hard time thinking about anybody that could have been a better founder of the Center for Loving Kindness,” he said. “We were blessed to have [Symons] at the time.”
Kunzman said the world has changed since the Center for Loving Kindness’ founding, though, and he expects its next evolution to mirror those changes. Symons, he said, is involved in talks about how the next chapter for the center will look.
The 10.27 Healing Partnership, Kunzman said, is focused on the five-year commemoration of the attack.
“Following the event, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “As those needs continue to ebb and flow, so will the 10.27 Healing Partnership.”
Kunzman knows he has big shoes to fill. He described Schreiber as forward-thinking and rooted in the importance of community.
“Brian has often said that growth is the only way forward, whether it’s the number of programs or experiences, the bottom line or partnerships,” Kunzman said. “What he meant by that is that growth in impact is most important. That is what I will take away as my primary learning from Brian.”
Kunzman said he is humbled to follow Schreiber.
“I look forward to the challenge of honoring his legacy, not only at the JCC but within the community as well,” he said.
Schreiber’s impact on the organization will be celebrated at the JCC’s Big Night on March 9, 2024.
One thing Kunzman won’t do in a hurry is fill his previous role. He said he’ll first take time to grow into his new position.
In the meantime, the husband of Dana, whom he calls his Jewish compass, and father of two — Seth, 19, a sophomore at Indiana University in Bloomington, and Gabby, 15, a sophomore at Pittsburgh Allderdice — will stay focused on fulfilling the JCC’s mission.
Those interested in following Kunzman’s tenure at the JCC can read his weekly blog, JCC State of Mind, on the organization’s website. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.