Every year I look forward to this opportunity for reflection on all that we’ve accomplished. Even in the midst of crises we found plenty to celebrate. That is because of the dogged hard work, determination and creativity of our volunteer leadership and outstanding professionals. Having the opportunity to helm this outstanding institution has been a privilege, an honor and incredibly satisfying as we’ve worked together to overcome difficulties and challenges to emerge strong, vital and viable with our place at the pinnacle of a dynamic and growing Jewish community.
When I arrived in January of 2016 I was given a main task—to complete the integration of the organization following the merger of the Federation and JCC in 2008. While the finance and marketing departments had consolidated and were serving the combined entity, little else had changed in the culture or operations. Over the next 11 months we began an effort to reorganize and rebrand, a vision that was just taking shape when on December 5, 2016 fire broke out in the men’s sauna and our path and trajectory suddenly shifted.
Time and time again this community has proven its mettle and what it cares about.
The period of the fire and its aftermath created the moment of reflection and choice—who are we, what are the elements necessary for success and continuity, how will we get there. The same is true of the pandemic. With a strong foundation and a clear vision for the future we continue to drive forward with excellence.
We are also applying that same fortitude to the challenges of our day, whether it be rising antisemitism and hate, emergency preparedness and security, war in Ukraine, Jewish education, advocacy, senior needs, outreach, engagement, Israel, or an aging campus infrastructure.
The integrated organization is the secret sauce that drives our success. Success as a standalone service delivery organization and the success we create through our fundraising and distribution of resources equal the rising tide that lifts all boats. There is no other organization in the country that looks or functions like us. We have built something special and unique, tailored to fit this Jewish community. It is important that we remember that as we move into the future.
And as we move forward the health and vitality of the integrated organization is critical to the overall sustainability of the greater Jewish community. Key to that is the entity known as the JCC. The JCC might be understood as a place or a concept or a program and service delivery mechanism. It is all those things and more. Today’s Jewish Federation/JCC is a cohesive unit where the best of the traditional elements of each are harnessed to offer the most value to the community. The commitment made to the community campus was a good investment, proven by the strong fiscal results just prior to the pandemic and the rebound as the world has reopened. In fact, just a few years ago we were a $7 million operation and today we are a $10 million agency.
The Jewish community campus in Woodbridge cannot be the only place where Jews can connect to community in addition to our synagogues and agencies. PJ Library has demonstrated the power of low or no barrier events toward strong engagement results and the ability to be nimble with location. Years ago we spoke of a hub a spoke model as critical to the success of the community. As we see more migration within the catchment area to places along the shoreline, we must continue to think in creative ways to, as Ariel—the Little Mermaid is fond of saying, be where the people are.
The Foundation is also a key and integral piece of the puzzle. It must not be seen as a separate entity with differing mission and values. It is a critically important asset and tool toward securing both the today and tomorrow of Greater New Haven but it must not be seen as a standalone entity. Total Financial Resource Development—TFRD means a comprehensive strategy of understanding our donors and helping them achieve their philanthropic objectives hand in hand with the overall needs and goals of the Jewish community. This is best accomplished with barrier free hand in glove transparent connection between the Foundation and Federation.
With the help of the Seedlings Foundation which enabled the hiring of a fulltime JCRC Director and Rabbi in Residence, we are able to bring new focus, creativity, support and collaboration to the area of Jewish education, inclusivity and advocacy. By infusing Jewish identity, Jewish culture and Jewish values into our work we will not only be true to who we are but to our why.
Just as we were finding our feet with our Covid response and rebuilding parts of our enterprise that was impacted by the pandemic, Russia invaded Ukraine. As the world watched what had previously been unthinkable in most of our lifetimes, the Jewish community mobilized. Not only had we experienced this before during World War II, but the institutions, programs and efforts built since the Shoah and more recently upon the lowering of the Iron Curtain in the 1990s positioned the Jewish Federations in the best place to facilitate rescue and support for those in harm’s way.
I am proud of our Jewish community’s response, rallying to aid with financial and material donations. I am even prouder that our Federation President, Steven Fleischman, and our Chief Development Officer, Amy Holtz, dropped everything to fly urgently to Poland to bring support and witness firsthand the power and impact of our collective work.
Time and time again this community has proven its mettle and what it cares about.
We learned through our community study and our resulting strategic planning process that our community prioritizes care for the vulnerable, Jewish education and community security. I am proud that we have been laser focused on maintaining plan recommendations and have found new ways to implement our objectives.
This past year we instituted a community impact grants program to drive initiative and collaboration aligned with core community priorities which has the potential to grow. Thank you to Sami Merit, Chesky Holtzberg, Norm Ravski, their committees and Robyn Teplitzky and Amy Holtz for your efforts to build stronger and more nimble relationships so that the agencies, programs, services and congregations may be better served and supported through the Annual Campaign’s fundraising success.
And thank you to our Chief Development Officer Amy Holtz, her fabulous co-chairs and Zeke Still Award winners, Gerry Barker, Betsy & Jeffrey Hoos and Norman Ravski, for caring so deeply that they were willing to step back into leadership after the tragic loss of Howard Reiter. They helped our community’s campaign to exceed our projections by $200,000 raising $2.4 million to support our values and our mission.
While thanking tireless and committed leaders, our officers, boards and committee members are wonderful. They attend countless meetings and are subjected to many communications, all with great dedication.
A special shout out must be given to the Re-entry Steering Committee and the Security & Facilities Committee with a special thank you to Peggy Duhl for her design efforts on our new security wall. Both groups have been called upon to serve many more hours and participate in many more early morning and late night discussions since the onset of the pandemic than they could have imagined signing up for. Vice President Evan Wyner is tireless in his commitment and wisdom, serving in many capacities and somehow finding time to represent us all as chair of our Southern New England Consortium which is our partnership with Afula and Gilboa in Israel. And tonight’s Kavod Key recipient, Dr. Stephanie Green, could not have imagined when she said yes to answering my questions in March of 2020 that it would lead to spending so much time together.
Not only have I had the opportunity to work and learn from incredible leaders, I have found very special friends and will be forever grateful.
Thank you to Glenn Duhl for providing his excellent legal insight and advice to guide our human resources and policy. Thank you to Eisner Award Winner Jean Silk for her leadership of JCARR, ensuring that our collective Jewish response to assist refugees is done with kindnesss, care, patience and excellence. Thank you and congratulations to Andy Sarkany for imparting the wisdom of the horrible lessons of the Shoah that he endured to children & adults as he spends countless hours working on behalf of our Jewish Federation to help people with their tzedakah.
One of the most satisfying experiences has been to watch the tremendous growth of our professionals over the years. We have an outstanding staff team with people at various points in the career trajectory. This year we also marked the retirements of Debra Cole, who served as CFO for 12 years and Israel Ortiz, who served as our Director of Facilities and Maintenance for 24 years. We are celebrating many for their years of service some serving more than 37 years!
Their commitment to serve our organization for so long and so well is a testament to both them and us.—Will those present in the room and on zoom please stand to be recognized?
It’s a difficult thing to start naming names of those who are so appreciated, who have gone above and beyond, who have been there every difficult step of the way, for myriad meetings, who have confronted the unexpected and provided their steady support. As I begin to mention just a few folks, please know that there are even more who matter to me, to us. But this is a time of reflection and as I look back in celebration of our accomplishments, there are a few that must be mentioned tonight.
First and foremost—the partnership of those who served as president during my tenure was critical to our ability to move forward. I want to thank Stephanie Wain, Norman Ravski, Jeffrey Hoos and Steve Fleischman for all they have invested and contributed to our success by creating a supportive environment to lead.
Norman Ravski was the chairman of the search committee who brought me here. During one of our many conversations he said that he would be with me every step of the way. Norm is a man of his word. After leading the search and welcoming me into his home and our collective New Haven home, he stepped up at president and then again as chairman of the strategic plan, led a mission to Poland & Israel and is now chairman of the new impact grants committee that is finding new ways to drive innovation and collaboration as precious annual campaign funds are invested in the Jewish community. Norm is cool and calm in a crisis, a true leader, a special friend and a mensch.
Jeffrey & Betsy Hoos. While Jeffrey served as campaign chair and president and in so many capacities, Betsy is always beside him offering her own well-earned insight, kindness and vision. Thank you for allowing me to become part of your family, for the weekly diner breakfasts during Jeffrey’s tenure where no detail was insignificant to be discussed and everything was possible. As Rabbi Tarfon so aptly put it—we must not complete the work but we also may not desist from it—Jeffrey and Betsy never desist. They just say, what’s next and how can I help.
Stephanie Wain as my first president and Steve Fleischman as my last taught me much about leadership and putting the needs of the community at the top of the list. To Steve, your ability to synthesize so much information and distill it to its essence to drive a group forward is a true gift. You are a natural born leader with a huge and compassionate heart. Thank you for loving the community like you do your family and for sharing so many of them with us too. We are better for it in countless ways.
Each year at this moment I take the opportunity to speak about our leadership team. If I have been successful in my job, it is because of those surrounding me who are of the utmost in caliber, performance and professionalism.
Our Jewish Foundation, under Executive Director Lisa Stanger, has grown significantly to close to $80 million dollars and increased its grants in support of our community as it responded to crisis and urgent needs with special emphasis on our seniors. Lisa’s leadership has grown the Foundation with a special success in the Create A Jewish Legacy program which created and expanded endowments for agencies and synagogues in partnership with the Grinspoon Foundation. Lisa will lead a new initiative of Create A Jewish Legacy which offers great opportunities to expand the funds and organizations saving for their future.
Scott Cohen has spent the majority of his adulthood leading the JCC of Greater New Haven. He spends countless hours devoted to his life’s work, even spending his Sundays on the field as a celebrated JCC softball player. While Scott is no stranger to complicated challenges, the last few years have tested him in ways I’m sure he could never have imagined. Through it all, Scott has been sure, steady, calm and committed to solutions. Ours has been a partnership at every level and I could not be prouder to call Scott my colleague and friend. Scott’s love of the community and JCC stands out and I’m sure is a large part of the reason why we have benefitted from his leadership for decades.
You’ve heard me say before that I presented Amy Holtz with a dream and she made it reality. Through the creation of an integrated development department, Amy has built a structure with excellent professionals and volunteers that has repeatedly exceeded expectations. Those who know Amy understand that she is a driven individual. Our community has been the beneficiary of her deep commitment and drive toward excellence.
A great example of that is in the results of this year’s annual campaign. Amidst an environment of a shrinking donor base and attrition and with the knowledge that a significant gift would be reduced, the annual campaign was expected to raise $2.2 million. I am thrilled to report that the annual campaign raised $2.4 million and not only that, Amy’s department raised an additional $1 million through corporate philanthropy, JCC fundraising and grants.
As Amy steps forward to assume the mantle as interim CEO, I am sure she will bring the same fortitude, vision, insight and solid relationships that have driven her success to date.
Earlier this year, Mike Flora assumed the role of Chief Financial Officer. He stepped in seamlessly and immediately garnered the respect and appreciation of his finance team and the rest of our professional staff. Mike brings a quiet assuredness and keen intellect that is already making a strong impact on our organization.
And to Robyn Teplitzky, who just cannot help but help us, serving as a senior consultant on several high profile projects and initiatives including our impact and allocations process, our upcoming Israel trip and now taking the mantle of Women’s Philtanthropy, thank you.
Lisa, Scott, Mike, Robyn and Amy all are incredible people, each bringing their uniqueness and hard work to enhance and strengthen our operations. Three such individuals have recently been promoted from within in recognition of their value and growth—Nicolle DeMorrow Vigneron, Derek Holodak and Chris Serio.
Every member of our staff is critical to our success and to their great credit, each works hard to support one another, recognizing that one another’s success is also theirs. Will our staff please stand to enjoy a much deserved round of applause?
As I conclude my remarks I want to impart the following---DO NOT SETTLE!
New Haven is positioned to grow and thrive. To build on this moment, our leadership must continue to value its professionals and not settle for anything less that we have now—dedicated, talented and committed staff.
We’ve made progress toward making our organization more attractive to retain staff but there is more work to do. I am pleased that we have been able to provide salary increases for the past 2 years after many years of frozen compensation but that is not enough. To remain an organization of the highest caliber, we must be able to attract and retain quality professionals to serve and never take them for granted. By and large, the people who choose to work for the Jewish community do so with a selfless reason and staunch belief in our mission. That should be respected and valued.
The cost of living Jewishly is challenging. When we think of our Jewish professionals charged with educating, nurturing, strengthening and gathering our Jewish community, we must remember that while they are called to serve and most often make due with wages significantly less than comparable positions in the private sector, they too wish to educate their children Jewishly, belong and take part in congregational and Jewish agency life, and be full Jewish citizens of New Haven. For many, the high costs associated are barriers to their participation and so we not only fail their families but we fail others who would see their participation as an inspiration and a stamp of approval. To solve this problem, the community will need both philanthropic support as well as the full collaboration of Jewish organizations to remove barriers and access to the Jewish life our sacred professionals are so dedicated to creating and stewarding.
Time and time again this community has proven its mettle and what it cares about. I have every confidence that the New Haven Jewish community will continue into a bright and sustainable future.
As a final thank you, I want to thank my family who are my inspiration and my motivation and now my reason for relocating home. I love them very much!
Thank you for providing me with this opportunity to serve. I will cherish it always.