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Monmouth federation honors educators, Birthright activist
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Monmouth federation honors educators, Birthright activist

Alan Winters urged attendees at the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County annual meeting to “find a niche and light a fire.”

The West Allenhurst resident, who received the Janet and William Schwartz Community Leadership Award at the June 6 event in Tinton Falls, said he had found his niche in a program that inculcates in Jewish youth a bond with and love for Israel.

Federation executive director Keith Krivitzky spoke of the need to build a more cohesive Jewish community in Monmouth County, in an address that many of the 150 attendees described as compelling and provocative.

Winters was honored for his dedication to federation, in particular his efforts to raise funds to send hundreds of Monmouth County young adults on a free Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.

Asked what fuels his fire for community leadership, Winters said, “It’s what you’re supposed to do. I never thought what I did was unusual. When you believe in something you go all out for it,” he told NJJN prior to the award presentation.

“As Jews we have to do everything we can to perpetuate Judaism and support those in need.” In the last three years, Winters said, he has worked to fulfill that goal and “invigorate young people to rekindle their Jewish heritage” by promoting Birthright.

“With lightning speed and unmovable determination, Alan helped raise $60,000 each year,” said his Monmouth Birthright cochair Lauren Reich. “Alan has demonstrated what it takes to get the job done and has made a great impact on us all.”

Held in the Sterling Ballroom of the Doubletree Hotel, the annual meeting took a decidedly different approach this year, said event chair Wendy Marks of Holmdel. The gathering included a festive meal, fine Israeli wines, and a performance by Israeli klezmer band 12thNightMusic, courtesy of the American Israel Cultural Foundation.

The event also marked the federation’s inaugural presentation of two awards. The Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education — a national award recognizing teachers across North America — was presented to Jessica Mercuro, English department chair at Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean Township. It comes with a $1,000 prize and a $1,000 professional stipend.

Monmouth’s Jewish Federation Excellence in Teaching Award, a $500 cash award toward classroom teaching supplies, was given to Barbara Elem, general studies teacher at Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore in Deal.

Both recipients said they were honored and thankful to have been chosen. Elem, a resident of East Brunswick, has 24 years of teaching experience, mostly in Jewish day schools. “It’s part of who I am. I am very committed to Judaism and am so happy to be sharing it with my students,” Elem told NJJN. “I am also extremely fortunate to work with an exceptional group of colleagues at YJS.”

Mercuro, now in her seventh year at Hillel, said she encourages her students to “forge connections between their Jewish identity, religious traditions, cultural histories, and the text.”

“Because I do not share the same background,” said the Point Pleasant resident, who is not Jewish, “I tend to ask a lot of questions to learn as much as possible to enrich the learning and encourage a feeling of interconnectedness across Judaic and general studies curriculums.”

In presenting a new direction for federation, Krivitzky spoke about community fractures that must be healed in order to forge unity. “Synagogues are concerned with their own membership, and often don’t deal with each other or the broader community. Our Jewish community centers seem to struggle. Synagogues feel threatened by Chabads. Chabads have very little to do with synagogues. Federations just care about campaign and not partnerships. Ashkenazim don’t think highly of Sephardim. Sephardim don’t care much for Ashkenazim. Multiple perceptions and biases abound,” he said.

Describing a disjointedness that undermines the strength of the community, Krivitzky said, “Everyone is making Shabbos for themselves, and playing in their own sandboxes, and yet everyone is struggling in terms of members, numbers, and funding — in a community that has upward of 75,000 Jews.”

It is federation’s role, he said, in an effort to repair the breaks, to connect those not engaged in the Jewish community and demonstrate how being involved can add value to one’s life. The work federation does aims at “enlarging the communal sandbox and ensuring that we align our resources to work toward those goals we all believe in.”

Board president Joseph Hollander reported that the federation is on an upward trajectory with a strong balance sheet. He highlighted the many changes undertaken in the past year, including the hiring of a new executive director and many new staff members and the adoption of new approaches to grant making, programming, and community partnerships.

“In the recent Torah portion, Bechukotai, we learn that change is to be planned, change is to be expected, and change is good. Change is, in fact, required,” Hollander said. “A strong Jewish federation is both an indicator of the strength of our community and a critical factor in building a strong community. We are seeking to fulfill this role more and more.”

Other speakers included Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun of Congregation Torat El; Bob Rechnitz; and federation leaders past president Dr. Stuart Abraham and president-elect Sheri Tarrab. The American and Israeli national anthems were performed by Ruth Hyman, recent recipient of federation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

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