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JNF exec retiring to life of study and yoga
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JNF exec retiring to life of study and yoga

Joel Leibowitz served Jewish organizations as pro and lay leader

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Retiring JNF executive Joel Leibowitz performs the iconic JNF act — planting a tree in Israel.     
Retiring JNF executive Joel Leibowitz performs the iconic JNF act — planting a tree in Israel.     

Joel Leibowitz, director of major gifts for the Jewish National Fund’s Greater New York region, is retiring after 16 years as an executive with the organization.

At 73, he’s decided to take the time to study full-time, at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown. Most of his fellow students at the Chabad-affiliated institution are much younger, and much more religious, than he, he said. In his application he described himself as a Conservative Jew and member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange.

“I wrote, ‘I’m not religious. I’m kosher and I’ve been shomer Shabbat [Shabbat observant] in the past, but I am not now.’” However, he added, “I bring life experience to the discussion that the rest of the students, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, don’t have.”  And so far, he said, “They haven’t asked me to do anything beyond show up.” The studying, in Hebrew and Aramaic, is “intense,” he said, but he’s thrilled to be part of it.  

He’s also taken up daily yoga practice.

Retirement was looking pretty good, he said, after facing the daily pressure raising funds for the venerable 113-year-old agency. “It was an ongoing challenge finding new people and educating younger people” about JNF, he said.

He noticed a dramatic shift in his work, captured by the recent Pew Study of American Jewry. “My generation and generations before me were alive at the time Israel was established — they are the Holocaust generations. Those people are more in tune with Israel’s needs. Younger people are not,” he said.

He also had to change perceptions about JNF, which has in recent years rebranded itself as an environmental steward and community development advocate in Israel. 

“Everyone thinks of JNF as those blue [tzedaka] boxes and planting trees. We are trying to educate them about the new JNF and its ‘Blueprint Negev,’” he said, referring to JNF’s effort to develop the Negev. Projects there include building reservoirs and developing parkland. 

“If anything, we are trying to get away from our history,” he said, which included purchasing land for the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine and Zionist education abroad.

An attorney by training, the South Orange resident worked in real estate investment and management until shifting gears to Jewish philanthropy. 

“Each career was its own chapter,” he said, “but you get to a point where it’s time to move on.” 

At JNF, Leibowitz started as NJ director; he later became Northeast Zone director supervising New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, and in 2012, became Central New Jersey’s executive director. During that time, he regards as his proudest accomplishment the creation of Makor, JNF’s national leadership development group. 

Prior to JNF, he served the community in a variety of lay leadership roles. In the 1980s, he served as chair of the Israel Program Center when it came under the aegis of what became the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. He helped to transform and grow the center significantly, according to Max Kleinman, who was then associate director of the federation and recently retired as its top executive.  

Leibowitz also made many trips to the former Soviet Union through the federation to aid refuseniks. 

He served on the regional advisory board of the Anti-Defamation League and the board of what was then the Jewish Federation of MetroWest. He was a vice president of Golda Och Academy (then the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union), a member of the UJA national young leadership cabinet, a member of the board of what was then the YM-YWHA of Metropolitan New Jersey, and a member of the board of the Daughters of Israel geriatric center.

Leibowitz and his wife, Doris, have three grown children.

In a posting to Facebook, Leibowitz called his retirement “bittersweet.”

“I’m looking forward to fulfilling some of my lifelong dreams and checking things off my bucket list,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure to help develop Israel and the Jewish People through JNF.”

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