Native Trentonian Lynne Azarchi told NJJN that the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam, repairing the world, nourishes her activism in both the Jewish and secular realms — and that encompasses a wide arena. She has held leadership roles with the Jewish Community Center (JCC) Princeton Mercer Bucks, and especially its Abrams Camp; the Kidsbridge Tolerance Center in Ewing; the American Jewish Committee (AJC); and two interfaith organizations, a Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapter and La Convivencia.
In recognition of her activism, Azarchi will receive the Merrye Shavel Hudis Pearl Award at the annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks on Thursday, Sept. 14.
After Azarchi and her husband, Steve Steinhauser, moved to Princeton Junction, her children, Rachel, now 26, and Jake, 23, went to the JCC Abrams Camp in Ewing. About eight years ago, federation leader Donald Lebowitz invited her to join the JCC board, and she served as chair for three years. In 2013, when the planned Jewish campus in West Windsor failed, Azarchi and others, with the help of the Abrams Foundation, managed to save the camp. “We have 281 Jewish children at the camp in East Windsor, and half the kids do not belong to a shul,” Azarchi said. “Their only exposure to Judaism and Israel is our camp,”
Fifteen years ago at the pro-gun control Million Mom March in Ewing, Azarchi met Kidsbridge former vice president Debra Wachspress, who asked her to volunteer at the organization using her public relations and marketing skills. Six months later, Azarchi became executive director.
Kidsbridge’s focus when Azarchi came on board was character education — teaching kids kindness, respect, making the world a better place. But, Azarchi said, “when I noticed that children are killing themselves, I decided we really needed to focus on bullying prevention.” A few years ago, she widened the focus to include appreciation of diversity.
Norm Agin of Princeton, a national AJC and local Jewish community leader, invited Azarchi to join the AJC some eight years ago, where she was especially drawn to its role in fighting anti-Semitism. Azarchi now works with AJC New Jersey director Rabbi David Levy and fellow AJC leaders Lori Feldstein and Philip Sellinger to reach out to Muslim partners in the formation of a NJ Jewish-Muslim Advisory Council. The goal, Azarchi said, is to build connections between business and professional leaders of both communities, “to create a group that can leverage their relationships to engage in areas of mutual concern, such as combating hate crimes.”
On a recent AJC mission to Poland, Azarchi said, she strongly felt the presence of anti-Semitism. Although visiting the JCCs in Cracow and Warsaw was “uplifting,” she said, “I feel this emptiness in Poland. Everybody has blond hair and blue eyes — there is no diversity in Poland.
“I feel the absence of Jews.”
That void was reinforced by visits to Holocaust sites. “I feel angry because I have no relatives there and I want to understand what happened to them,” she said, which spurred a visit to her ancestral hometown, Lodz. While “walking in the shoes of my relatives,” she said, she found the graves of her great-great-grandfather and one other family member.
Azarchi is also cofounder, with Tasneem Sultan, of the town’s chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. The two met when Azarchi spoke at a meeting of the West Windsor Human Relations Council.
Sultan told her about the prejudice she feels directed at her, and about Muslim children who are told by their peers that “all Muslim kids are terrorists.” The two women went on, with Brandi Hebert, to found La Convivencia, which brings together Bahais, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists monthly to, according to the organization’s Facebook page, “honor and celebrate the differences and shared values of a pluralistic community…by uniting a diverse citizenry through community service, civic engagement, and community dialogues.”
In Trenton, Azarchi’s family belonged to Congregation Brothers of Israel. “I liked Sunday school and Hebrew school, which made me an oddball,” she recalled, adding that she was active in USY and attended Camp Ramah in the Poconos.
Both her parents were involved in Jewish matters. Her father, Arthur, was active in the Jewish community, including as a JCC board member. Azarchi said, “Our community was the JCC in Ewing,” where she was both a camper and a counselor.
Her mother, Evelyn, was the volunteer secretary of the Trenton Jewish Historical Society.
“The Jewish community was a very important and vital part of my identity and my life,” Azarchi said. “I did a lot of different things, but I always felt Jewish.”
“Trenton was a great place to grow up…” she said, “with families from all over the world.” Her own neighborhood, she said, “consisted largely of immigrants from Eastern Europe. It was like a little Jewish shtetl in a very positive and fun way.” When the 1968 race riots motivated Azarchi’s family to leave Trenton and move to Yardley, Pa., she said, “I went from being a city girl to being a suburban girl.”
At Penn State University, Azarchi majored in archaeology, with “a passion for primatology.”
In 1972, she spent the summer in Israel on an American Zionist Youth Foundation trip encompassing travel, study, and working at an archaeological dig, which she described as “one of the highlights of my life.” She still wears the ring she bought then inscribed with her Hebrew name “Lini,” and said it represents “my bond with Israel and my Judaism.”
After her 1975 college graduation, Azarchi worked for two years at American Trucking Associations as a research analyst.
But then she got the urge to travel and headed to Colorado, where she worked at the Longmont Pioneer Museum — until her father started nudging her about returning to the East Coast and going to business school. “I applied to Columbia University knowing I wouldn’t get in — and I got in,” she said. “I realized it was Columbia University, and I had to go.” Her MBA focused on not-for-profits and marketing and included an internship at Lincoln Center.
With MBA in hand, she spent two years at the New York-based Benton & Bowles advertising agency, where she met her husband, but then moved to the Hayden Planetarium as marketing manager.
A move to Washington, DC, led to a decade working at the American Society of Civil Engineers. Her family then settled in Princeton Junction, close to her parents in Yardley.
Her takeaway from her years of volunteering at the JCC is straightforward: “We must help others, give back, and foster the Jewish community. I think the enemy today is assimilation, and I think the Jewish people need to continue. We need to help the JCC, because the children in the JCC are our future.”
Through her AJC activities, she said, she has learned, “We have to fight anti-Semitism, which includes tolerance and reducing hate crimes for everybody. More people need to do this work, not just Jews.”
For Azarchi, Merrye Shavel Hudis — the award’s namesake, a major supporter of the federation and other Jewish community organizations, who died in 2014 — was an important ally. “When the JCC was short of money and needed support from federation, Merrye came to the meeting and came to see the camp,” Azarchi said. “I felt she was listening to me, and I know she went to bat to the federation for the JCC.”