The Story of JAMen
Members attending a JAMen event. Courtesy: Shalom Austin.
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 relocated to Central Texas, 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 after 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 an 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.
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, Gen Xers and Millennials.” 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 or at worst cease to exist.
With Burt Kunik as founder and chair, the first Jewish Austin Men’s Dinner and Speakers Forum (JAMen) took place on October 14, 2015, and attracted 100 members from the get go. Four years later, on the cusp of Season 5, JAMen had 180 members with a goal of reaching 200 by the end of the year. Then, in March 2020, the pandemic hit and JAMen, like so many other programs, went full stop.
“We didn’t want to transition to a Zoom model,” Kunik recalled. “We couldn’t replicate the informal person-to-person contact with the speakers and each other or the conviviality and connection of eating and drinking together. We also didn’t expect the pandemic would last two plus years.”
What accounts for the program’s past track record of success? For some, JAMen offered the opportunity to reconnect or stay connected with old friends as time marches on and Austin undergoes dramatic change. For others, especially the high number of newcomers relocating to Central Texas, JAMen presented the opportunity to schmooze, network and make new friends and contacts. For leaders of Shalom Austin, congregations and other community organizations, JAMen created new opportunities to connect with current, former or potential members, donors or participants. For everyone attending, JAMen provided a not to be missed opportunity for great food and drink, catch up conversations and highly stimulating speakers.
Shalom Austin JAMEN event. From left to right: Burt Kunik, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, Jay Rubin, Rabbi Daniel A. Septimus. Courtesy: Shalom Austin.
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, left, right and everything in between. Highlights have included 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, UT Director of Athletics Chris Del Conte, Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, Comedian Elon Gold, Jerusalem Post Editor-in- Chief Yaakov Katz, Austin City Limits Executive Producer Terry Lickona, University of Texas President Greg Fenves, University of Austin President Pano Kanelos, Fox News Poll Director Daron Shaw, former Wall Street Journal Editor Joanne Lipman, Author and Futurist Byron Reese, and Rabbis David Wolpe, Ed Feinstein, Jeffrey Salkin, Brian Straus and Bradley Shavit Artson.
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 either mid- September or mid-October to avoid conflicting with the Jewish holidays and conclude in early May. Each event includes a networking and schmoozing reception beginning at 6:00 p.m. with wine, beer and iced tea; hors d’oeuvres, challah, a multi-course, themed buffet dinner with vegetarian options and dessert; an inspiring and informative keynote speaker and a robust Q&A concluding by 8:30 p.m.
People can sign-up for JAMen Season 7 at the exact same 2019 price of $100 for annual members and $150 for sustaining members. Sustaining members receive special recognition, free books at book signing events and the ability to bring an unlimited number of one-time guests eligible to become members at the member dinner price of just $25. The regular price for one-time guests eligible to become members is $50. In addition, both Basic and sustaining members can prepay for all six dinners for the price of five, an additional $25 savings or pay the $25 dinner fee prior to each event online or at the door.
Rubin commented, “We’re also super-excited to convene our outstanding programs and dinners in the beautifully completed and rededicated Dell JCC. Make sure to come early to the opening event if you haven’t had an opportunity to see, use or tour the amazing new spaces.” To learn more and sign-up, visit shalomaustin.org/JAMen.
“We can’t wait to see you on October 18!” – Jay Rubin
Jay Rubin speaks at a JAMen event. Courtesy: Shalom Austin.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the September 2022 edition of The Jewish Outlook
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