New director of Howard Co. Jewish Federation looks ahead

Michelle Ostroff sees opportunities for the Jewish Federation of Howard County — to reach more people by diving into social media, to better engage teenagers and to make a popular speaker series more inspiring.

Ostroff is the new executive director of the federation, only the second full-time director the small organization has had. The organization not only helps the county's Jewish groups but holds programs throughout the community, coordinates events and is involved in charitable endeavors.

"You want to be able to say, 'The Jewish community wants you to be part of us in whatever way you want to be part of us — and whatever that is, we have something for you,'" Ostroff, 43, said in a recent interview.

Ostroff's recent hiring came as the group is trying to draw more Jewish households into its fold, especially those not formally linked with a house of worship.

About 17,200 of Howard's 287,000 residents are Jewish, according to a 2010 study. Half of the Jewish households are affiliated with a synagogue. The others are not, and there is no formal Jewish community center to serve as a gathering spot.

"She is perfect for the job. She is experienced, she is creative and she is committed to the community in Howard County," said Pearl Laufer, president of the federation.

She noted that Ostroff's experience includes various roles at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and marketing work.

Ostroff, who lives in Clarksville with her husband and children, is part of the county's Jewish community and understands it, Laufer said.

The Howard County organization, operating on a budget of just under $700,000, is small compared with those serving Baltimore and the Washington area.

It operates what it calls a community center without walls for its programs. The organization works annually with synagogues on a large carnival for the Purim holiday and other communitywide events. Other programs target various age groups, from tots to senior citizens.

Ostroff said she wants to build on that. But first, the group has to get its message out. She hopes to do more with social media.

Half of the 2010 study's participants were unfamiliar with the Howard County federation and related services and programs.

She said that in her former job, as director of women's programming and philanthropy at The Associated, efforts to draw young mothers into women's programs went nowhere at first.

"We started a women's Facebook page, and all of a sudden, there [they were], commenting, watching, being very interactive through the Facebook page," Ostroff said. "And I thought, 'That is what [they] can do'. It was a very 'aha' moment for me. But this was how right now, at this point in [their lives, they] could keep up with things in the Jewish community. It's from [their] computer. ... And I feel like that is OK."

That woke her up about making connections through social media, she said.

"And in Howard County, we don't even have our toe in the water," she said.

Also, Ostroff said the organization is evaluating its programming for teenagers. Attendance at dances has waned, and the federation is looking into what might draw more teens, including local trips and sports.

She said she'd like to see a popular wine-and-dinner women's program — as many as 75 women often attend — circle back to the local Jewish community and its values in an inspirational way.

For example, in March, Paula Shoyer, author of "The Kosher Baker," was the speaker.

Capitalizing on the food theme was Rabbi Hillel Baron of the Chabad Center, who manages the local kosher food pantry with the federation — in a message about caring for the community. He discussed how it provides food to the community's needy and through that, reaches out with other services, Ostroff said.

She said she hopes innovative programming will not only bring people in, but make them want to stay involved in the federation, whether they are tied to a house of worship or not.

"If you feel that in some way that you are Jewish, you are part of how we keep that Jewish flame alive."