Ask Linda Scherzer why she’s so devoted to the Jewish people and the defense of the State of Israel, and she’ll point to Leon Uris’s Exodus, the book that changed her life.
“Before Exodus, I was a Hebrew school dropout,” she said, “with little connection to Jewish community and no relationship to the State of Israel.”
After reading Exodus and travelling to Israel for the first time, Scherzer said, she discovered what thousands of Birthright students have learned too: the power of Israel as a shaper of Jewish identity.
She grew up in what she described as “an upper-middle-class Jewish neighborhood of Montreal.” But after “seven long years of Hebrew school in a Conservative synagogue, I dropped out before my bat mitzva.”
From that point Scherzer took a circuitous path as a television journalist and professional advocate for Israel to become the new director of the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
On July 11 she succeeded Melanie Roth Gorelick, who became vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the national umbrella for local Jewish community relations organizations — on May 2.
Scherzer told NJ Jewish News she “had nothing to do with Hillel and no connection to Israel and little connection to the Jewish community or to Judaism” during her undergraduate years at the predominantly Jewish Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
Then, in 1986 at age 24, she picked up Uris’s novel about the Holocaust and the struggle leading to the founding of Israel in 1948. “It completely changed my life,” she said. “It propelled me to Israel. I was captivated by the story, and I wanted the experience of living in Israel.”
A year later, on the eve of the first Palestinian Intifada, she joined a UJA singles’ delegation and “fell in love with the country.” She returned to the United States to receive a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and took her first job as a reporter and weekend anchor at WPTZ in 1985, the NBC affiliate in Burlington, Vt. Her on-air work was viewable in her Canadian hometown.
She moved to Jerusalem and worked briefly for the NBC bureau, then became a reporter for CNN “as the Intifada began to rage” in 1987. “It was a fascinating experience to be on the front lines of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Scherzer said. “With my limited Hebrew school background, I had to jump in and learn what the story was about” and compete with the highly experienced correspondents from ABC, NBC, and CBS.
“To be a part of it was very exciting.” Scherzer said. But when CNN wanted her to relocate to another country, she said, she “had become far too attached to Israel.” So Scherzer became an Arab affairs correspondent for Israel’s government-run TV network, where she “experienced the conflict from a front-row seat and experienced the pain and the trauma that both sides feel.”
That job required her “to disappear for nine months” to study Hebrew at an ulpan and led her, logically enough, to make aliya in 1994. But, she said, “after eight years I wanted to reconnect with my family in Montreal, New York, and New Jersey.”
Back in the United States, Scherzer started her own business as a public relations consultant. “It was a natural fit to start working with Jewish and Israeli clients,” she said, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and The Hebrew University. In addition, she served as a consultant for the Russian government — “to make Vladimir Putin into a kinder, gentler person.”
In 2001 the New York Jewish Week’s editor-in-chief, Gary Rosenblatt, asked Scherzer to help him create a program to prepare Jewish high school students to advocate for and defend Israel against attackers when they reached college. They called it “Write On for Israel.”
Students compete for the opportunity to take classes, seven during their junior year, three during their senior year, in addition to a trip to Israel. The program is funded in part by a number of Greater MetroWest-based funds and includes young people from the federation’s region.
“We created a program that has engaged some 600 young people in the Greater New York area. Our expectation is that they will lead the pro-Israel community on their campuses” as Jewish activists or columnists for their college newspapers, she said.
But Israel advocacy will be just part of Scherzer’s portfolio as director of the Greater MetroWest CRC. “My interest has always been in politics and public policy, and I have had a relationship with Greater MetroWest because of the Write On program. This job is a natural fit for my interests.
“I see Israel advocacy as a hot topic here and in every Jewish community in the country.” But beyond Israel, she said, she hopes “to build on Melanie’s great work in forging relationships with other communities” on such issues as race relations, criminal justice reform, and the fight against human trafficking. She said these are issues “in which the Jewish community has been engaged historically in terms of standing up for human rights and equality.”
Scherzer is married to Israeli-born Ronen Mikay, an entrepreneur and digital marketer. They live in Old Tappan and are the parents of 12-year-old twins Noa and Daniel and nine-year-old Maya. All three attend the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford.
Although after one week in her new position she recognizes “there is a lot to do” at the CRC, she quickly added, “Being a mother of three is my 24/7 full-time job.”