If change is the only constant in our hyperventilated lives, then change was necessary for the circa 2007 NJ State Association of Jewish Federations. At the time the association was adrift, dabbling in too many issues with few effective results.
Led by President Roy Tanzman, then-Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey executive director Stanley Stone, myself, and others, we simplified the State Association’s mission to focus on securing the maximum number of public grants for our system of agencies and supporting legislation on critical issues facing our communities.
And, more importantly, we chose the right professional leader to lead the charge: Jacob “Jac” Toporek. Armed with two law degrees, Toporek had extensive governmental experience, having served as Governor Brendan Byrne’s appointments secretary and as chair of the Crime Commission’s Victims Compensation Board. As a lay leader, he served on the board of the former Jewish Federation of Middlesex County, UJA, and AIPAC Young Leadership Cabinets, and was the mainstay of the pro-Israel Garden State PAC. He also descended from N.J. “nobility,” in a sense, having graduated from Weequahic High School in Newark.
During his 12-year tenure as executive director of the State Association, Toporek worked closely with partner federations and its network of agencies to elicit the most critical priorities. And then he went to work, always in collaboration with colleagues.
The association’s record of accomplishments over the past decade is remarkable. Federations and agencies received hundreds of thousands of dollars from federal and state grants to help provide in-home services for the elderly, preventing premature institutionalization. Working with nursing homes, the association helped prevent cuts in the Medicaid reimbursement rates. Many hundreds of thousands of dollars were granted for security grants for agencies and synagogues, and training workshops were convened with the N.J. State Police and Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) security experts.
Thanks to the lobbying efforts of the State Association, New Jersey was one of the first states to allocate grants for needy survivors of the Holocaust with over $2.6 million committed. This served as a model for other states and for JFNA’s National Survivor initiative, chaired by Mark Wilf of Livingston, which, to date, has generated more than $20 million in federal and matching grants for the cause, and is supplemented by over $40 million raised by federations.
To build and nurture relationships with lawmakers, over 30 legislators participated in association-sponsored study missions to Israel; participants included arguably the most powerful politician in the State Capitol, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Dist. 3).
Harnessing these relationships, the association, led by Toporek, helped secure legislation prohibiting the state treasury from considering contributions and board services of out-of-state residents in determining state residency for N.J. tax purposes. This was a critical win for the entire not-for-profit sector in New Jersey, as it enabled out-of-state residents to give and serve on boards of the state’s non-profits without their residencies being questioned.
Regarding the Middle East, laws were passed forbidding the state’s investment funds to be used for any company doing business with Iran’s energy/defense sector, and prospective vendors for N.J. contracts were required to provide certification to confirm that they were not doing business with Iran.
Most recently, New Jersey was one of the first states to enact anti-BDS legislation, which prohibited the investment of state pension funds in companies engaged in boycotts of Israeli companies.
As the State Association is dissolved and the new Jewish Federations of NJ takes the helm on July 1, I wish its leaders much success. However, it’s important to remember the legacy of its predecessor organization. Beginnings are not created in a vacuum, but built upon the foundations of the past.
And so I celebrate Toporek and all the lay leaders and professionals who worked with him over these past dozen years. Like the Boy Scouts of America, they left the “campsite” in much better shape than they found it.
As Elie Wiesel reminded us, “Without memory there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.”
Max L. Kleinman is senior consultant for Jewish Federations of North America and New Jersey Performing Arts Center. He is also president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation. From 1995-2014 he was CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The opinions expressed in this op-ed are his own.