Eric Nicastro, the new director of youth and experiential education at the Bureau of Jewish Education of Orange County, believes he is in “a dream job and a dream situation.” While being realistic about the challenges of getting teens and their families to find the time to make Jewish youth programs a priority, Nicastro is jumping into his new job with both feet and making his enthusiasm contagious.
“There’s an advantage when there aren’t that many Jews in the immediate area, because parents know it’s important for them to expose their kids to other Jews,” he explained. “Also, the kids want to come together.”
Still, there are “more and more obstacles to Jewish youth programs being important to families,” Nicastro added. He cited an evolutionary chart of kids’ backpacks, explaining that teens have so much homework and intense competition for college that they can lose sight of everything else.
“Our programs are more important, because they open kids’ eyes to the community and world events, and they give them confidence in being Jewish,” Nicastro said. “They learn what Jewish values are and realize that it’s also OK to have power and influence.”
Nicastro practices what he preaches. Born and raised in Queens, New York, he was involved in Jewish youth programs as a dedicated participant during his own teenage years. A graduate of SUNY Empire State College with a Bachelor of Science in Community and Human Services, Nicastro started his career in Jewish youth work as a youth advisor and religious school teacher during college. He spent nine summers at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Eisner Camp as a counselor and administrative staff member and worked with NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) for ten years, leading teen travel programs and staffing regional events.
In Nicastro’s professional career he ran the religious school high school programs and youth group programs at Larchmont Temple in New York for seven years. He recently completed a three-year stint as assistant director at Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps and the director of teen programs at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
In his spare time, Nicastro volunteers for Concern 2, a non-profit organization dedicated to funding pediatric and young adult cancer research worldwide. Concern 2 is the next generation of the very successful Concern Foundation for cancer research that has been a part of the Los Angeles community for more than 40 years. Nicastro has helped plan fundraising events for the group, participated in many events, and completed the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon, raising money to fund researchers trying to find a cure for cancer.
Creating an emotional connection to Israel, enhancing the partnership between the BJE and the synagogues and building on successful programs are some of the things Nicastro hopes to achieve in his new position. He is surprised that the model of the bureau that exists in Orange County is not being utilized everywhere.
“I’m hoping Orange County will go from the unusual community to the standard, and I’m hoping I’ll be here to see that happen,” he concluded.