Serving people in need has been a continuing motivator for Michelle Napell, who will begin her tenure as executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County on July 1, upon the retirement of Linda Meisel, who served in the position for 18 years.
Napell told NJJN that when she graduated from George Washington University with a sociology major and political science minor, she “wanted to work with abused and neglected children.” But not sure whether she wanted to fulfill that aim as a social worker or as a lawyer, she applied to graduate schools in both fields.
She ultimately decided to follow the advice of a sociology professor who told her, “You can do more for these children as a lawyer; you will constantly hit a brick wall as a social worker,” and enrolled in Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in New York.
Napell worked her first summer and through her second year of law school for “Judge Judy” Sheindlin (of the popular TV show) at Manhattan Family Court, and her second summer for Lansner & Kubitschek, civil rights attorneys who sue foster agencies whose personnel are accused of abusing children in their care.
JFCS president Audrey D. Wisotsky wrote in an e-mail about Napell’s professional and personal commitment to JFCS’s mission: “She is a visionary leader who we are confident will strategically guide the agency and advance and develop the critical programs we provide to the community. Michelle will also continue to build strong community and corporate partnerships for JFCS.”
Joyce Kalstein, JFCS board member and search committee chair, wrote in an e-mail: “Michelle’s deep commitment to community service makes her an ideal person to steward and build upon the agency’s successful legacy.”
Napell grew up in Paramus, where her family was active in a Reform temple with “very Conservative values; I had to be home for dinner Friday night, but it could have been pizza,” she said.
“Judaism was not just a religion but a way of life for us…and the values my parents brought us up with,” she said. She visited Israel on a b’nei mitzva tour, when she was 16 for a two-month summer program, and at 20 for a family vacation.
After graduating law school, Napell worked at a small general practice law firm, leaving after three years when she gave birth to her son, Harrison, now 19. Napell and her husband, Adam, moved to Warren in 2000 after her daughter, Katie, was born. The family joined Temple Har Shalom there, and Napell dove into volunteerism, becoming chair of the preschool and a congregation board officer.
Once her children were old enough, she said, she launched a job search at jewishjobs.com.
Her search led her to become a special events and projects coordinator for OneFamily, an organization that takes care of the financial, therapeutic, emotional, legal, and physical needs of families who have been victims of terrorism in Israel. After doing community outreach and organizing fund-raisers, she became executive director in June 2011.
Her first contact with JFCS of Greater Mercer County came three weeks into her job at OneFamily. Her first event was a “speed-dating” event with kids from the Jewish Community Youth Foundation; she had to defend a funding proposal. “I thought it was the most amazing event I’d ever been to,” she said. “The kids were so informed and so engaged and had such incredible questions.”
Napell learned a lot from OneFamily’s clients. “Their resilience puts things in perspective for you,” she said. “You can’t sweat the small things; you have to appreciate what you have because in an instant it can change completely.”
Her favorite part of the job was visiting Israel and seeing the changes OneFamily has made in people’s lives. Looking to her new position, she said, “That’s why I wanted to do something closer to home, so I could see it and experience it more. It motivates you to do more and gives you a sense of satisfaction and gratification that you are making a difference.”
At OneFamily, she also gained experience establishing and working with a board, managing people, developing grant proposals, and coordinating budget and operating expenses.
Napell said she still has a lot to learn. JFCS has a larger staff and board than OneFamily, and there are more standards of practice that must be followed. But, she said, “I am not afraid to ask questions and I don’t pretend that I know something if I don’t.”
Responding to a concern expressed to her by many people that she is not a social worker but will be heading an agency of social workers, Napell said, “People viewed me as an executive director who is all about fund-raising and development, but that could not be further from the truth.”
Citing her work in family courts, her community involvements, her experience at OneFamily, and her early desire to be a social worker, she said, “Relationships are so important, and that is what is going to make me successful here.”