By now, it is an eye-rolling cliché to talk about a life’s journey, but sometimes it just is necessary. But sometimes that journey comes full circle so satisfyingly that it’s hard to think in those terms, because sometimes something is a cliché because of its underlying truth.
Julia Malaga’s life seems to be coming full circle now, she says; her childhood aspirations, movement toward a Jewish life and then complete membership in the Jewish people, her somewhat behind-the-scenes, essential work as CFO at the Golda Och Academy, and now her new job, with similar responsibilities as COO at Repair the World. Her last day at GOA was last Friday, and she started her new job on Monday.
In fact, Ms. Malaga said, “I told one of the GOA board members, who was board chair when I was hired 18 years ago, where I was going. I said I was going to Repair the World. And he said, ‘Yes. I know that. But what’s the name of the company?’”
The name of the company — the nonprofit — for real is Repair the World.
So here’s Ms. Malaga’s story.
She lives in Randolph now, and has for the last 18 years, but she was born and grew up in a small town in Missouri called Burlington Junction. “The population now, I believe, is 534,” she said. “We’ve all been in buildings — we’ve all been in rooms! — with more than that many people.
“My mother’s family has lived in the area for hundreds of years,” she continued. “The town was founded in the 1800s, in pioneer times; my family has been in this country since the 1600s. They have very deep roots.”
Her mother’s family, according to her DNA, is almost entirely British; her father’s family came here later, from Denmark. “My mother was 5 months fetal age when she came here”; she was born four months later, in Iowa.
As many readers might guess from her background, Ms. Malaga was not born Jewish. “I went to a public school and I had 28 kids in my graduating class,” she said. There were no Jews; the first Jew she met, she said, is the man who now is her husband, when they met in college.
Contrary to what she’s learned that many Jews believe, “I had no preconceived idea of what it meant to be Jewish,” Ms. Malaga said. “Everyone seems to assume that everyone is a small town is antisemitic, and that is not true.
“My great-uncle was in the war, and he was involved in liberating a concentration camp, so I had some idea of what antisemitism was.”
She was raised Methodist, which in her time and place was “plain vanilla Protestant,” she said.
She also was a Girl Scout, “from a very young age,” she said. “As a Girl Scout, you make a pledge ‘to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout law.’
“A basic tenet of Girl Scout law is to leave wherever you are — the world, a community, a campsite — better than it was when you found it. My mother was my Girl Scout leader, and it was our philosophy that we live our values.
“I wanted to make the world a better place.”
Ms. Malaga went to Washington to study politics and soon switched her major to sociology. “I wanted to understand the root causes that create injustice,” she said. After college, she went to graduate school in health science administration at George Washington University. “I loved it,” she said. “I started college in 1987 and finished grad school in 1996. It took me nine years!
“Then I worked in the healthcare sector for a few years.”
She loved it all.
Meanwhile, she married Ross Malaga, a “glatt secular” Jew who grew up in Huntington, on Long Island, Ms. Malaga said. Dr. Malaga teaches at Montclair State, where he is a professor in the information management and business analytics department at the business school and the academic director at its Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
“My Jewish story is not the traditional one,” Ms. Malaga said. “I didn’t convert when we got married. We have two children” — Rachel is now 23, and Benjamin, about to turn 20 — “and we raised them Jewish. My son had a bris and a bar mitzvah, and my daughter had a bat mitzvah. They went to public school.
“We belonged to a synagogue, but I had not converted.
“I started to work at GOA in 2005,” Ms. Malaga said. “And then, in 2012, seven years into my tenure there, the then head of school, Rabbi Dr. Joyce Raynor, started a program to get a cohort of family and staff to go to Israel on a trip called Neshama.
“It was a diverse group; the head of the business office, the head of school’s executive assistant, many others; some Jews, some not Jewish. The idea was that because Israel is such an integral part of our values, we should feel that.”
Part of the goal was to help the administrators and staff understand some of what their students — most of whom spend the last semester of their senior year in Israel — experience, “because Israel is such an integral part of our values.”
Ms. Malaga went on Neshama, which means soul, and found it was aptly named.
“That trip changed everything,” she said.
“I felt a connection to the land of Israel, and I had a spiritual experience at the Kotel. I can’t even described it, but I felt so invigorated that day, at the Kotel.
“I just felt like I belonged there. I felt like I was home. I had never felt anything that powerful before. When I put my face on the stones of the Kotel, I felt that 5,000 years of history washed through me.”
Had she gone prepared for such intensity of emotion? No, she hadn’t. “I hadn’t expected to feel that at all,” she said.
“I had a lot of conversations with some colleagues, and I came back and started exploring the idea. I started feeling that my children deserved a Jewish mother.”
This process took a few years, Ms. Malaga said.
During that time, “my daughter started the Diller Teen Program,” which identifies and nurtures young Jewish leaders. “As an official patrilineal Jew, for the first time she was starting to have conversations about Jewish identity, and the Orthodox kids in the group were frank about it.” Because she had a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, a Jewish upbringing, and a Jewish identity, the Reform world in which she grew up considered her to be Jewish, but much of the rest of the Jewish world, which operates by halacha, Jewish law, did not.
“She realized that she would not be able to marry a Jewish man in Israel, and that was very distressing for her.
“All that led me to solidify in my mind that conversion was the right path,” Ms. Malaga said.
“My sponsoring rabbi was Joyce Raynor, and for about a year I would go into her office every Wednesday at noon and we would learn together. Then she convened a beit din.”
Ms. Malaga and her daughter “did the conversion together,” she said. “We went to the mikvah on the same day — but not at the same time.
“I went first, so that when she went into the mikvah, she was the daughter of a Jewish mother.”
This was 2015. “I have been living as a Jewish woman for a long time, but it was not official until not so long ago,” Ms. Malaga said.
The vows she made at the conversion have guided her life since, Ms. Malaga said. “You vow that your destiny forever will be bound to the Jewish people. And I also made my own vow to become much more involved in the Jewish communal world.”
Much of that involvement has been through her local federation, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest; she has given both money — “I’m a Lion of Judah now, and I’m very proud of it,” she said — and time. She’s chaired a formidable number of committees, both in and out of federation, and she’s gone to Israel every year except when covid did not allow it.
“It’s all part of a continuum,” she said. “I got my Jewish credentials at GOA, learning alongside the kids. Then I made it official, and I transitioned to a more active role in the Jewish community. So now it feels very natural to move from GOA to Repair the World.
“It’s a different prong of Jewish action and continuity. It’s about what inspires and activates young Jewish adults to act on the mitzvah of repairing the world.
“How can you resist when you see a job posting for repairing the world?
“I am very excited, thinking about what role I can play to assist the organization in its growth and help create a structure to fuel it into the future.”
Her work at Repair the World “is very similar to my role at GOA, but a little more focused on strategic oversight,” she said. “I’ll be working with a team of professionals to help it operate in the most efficient way possible. I will work with the team to help ensure that the culture supports the values, and the values support the culture. That it meets the needs of our employees, so they can focus on the reason they are there — to repair the world.
“My job is to make it easy to work for Repair the World.
“It’s an operations job — it’s non-programmatic, doing what I really love to do, and I loved doing at GOA — working with the administration to make sure that the infrastructure supports their work so they can focus on their mission.”
Cheryl Rosenberg, a former Englewood City Council member and former president of Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, is Repair the World’s senior marketing director. She’s excited about Ms. Malaga’s joining the nonprofit. Repair the World is about 13 years old now — it’s in its b-mitzvah year, she said — and not quite two years ago, the organization got a $7 million grant from the Mackenzie Scott Foundation. That money is going very far toward helping Repair the World work on its mission, showing young Jews how they can engage in and help fix the world as an expression of their Jewish identity and values. And it means that Repair the World is growing quickly — more than half of its employees have joined the group within the last year, Ms. Rosenberg said — and can benefit from exactly the combination of heart and skills that Ms. Malaga brings to it.
Learn more about Repair the World at werepair.org.