New YAD Manager wants to make YAD a hub of Jewish life

Katherine PodolakWhen Katherine Podolak talks about her Jewish journey, she refers to it with a warm laugh as “L’dor V’dor in reverse.”

Her mother is Jewish and her father is not. The family celebrated high holidays and she attended JCC preschool, but, she says, “That was about the extent of our Jewish life.”

That is, until young Katherine went off to JCC Ranch Camp when she was eight years old and started learning what it meant to live her Jewish identity. A couple years later, she came home from summer camp and sat her parents down for “the talk.”

“I told them I wanted to join a synagogue, and I wanted to become a bat mitzvah,” she says. “Both my parents were confused, but they were also excited and willing to sign me up.”

Fast forward 15 years, and you will see how L’dor V’dor works in reverse when the young generation leads the previous generation. Today, Katherine’s mother, a retired Assistant United States Attorney, is the President of Temple Sinai. Both her mother and her father, a physician, attend weekly Shabbat services. They are delighted that their daughter has found a new professional home at JEWISHcolorado as the Young Adult Division (YAD) Manager.

Michael, Katherine, and Stephanie Podolak at the Kotel

For her part, Katherine has a vision for YAD that is deeply personal.

“I would love for YAD and JEWISHcolorado to be the hub of Jewish life in Denver, connecting to other organizations as a stable center that keeps the community strong,” she says. “I see us engaging outside of Denver to the four corners of the state, getting people involved who, just like me, didn’t know what they didn’t know until they knew it.”

‘What I was meant to do’

In her new position, Katherine is working alongside JEWISHcolorado colleagues who played an instrumental role in her Jewish education.

Michelle Ruby, Director of Israel Teen Emissaries and Education, was her bat mitzvah tutor.

Katherine Podolak Bat Mitzvah

When Katherine was in high school, she traveled to Israel on the Joyce Zeff Israel Study Tour (IST). It was Jillian Feiger’s first year as the Director of IST. This summer is Feiger’s tenth year of taking Colorado high schoolers to Poland and Israel.

Katherine spent 13 years at JCC Ranch Camp, first as a camper, and then as a staffer. It was the place where she found her people.

“Camp gave me a sense of belonging, the feeling that I was part of something bigger,” she says. “Seeing people being supported and valued by community was deeply touching, and I wanted to be part of that strong community as much as I could.”

The more time she spent at camp, the more she felt connected to her Jewish roots. She became a JCC Ranch Camp staffer by accident after her best friend from IST was injured and JCC needed a replacement in the lifeguard’s chair. As a staff member, Katherine found new purpose, making the camp experience valuable for campers, just as it had been for her.

“It just felt internally right to me,” she says. “It just gave me the feeling that this is where I was meant to be and what I was meant to do.”

Katherine Reading Torah

After graduating from Kent Denver, Katherine headed to the University of Michigan, seeking a large, diverse school with a large Jewish population. She began by majoring in sociology and pre-law, with the intent of following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming an attorney. But when she took courses purely out of interest in the subject matter, she gravitated to the university’s Frankel Center for Judaic Studies where she focused on the history and culture of Israel.

When it came time to apply for a semester abroad, she applied to go to one country—Israel.

“When everyone else was trying to go to Europe for the sexy study abroad experience, I said ‘Put me in the oldest city in the world!’” Katherine says with a laugh. “It was one of the best choices I ever made. Had I not done it, I would not be sitting here talking to you today!”

‘I want to be the person to help them do that’

Through The Nachshon Project Undergraduate Fellowship, which introduces Jewish college students to career paths that impact the future of Jewish life, Katherine headed to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There, she experienced “an overwhelming feeling that this is what I am supposed to be doing.” She tried female-run Torah studies, an opportunity she had not had since her Bat Mitzvah days with Michelle Ruby.

Katherine studying abroad in Israel

“Something that had felt so inaccessible to me suddenly felt accessible,” she says. “My whole world opened up—I was so hungry to learn and grow and experience Judaism. I realized I didn’t even know how much I wanted to know.”

The Nachshon Project also opened Katherine’s vision of what a future would look like as a professional working in the Jewish community by introducing her to Jewish professionals at the highest levels, including some from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).

When she graduated with a dual major in Sociology and Judaic Studies, she decided that three years of law school was not in her immediate future. Instead, she followed her instincts and the guidance of a Nachshon Project rabbi who suggested she apply to Hillel International to become a Springboard Innovation Fellow, a paid two-year fellowship that brings together early career professionals to make Jewish life engaging and inclusive for college students. She arrived at Cohen Hillel at the University of Illinois in July of 2020, knowing no one, as the world was shutting down because of the pandemic.

“I was hired to be the Immersive Experiences Coordinator, and you couldn’t even have a Shabbat!” she recalls. “We could not use any of the traditional paths. It meant taking innovation to the highest level to find ways to engage college students and develop programs.”

After her fellowship ended, she moved to a position with the Jewish National Fund-USA in Chicago where she planned events, tracked donor activity, and recruited young donors and prospective donors. But she missed home—Colorado, her parents, the Denver community. After a year in Chicago, she decided to take some gap time to reset. She returned to her childhood home in Englewood, and that’s when her mother pointed out a JEWISHcolorado job listing for the YAD manager position.

From Left: Katherine, Stephanie, Bill, and Michael Podolak

From Left: Katherine, Stephanie, Bill, and Michael Podolak

“My experience aligns with this job perfectly,” Podolok says. “I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to give back to a community that has given me so much and welcomed me back with open arms.

From the eight-year-old camper who heard for the first time the words “Bat Mitzvah” to the professional with experience engaging young adults in their Jewish community, Katherine brings a special joy and commitment to JEWISHcolorado.

“Life is not linear,” she says. “Maybe some of the people who find their way to YAD are trying to find their way back to their Jewish roots. I want to be the person to help them do that.”