Passionate engagement was the mantra at the fall meeting of the New Jersey Association of Jewish Communal Service, as representatives of synagogues, agencies, and other Jewish nonprofits discussed ways to foster the intense sense of connection that links individuals to larger causes.
Speaking on a panel about cultivating such engagement, Rabbi Mendy Herson, executive director of the Chabad of Greater Somerset County and religious leader of the Chabad Jewish Center of Basking Ridge, spoke of “intensifying our ability to touch people.”
For him, that has meant making people feel welcome, no matter what their level of religiosity, and feel that they are accepted and needed in the organization, “that it is theirs.”
He and two other panelists at the Nov. 20 gathering at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains identified a gamut of techniques to achieve that goal. They ranged from the humorous to the spiritual, the personal to the technological, all intended to recruit and inspire volunteers and build communities.
In that spirit, the event — hosted by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey — was cochaired by Debbie Rosenwein, Central’s director of planning and allocations, and Karen Alexander, director of eldercare services for United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
It was attended by close to 80 staff members from Jewish organizations across the state, including federations, Jewish community centers, and nursing homes.
The ability to inspire passionate engagement was the key trait attributed to the day’s honoree, Charles Berkowitz, recipient of the Saul Schwarz Award.
Berkowitz, the president and CEO of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, brushed aside praise for his achievements over the past 27 years he has held that position.
“It’s easy to look good when you have wonderful professionals around you,” he said.
Howard Charish, the executive vice president of UJA Federation of Northern NJ, said Berkowitz inspired commitment in staff and volunteers by his own “workaholic” involvement and that he “epitomizes compassion,” a quality he combines with a wry humor. Charish related how, when someone commented on seeing the CEO unloading kosher meals from a truck, Berkowitz responded, “I’m a shlepper; it’s in my job description.”
Joining Herson on the panel of speakers were John Bartlett, an attorney and political organizer who played a major role in Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and in last year’s Obama campaign; and Karen Radkowsky, founding president of Limmud NY, the New York version of the nondenominational Jewish education organization, and cochair of its inaugural conference in 2005.
Bartlett, a former Raoul Wallenberg Scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, acknowledged the value of new modes of communication — with a caveat.
“E-mail is a great tool — and a great way to quickly become ignored,” he said. It needs to be “pithy, witty,” and pertinent. The crux of a campaign’s effectiveness, he said, lies in linking personal concerns to public issues. An organization has to stand for something and enduring themes have their value, Bartlett said, but to attract volunteers and supporters there must be flexibility, adapting those themes to different interests and priorities.
Herson stressed that need to adapt to those you are trying to reach. People want a sense of community, of belonging to something larger. His job as a rabbi, he said, is to help people find their “wick” and “light it.”
Radkowsky spoke of harnessing over 100 volunteers (and one paid professional) in planning Limmud’s annual four-day learning events, which includes lectures, workshops, and performances.
In some organizations, she said, it’s “all about who you know, your credentials, and how much you’ve given to campaign.” Such things don’t matter with Limmud NY, she said; this year it is being chaired by two 25-year-olds.
“We recognize and reward input,” Radkowsky said. And if someone complains — say, about the food — they are invited to step in and take charge of the food for the next year’s event.
NJAJCS events “provide an opportunity to see how the professionals who work in our Jewish organizations and institutions are truly thoughtful about their work and committed to our community,” said the organization’s president, Arthur Sandman, who also serves as UJC MetroWest associate executive vice president. “The heavy attendance at our fall event demonstrated how our topic, ‘Creating Passionate Engagement,’ speaks directly to the core challenge we face — inspiring our community to be involved Jewishly.
“Bringing creative approaches from both within and beyond our field, the speakers left us with techniques many of us will be able to adapt to our own work.”