Judaism ‘ambassador’ helms Central NJ JNF

Judaism ‘ambassador’ helms Central NJ JNF

Central NJ JNF director Michael Zimmerman and lay leader Phyllis Solomon, who is serving as cochair of the JNF Spirit of Israel Tour in October, at a JNF major donor thank-you reception.
Central NJ JNF director Michael Zimmerman and lay leader Phyllis Solomon, who is serving as cochair of the JNF Spirit of Israel Tour in October, at a JNF major donor thank-you reception.

Michael Zimmerman’s new job has not been too much of a stretch. Although the Holmdel resident is just 27, he’s been running Jewish community organizations for more than a decade.

Zimmerman became director of the Jewish National Fund’s Central New Jersey region, based in Florham Park, last spring.

His first gig at the top of an organization chart dates back to when he was still a teen and Rabbi Laurence Malinger asked him to lead the youth group at Temple Shalom in Aberdeen.

“We had 11 members, that’s all,” Zimmerman told NJJN in a phone interview. Operating under the nickname ToSTY (Temple Shalom Temple Youth), Zimmerman put together a board whose members, he said, “began programming aggressively. Three years later, when I left, there were 75 members.”

The next step on Zimmerman’s Jewish journey took him to Elon University in North Carolina. “There were few Jews in the town or on campus, where we had just 70 Jewish kids in a total enrollment of 5,000. I had some initial culture shock,” he said.

“I repeatedly found myself acting as an ambassador for Judaism, introducing friends and acquaintances to Jewish beliefs, religious practices, customs, and even some foods.”

When Zimmerman arrived at Elon, he joined a Hillel group that was surviving, but not thriving. By the time he graduated, a strong recovery was under way.

From the get-go, Zimmerman’s professional career merged his interest in Jewish life with the degree he’d earned in international studies. His first job was in Panama, where he established the Latin American operations and offices for an electronics trading company based in Linden. He worked closely with the Jewish communities of Panama, including Syrian Jews and descendants of Sephardim who had escaped the Spanish Inquisition of 1492.

Soon after returning to the United States in 2013, Zimmerman joined the staff at JNF — Israel’s iconic afforestation and land reclamation and preservation agency. “I had seen JNF’s work while studying in Israel, and it’s so easy to fall in love with all they’ve done for the land and people, going all the way back to 1901,” he said. “I can think of no other organization that is directly involved in almost every facet of Israeli society.”

In fact, he said, JNF is aptly known as the “central address for the land and people of Israel” and partners with Israeli organizations that cover every aspect of Israeli society.

Today, Zimmerman said, the organization’s strongest focus is on what he described as one of Israel’s greatest challenges — preparing the groundwork and infrastructure to allow reapportioning the population throughout the country, especially the Negev. “At present, between 70 and 80 percent of the people live on just 30 percent of the land — the triangle whose points are Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem.”

The Central NJ region — which covers Essex, Morris, Union, Middlesex, Monmouth, Sussex, and Warren counties and parts of other counties — holds numerous activities throughout the year, including three annual breakfasts and events for its divisions, including JNFuture for young professionals as well as its “for Israel” groups — Women, Lawyers, Rabbis, and Doctors.

Zimmerman worked his way up through the ranks at the JNF region before becoming director last May. He previously served as senior campaign executive, and as leader of the Women’s Campaign, doubling women’s involvement over the past two years.

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