Gerald (Gerry) Cantor was persuaded to serve for a second time as president of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey because his first term — from 1994 to 1996 — was one of the happiest experiences of his life. His second term — which comes to a close on Monday, June 7, when he hands over the reins to Julie Lipsett Singer at the federation’s annual meeting — has proved a great deal tougher than the first.
Cantor, a personal financial adviser from Westfield, took office a second time just as the economy tanked in 2008. “We tried our darnedest to make sure that the agencies for which we work were held at previous levels, or close to it,” he told NJ Jewish News, “but they were caught in a triple bind — higher costs, lower fund-raising, and greatly increased demand for their services.”
One of his priorities was nurturing a new generation of leaders, and he was very disturbed that funding for young leadership training had been cut. He was determined not to lose ground on that cause. “I think that leadership training can’t be sacrificed,” he said, “and I am thrilled to see a younger generation assuming real leadership of this federation — and some of the agencies as well.”
Cantor — now in his mid-70s — was part of a leadership shift himself when he first took on the presidency. “It was strange in that even though I had served federation in almost every committee and board, for a long period, I never considered that I could or would be president,” he recalled. “You see, my predecessors were basically the founders of the Jewish community here in Central NJ….
“I looked to these leaders as icons, as role models, and I was scared to follow in their huge footsteps,” he said. “But the Jewish community survived me and, under the presidents who followed, thrived.”
Cantor grew up in Jersey City and saw his parents’ involvement with the Jewish community and their efforts on behalf of Holocaust survivors and the new State of Israel. His own commitment to Jewish continuity found expression in helping Jews in the former Soviet Union and in Israel, as well as in the local community. He and his wife, Dorothy, are members of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, and he has played a leadership role there too, as well as with United Israel Appeal and as president of Rutgers Hillel.
A highlight of this second term as federation president came near the beginning, in 2008, when he traveled to Israel with 12 young leaders or potential leaders. It was a special treat, he said, “seeing our work there, especially in the South, through their eyes. I think the average participant was 30 years younger than me, and that speaks well for the future of federation.”
Asked about changes, Cantor said, “In the last decade, philanthropy of all sorts has become much more personal and idiosyncratic.” He sees it not just as a federation problem, nor even a Jewish problem, but as a national trend. He cited as an example Bill and Melinda Gates, who give through their own massive foundation.
“And while I believe that givers should have input as to where their dollars go, and, indeed, more involvement in these programs, everyone can’t have their own fire truck,” he said. “It’s redundant and wasteful, but more importantly, if there is no community fire house, who’s going to deal with the emergencies that always happen?
“Directed giving has to be tempered with community needs.”
Cantor praised the professional staff with whom he has worked. He hired federation executive vice president Stanley Stone, Cantor said, “and in the past 14 years, I have watched him grow from the caring, thoughtful social worker he always was — and still is — to a wonderful manager, great fund-raiser, and nationally respected professional.”
“Amy Cooper, whom Stanley hired, has taken on myriad projects in addition to fund-raising and has helped Stanley supervise a terrific group of professionals, who are always threatened by tighter and tighter monetary restraints, and yet make the lay owners of this federation look good.”
His successor elicited additional warm expressions of admiration. He said, “Especially in the last year, I have come to respect and love Julie Lipsett Singer for her great passion for klal Yisrael, and I am overwhelmed by the energy and caring that she brings to federation.”
He added, with a typically Cantor-esque appreciation for new approaches: “Look at it this way, she’s our first Facebook president — and we’re ‘friends.’”
Stone likened Cantor to Aaron, the high priest described in last week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, who lit the menora daily with the same enthusiasm as the first time he performed the service. “I can honestly say that having had the opportunity and honor to work with Gerry in his first term as president 16 years ago, he brought that sense of freshness and optimism to his presidency this time around as well. What is so unusual about Gerry is his unselfish love and commitment to the Jewish people. He truly gets energized by what is accomplished by community, and that rubs off on everyone around him. He is a very special leader.”