As Leslie Dannin Rosenthal prepared to take office July 1 as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, she attributed her keen dedication to Jewish causes to her upbringing more than 200 miles from her South Orange home.
She grew up in Newport, RI, and attended Touro Synagogue, the nation’s oldest Jewish house of worship. It was started in 1763 by 15 Jewish families with roots in Spain and Portugal.
When her family joined some 200 years later, “both Newport and Touro were very important in making me what I am today. When you belonged to a congregation built by Jews whose grandparents had to run for their lives and experienced all kinds of persecution, you know that it exists,” she told NJ Jewish News.
There were very few Jewish families in Newport during her childhood.
“My sister and I were the only Jewish kids in our elementary school. Our parents were very proud Jews. My mother sent us to school every year with a menora to explain what Hanukka was and a box of matza at Passover, and I did not encounter anti-Semitism when I was growing up.
Because their community was such a small one, the Jews of Newport “didn’t choose between supporting UJA or Hadassah or the synagogue, because everyone had to do everything.”
In the case of a large Jewish federation like Greater MetroWest, “everything” means overseeing a $20 million-plus annual campaign, and allocations to a host of Jewish institutions locally, in Israel, and around the world. She succeeds her longtime friend Lori Klinghoffer of Short Hills; the two, Dannin Rosenthal said, have worked together on numerous federation projects and campaigns.
Dannin Rosenthal’s first assignment as president is cochairing a Jewish Federations of North America mission July 7-13 to Greece and Israel. Jeffrey Korbman, who directs Great MetroWest’s UJA Campaign, will also take part.
In May, the Anti-Defamation League’s global anti-Semitism survey labeled Greece the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, with some 6.3 million of its 9.3 million adults “harboring anti-Semitic attitudes.”
“Why Greece?” she was asked. “The federation system has been unafraid to go to scary places. What better message about who stands behind the Jews of Greece than to have 120 Americans show up and show that we care?”
The delegation will meet with the country’s prime minister and tourism minister.
“We want to show the people of Greece the multi-dimensional nature of American Jewry today,” Dannin Rosenthal said. “I think it will send a message to the Jews of Greece that we care for them, as well as to all the people of Greece. We believe people-to-people contact is the way to further connections.”
She takes office just two months before Dov Ben-Shimon of Fanwood, currently executive director of Strategic Partnerships of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, succeeds the retiring Max Kleinman as the federation’s executive vice president/CEO, its top professional post.
Dannin Rosenthal said she looks forward to the challenge of working with a new CEO.
“Job one is making sure we bring Dov in in as thoughtful a way as possible so that it is a successful transition,” she said. “My other great goal is to implement our strategic plan, which presents us with many opportunities. Our biggest challenge is clear communication with our donors, with our leadership, and with our agencies, both local and overseas.”
Dannin Rosenthal’s first lessons in Jewish leadership came from her parents. In addition to the Orthodox observance at the Touro Synagogue, her parents started a small Conservative congregation that hired its first full-time rabbi when Dannin Rosenthal was 17.
Her mother organized a Young Judaea chapter, and Leslie attended its summer camp. “It was a totally formative experience,” she said.
Another happened in 1967. “When the Six-Day War started I remember seeing my mother sitting by the TV and crying. When I said, ‘Mom, why are you crying?’ she said, ‘I am afraid there won’t be an Israel.’ I knew that in order for me to be totally safe anywhere in the world there needed to be an Israel.”
When the war ended a few days later with a full-scale victory, said Dannin Rosenthal, “it was a great thing. It put Israel on the map for all Americans. It was a very proud moment.”
A graduate of Smith College and Boston University School of Law, Dannin Rosenthal served as a deputy state attorney general. Between 1991 and 2001 she served as counsel to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
“It was a great job and I loved it,” she told NJJN. “I felt like I was doing something good.”
But her persistent impulse to serve the Jewish community led her eventually to serve as president of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, and devote herself full-time to Jewish volunteer activities.
She was, she said, “very fortunate to be able to stop working and devote myself to the community.” She and her husband, David, an attorney, are the parents of James, 28, and Elise, 24.
Dannin Rosenthal served on the board of the Academy for Jewish Studies, a religious school that at one time served the two Conservative congregations in South Orange, Oheb Shalom and Congregation Beth El.
She also became involved in what was then United Jewish Federation of MetroWest, starting as a Young Women’s Campaign associate. In 1996 she visited Israel on a young women’s mission. “That was when the federation became central to who I was,” she said.
Since then, Dannin Rosenthal has served in many high-level positions with the federation, including UJA Annual Campaign chair and its major gifts cochair. She is a past president of Women’s Philanthropy and past chair of the Women’s Campaign. She was a founding board member of the federation’s Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, chaired the Israel and Overseas Committee, and was a vice-chair of the merger committee that created Greater MetroWest. “It has really been quite a ride,” she said. “This community has given me so many opportunities, including the opportunity to learn more and share more with others. I am very excited to take this position on.
“I love this community,” she said. “I wasn’t born here. I didn’t grow up here. But I think it is one of the leading Jewish federations and Jewish communities in North America, and I am so privileged to undertake the next three years.”