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Leslie Dannin Rosenthal: The exit interview
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Leslie Dannin Rosenthal: The exit interview

The outgoing Greater MetroWest president on what went right, what didn’t, and what comes next

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

In July, Leslie Dannin Rosenthal completed her three-year term as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. With the perspective that comes from time off, Dannin Rosenthal sat down for a wide-ranging interview about her accomplishments and disappointments; the rationale behind the federation’s decision to oppose the Iran Nuclear Deal; challenges that lay ahead for incoming president Scott Krieger; and why the federation made the hard choice to let go of a certain local newspaper.

NJJN: You look rested.

Leslie Dannin Rosenthal: I feel rested. I’m about six weeks out, and it was the most challenging and the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, other than raising a family. It was a remarkably big job and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

NJJN: What were some of the challenges you faced?

LDR: I had a strategic plan to implement that encompassed a great deal of change on its own, and implementing the directives within that plan was going to entail a lot of change. I had a brand-new CEO, Dov Ben-Shimon, and we had a merger [with the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey] that was only two-years old. Those were the challenges I knew about, and they were goals I had within all of those challenges because every challenge is an opportunity.

I literally started with a war. I was on a national mission to Greece and Israel when the 2014 war broke out, and I flew into Israel as bombs literally were flying past the airport. A rocket went past the airport right before we took off from Greece. And to be in Israel and to be able to tell people back home what it’s like to sit in a stairway by yourself during a “tzeva adom” [a siren warning to seek shelter from rocket fire], to be with Holocaust survivors sitting in another stairwell through a tzeva adom and to be able to tell people here that Holocaust survivors look you in the eye and say, “We’ve been through far worse, we can get through this,” makes you feel like you’re in the right place at the right time. And that’s how I started. You don’t want crises, but when they happen you have to be ready for them, and that’s the real challenge. You have these baseline, day-to-day challenges and then things happen that are not planned. 

NJJN: Did the experience you described, of being in the stairwell during rocket attacks, have any bearing on the federation’s decision to oppose the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015?

LDR: No…My personal reaction when it came to the Iran agreement was that a nuclear Iran represents an existential threat to the State of Israel, and that’s something I can’t tolerate. But one of my strengths, one of my tenets, is process: If you process something correctly and if you’re transparent and you bring in enough people and everybody’s educated, you’re going to get good results for the community as a whole. 

Even though I’m personally a Democrat… [to] whoever is in power you have to say, “This doesn’t work for me, and this is really important to me,” and that’s what I felt I was doing. I had an obligation to the community, so we consulted with the past presidents’ council, with the board of trustees, with — we then had a board of advisors — and we gave people plenty of opportunity for comment. I asked people to present who I thought were coming from different points of view, and by the end of the process people came to the conclusion that the agreement needed to be better than it was. 

When people were unhappy afterward that we shouldn’t have taken a position at all, or they were unhappy with the position we did take, every single person to whom I explained the process we went through, some of them said, “Now I understand how you get there and that’s great, I’m fine, and I’m happy.” Other people agreed to disagree, but knowing there was a process was tremendously helpful. It wasn’t knee-jerk, it was thoughtful. 

The example of Abraham and Sarah, that you are opening your tent, it is your obligation to make other people feel welcome, that to me is a very high value as a leader. And if people don’t feel welcome, that is difficult and that was the hardest part of the Iran thing for me, when people said, “It doesn’t feel like my federation,” that’s when I felt bad. But, by-and-large, the job of the leader is to be there to listen and to help solve problems and to help show a path toward a more whole community. 

NJJN: The Senate just voted down a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a measure that Greater MetroWest and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) strongly opposed. How did you decide where you came out on that issue?

LDR: To save one life is to save the entire world in the end. Maimonides was a doctor and the dignity of every human being is a Jewish value. That, to me, is one of the things that we rest on in saying this is what matters to us.

NJJN: But the counter argument is that the repeal-and-replace efforts were not because Republicans were opposed to universal healthcare, but because they believe Obamacare is ineffective for the sick, and a financial hardship for others. Should federation be taking a side in a political and highly partisan skirmish? 

LDR: That’s why there is a Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ (CRC), and by-and-large, the CRC works both with the JFNA Washington office and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), and a lot of research goes into whether these things are values that all federations can sign onto. I think also because of Jewish social service agencies that are now so reliant on Medicaid and Medicare and insurance reimbursements to provide their services, we have an obligation to them I believe, as much as it is just a moral obligation. That’s one reason why there’s a CRC, to be there for the whole community. 

NJJN: How do you feel about the oft-repeated criticism that individual communities in the Greater MetroWest area are mostly apathetic about what happens outside of their own towns? 

LDR: The hyper-locality is almost synagogue-based rather than community-based, and that’s a hidden strength, is the way I would call it. One of the things I’m most proud of is the outreach engagement department that was started during my term and to have a person, Sarah Segal, dedicated to reaching out to the synagogues and coordinating, helping them to achieve their goals and strengthening our synagogues, is really crucial and helping the synagogues see that we are there to help them. Dov brings the rabbis together regularly, that’s a huge improvement also, so they see each other in a setting where they’re relaxed and confident among colleagues. 

NJJN: It must have been quite an ordeal to serve in this highly-charged, political atmosphere. 

LDR: No, not at all, because I will tell you one thing about this federation, people who are engaged in federation leave their politics at the door. This is about helping Jews. And I remember many years ago we had a comedian come and he tried to do political humor, and he literally said, “Oh, I guess you don’t do politics,” and he changed his entire act. 

One of things I love about this community is that people come from all different points of view, and I can know that somebody is a rock-ribbed Republican or a wildly-left Democrat, and people who care to do this work just come at it with the attitude of “We are one people.”

NJJN: But there are so many strong opinions about which candidates are best for the Jewish people and Israel. Some of that must trickle into the federation. 

LDR: There’s more of a wide range of opinion that gets voiced about what should happen in Israel. [But] people do not bring that into these rooms. It may affect how people outside perceive us, but we help Jews, we inspire Jews, we strengthen the Jewish community. If I said to you, as I say to people all the time, “I’m asking you to help me ensure a strong Jewish future,” it has nothing to do with politics. This is one Jew asking a second Jew to help a third Jew, that’s all it is. 

NJJN: That’s a good segue into the challenges the federation has had with fund-raising. What must be done to bring in more money?

LDR: We are very fortunate to have a core of major donors… They’ll write you a check or make a gift from their philanthropic fund almost before you have to ask. But this community suffered in 2008 and 2009 tremendously, as did many communities, and the economic downturn happened at the same time as you had a generation coming to the forefront who want to do Jewish their way. And so I think the biggest lesson that we’ve had to learn over the last 10 years is that you can’t take any donor for granted. We can no longer expect that people are going to come to us. 

If there’s an intersection between what you care about Jewishly and what federation does, then you can see the impact of your dollars at work. If we can show you what you’re doing by joining and investing in a strong Jewish future, you’re likely to give and you’re likely to give again. And that’s the change. We really need to be out there having those conversations.

And terminating an underfunded pension plan [for federation employees and employees of some partner agencies] is not sexy, does not get headlines, but [it] probably was one of the most important things we could have done for the community as a whole, and it was hard work…So some of the things you can’t see and some of the things you can see. You can see a smaller board that’s more active and understands its fiduciary and strategic obligations, but you don’t see the millions of dollars that we saved the community by terminating that pension plan.

NJJN: We’d be remiss if we didn’t ask about how the financial shortfall affected the federation’s decision last year to hand off NJJN to the Jewish Week Media Group.

LDR: Let me go back to the strategic plan, which basically said the federation needs to be mission driven. What do we mean by mission driven? We mean something that’s uniquely the obligation of the Jewish people, something that contributes to the future vitality of the Greater MetroWest Jewish community, where possible something that connects Israel and the larger Jewish world with our Jewish community…we want to be able to demonstrate its outcomes and impacts. Owning a newspaper would have come under question in any event, whether the paper was making money or not making money. But it was not an easy decision. We were very, very proud of the paper, really proud of the journalistic excellence it represented. I know how hard it was [for the NJJN staff], but we did as much as we possibly could to be transparent, to work with the NJJN board of trustees, and [NJJN board president] Rob Daley. We made some difficult choices during my tenure… We did a lot of hard things that needed to be done. Look, people were losing their jobs. I didn’t sleep well for three years. Knowing that people’s jobs are on the line with the decisions you make…nobody signs up for that, especially as a volunteer. But if it can make the federation stronger and allow us to help more people in need, allow us to create more initiatives that bring people to their Judaism or engaged with their Judaism if they want to be, that’s what we had to do. That’s our job. 

NJJN: What advice did you give incoming president Scott Krieger?

LDR: The first thing I said to Scott was the first thing that was said to me: Start looking for your replacement. Because it was a tremendous peace of mind to know for a year that Scott was going to be there. I would call him and say to him, “OK, this is happening, this is how I’m handling it, this is who I spoke to, just so you can see how I work.” I said to him, “Have your goals in mind, and things are going to come in and interrupt them.” [And] Scott’s very experienced. He doesn’t need so much advice from me. 

NJJN: What are the goals you didn’t accomplish? What didn’t work out as you hoped?

LDR: The hardest part of the strategic plan is a reexamination of how we allocate out the dollars that we raise, that process is still underway, but I am really confident that we’ll get there. My rabbi tells the bar and bat mitzvah children, he wishes them “shalem,” a sense of wholeness and completion. And sitting at the annual meeting [of Federation of Greater MetroWest on June 7], I still had more time to go, that’s how I felt. I felt like we have gotten through most of the goals of the strategic plan in one form or another…. Whatever’s left will either get completed because it’s supposed to, or it wasn’t so important, anyhow. I really don’t have regrets like that. I don’t. I feel like we accomplished a great deal that will serve the federation in good stead for a long time.

NJJN: Would you do it again?

LDR: [Laughs] Absolutely, without hesitation. I. Loved. Doing. This. Job. I just got tremendous satisfaction from helping make change happen in a way that was hopefully seen as moving the federation forward. I laughed every day with somebody. It was a joyful time in my life. To feel this useful for the Jewish people was such a privilege. 

NJJN: What’s next for you?

LDR: I basically planned on taking about six months to settle and take some time for myself, pursue the things I love doing. I love cooking, I love reading, I love travel. I want to write a little cookbook for my family — let’s see if that turns into anything else. Starting in November I will be chairing the Network of Independent Communities for JFNA.

NJJN: What did you learn from the entire ordeal?

LDR: (Laughing) You keep saying “ordeal!” What I’ve learned is how many facets there are to a community of this size. Having come from a really tiny Jewish community [Newport, R.I.] where you literally know everybody, I’ve learned that we are wealthy as a community in terms of how many different kinds of people we encompass. You’re always meeting new people and you’re meeting people who think differently than you. We are a kaleidoscope. It may sound trite, but it’s not.

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