When the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County chose Meryl Frank as the honoree and speaker at its Aug. 15 Vanguard event, few could have been surprised. The former mayor of Highland Park was a longtime federation board member and a Lion of Judah, a designation for women who make substantial contributions to their local federations.
But few were as surprised as Frank herself when she received another honor earlier this year: In May, the Jerusalem Post named her one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” Frank acknowledged during a phone interview with NJJN. “But I went to the paper’s website, and there it was.”
The Post cited Frank’s work as the head of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, to which she was appointed by President Obama in 2009.
Today, the former stay-at-home mother of four can be found working as a consultant helping women in Kenya or wartorn Afghanistan marshal the skills to become financially independent and take on key political leadership roles. Her consulting firm works with Women’s Campaign International, the National Democratic Institute, and other international organizations to promote women in leadership.
“Meryl Frank may be doing more to further the cause of women than anyone else in the United States,” wrote the Jerusalem Post.
The veteran leader in both local and national politics and Jewish organizations like Hadassah and Jewish Women International found herself in the company of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Canadian hip-hop superstar Drake, and Daily Show host Jon Stewart.
This year’s Vanguard event, cochaired by Lee Livingston and Linda Block, is being held at historic Livingston Manor, the Highland Park home of Eric and Diane Weinberg. The annual event for those who have given $5,000 or more to federation’s annual campaign also serves as the kick-off for the fund-raising year and raises about 40 percent of the total federation campaign.
Gerrie Bamira, executive director of the Middlesex federation, said, “We are privileged to honor Meryl Frank for her commitment to Jewish philanthropy, her dedication to improving the lives of women around the world, and her ongoing concern for community and family.”
Frank, said Bamira, “has touched the lives of many and is a role model to all.”
“We believe that helping people in need and nurturing Jewish community is our privilege and our responsibility,” said Block of East Brunswick. “Our donors make an enormous impact and enable the federation to do extraordinary things.”
“Each year it is our honor to bring together our most generous donors to celebrate their philanthropy,” said Livingston, a resident of North Brunswick. “This enables the federation to provide the much needed services and programs, here in Middlesex and around the world.”
‘Fix the world’
For Frank, being in the role of mentor to women trying to find a voice is “the best job in the world,” adding, “I fall in love with women wherever I go.”
“Some people feel the need to get involved politically to fix something,” she explained. “Not everyone has that, but for those of us that do, we just can’t stop ourselves. I want to help women identify the issues that are propelling them forward.”
Frank said she has found it remarkable how much basket weavers in Africa have in common with female American business executives.
“It’s all about finding out what they care about, who they are, and being able to articulate that with confidence,” she said.
In some cases, the women may be the first female members of the legislature in a male-dominated society; others hope to gain entrepreneurial skills to save their families from starvation in Africa.
“If they are members of parliament I give them advice about setting long-term and short-term goals,” said Frank. “I also always talk about balancing work and family and that being the mother of four kids gives me entry into that issue that is very personal. “
Sometimes, as in Afghanistan, meetings she holds with women are clandestine because of the danger in meeting publically. “These women are so strong and brave,” she said. “Every one of them has a story you could write a book about.”
Frank said she felt a special kinship with Cambodian women, whose focus is cleaning up government corruption.
The country is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge rule of the late 1970s, during which approximately 1.5 million people, including intellectuals and dissidents, were murdered in “the killing fields.”
Frank, who as a child heard family stories about the murder of relatives in Vilna by the Nazis, found the women “very much in the same place as Holocaust survivors after the war.”
She felt such a strong bond with those women, Frank said, that she did something she almost never does, for both her own and the women’s safety — reveal she is Jewish.
“They kept telling me, ‘You wouldn’t understand,’’” she recalled. “I finally said, ‘I do understand. I’m Jewish.’ Judaism informs my understanding of the world because I think have a special sensitivity to suffering.”
She said her own children — who are now 25, 22, 19, and 17 — have grown up “to understand the value of service.” Her husband, Steve Gabel, is president of a Highland Park-based energy, environment, and public utility consulting firm.
Frank has a long record of public service. After her election as mayor of Highland Park in 2000, she created New Jersey’s first “green community.” She became national cochair of Jewish relations for the Hillary Clinton for President campaign and, later, chair of the Obama Jewish Community Leadership Committee of New Jersey.
Throughout her rise, Frank has never forgotten the Jewish values instilled in her as a child.
“We didn’t call it tikun olam; it never had a name,” she said. “But I was always taught Jews should do what they could to help fix the world. This is how I’ve been called to help fix it.”