JAMen Forum Celebrates Fifth Anniversary with World Class Keynote Speakers
JAMen co-chair Burt Kunik, Rabbi Daniel Septimus, Shalom Austin CEO, guest speaker Chris Del Conte, University of Texas Vice President and Director of Athletics, and JAMen co-chair Jay Rubin show off UT pride at JAMen’s February event. Credit: Wendy Goodman.
Burt Kunik and his wife Mary moved to Austin in 2014. A prominent endodontist, business executive and Jewish leader in Houston, the McAllen, Texas, native, similar to so many retirees relocating to Central Texas, wanted to live closer to children and grandchildren.
“I met Burt for the first time at the 2014 Friends of Jewish Family Service Dinner at the JCC,” recalled Jay Rubin, former Shalom Austin CEO and current JAMen co-chair. “I sat down next to him, introduced myself and asked the perennial local conversation starter: How long have you been living in Austin?”
One question led to another and Rubin quickly learned about Kunik’s deep attachment to Congregation Beth Yeshurun, the Conservative mega-synagogue in the Meyerland area, and to one of its signature programs, 100 Jewish Men. Developed by Rabbi Brian Strauss and modeled on a program at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, 100 Jewish Men featured monthly dinners with speakers dedicated to improving the lives of men “as fathers, husbands, brothers, sons and Jews through controversial thought-provoking speakers and small group discussions.”
Kunik wanted to know if something similar already existed in Austin and, if not, would there be interest in launching a comparable group. Many meals and conversations followed as Rubin and Kunik became close friends and collaborators and began reaching out to a growing circle of interested participants.
With Burt Kunik as founder and chair, the first Jewish Austin Men’s Dinner and Speakers Forum (JAMen) launched October 14, 2015, and attracted 100 members right from the get go. Four years later on the cusp of Season 5, JAMen has 180 members with a goal of reaching 200 by the end of the year.
Unlike the synagogue-based model, JAMen is open to all Jewish men in Central Texas, whether affiliated with a congregation or other Jewish organization or not.
“Burt and I viewed JAMen as an opportunity to advance Shalom Austin’s robust engagement agenda with young adults, young families and women,” Rubin continued, “by focusing on men, especially Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.”
Jewish demographic studies indicate that men are typically less engaged in Jewish life than women and less likely to initiate and participate in group activities. While many Jewish women’s organizations continue to flourish ranging from book clubs to advocacy groups to giving circles, Jewish men’s organizations at best, struggle, and at worst, cease to exist.
What accounts for JAMen’s track record of success? For some, in addition to enjoying a great program, it is the opportunity to reconnect or stay connected with old friends as time marches on and Austin undergoes dramatic change. For others, especially newcomers to Central Texas, it is the opportunity to schmooze, network and make new friends and connections. For leaders of Shalom Austin, congregations and other community organizations, it is an opportunity to connect with current, former or potential members, donors or participants. For everyone attending, it is a not to be missed opportunity for great food and drinks, convivial conversations and highly stimulating speakers.
Past presenters have included a top notch mix of local, national and international thought leaders from the rabbinate to academia, from sports to music, from business to journalism. Highlights have included Rabbi David Wolpe, University of North Carolina and former University of Texas football coach Mack Brown, former University of California President and University of Texas Chancellor Mark Yudof, former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow, Texas music icon Ray Benson, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, University of Texas Director of Athletics Chris Del Conte, Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut and Austin City Limits Executive Producer Terry Lickona.
JAMen events are scheduled far in advance to secure exceptional speakers and to enable members to plan ahead. Scheduled on Wednesday evenings, the six events begin in mid-September or mid-October to avoid conflicting with the Jewish holidays and continue monthly between November and February. JAMen takes a break in March and April during Passover and to make way for IGNITE!, Shalom Austin’s major fundraising event. The season finale takes place in early May, where JAMen members get a sneak peek at the next season’s lineup.
Each event includes a networking and schmoozing reception with hors d’oeuvres, fine wine and beer; a multi-course, themed buffet dinner prepared by Chef John Sutton of Congregation Agudas Achim Kosher Catering; an inspiring and informative keynote speaker; and an opportunity for follow-up Q&A.
The cost of a JAMen annual membership, unchanged since Season 1, is $90 plus $90 for the discounted six meal package. A sustaining membership is $150 plus $90 for the discounted six meal package and provides additional recognition and benefits.
“We’re thrilled to see so many of our members get so much enjoyment from our speakers and events,” Kunik commented. “We’ve been hard at work planning Season 5 and have an outstanding schedule of men – and a woman – lined up to share their expertise with our members. Join us. You’ll be glad you did.” ■
The JAMen Season 5 schedule roster of groundbreaking thinkers, community leaders and experts, includes:
Sep 18: Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Temple Solel, Hollywood, Florida
“The Torah of Testosterone”
Nov 13: Joanne Lipman
Former Deputy Managing editor of The Wall Street Journal
Former editor-in-chief of USA Today and author of "That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (And Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together"
“Sexual Politics in the Workplace”
Dec 18: Gregory L. Fenves
The University of Texas at Austin
“Navigating the Challenges of Universities in the 21st Century”
Jan 22: Yaakov Katz
Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Post
“War and Peace in Today’s Middle East”
Feb 26: Daron Shaw
Professor of Government
The University of Texas at Austin
Co-Director, FOX News Poll
“A 20/20 Look at the 2020 Elections”
May 6: Ira Forman
Former special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, U.S. Department of State
Former Executive Director, National Jewish Democratic Council
“Are American Jews Destined to Become as Vulnerable as the Jews of Europe?”