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Scientist and entrepreneur evolves into executive director
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Scientist and entrepreneur evolves into executive director

Congregation Beth Chaim hires Orly Klugman

Orly Klugman, Beth Chaim’s executive director. Photo by Michele Alperin
Orly Klugman, Beth Chaim’s executive director. Photo by Michele Alperin

Trained in biology and chemistry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at one time dreaming of a career in medicine, Orly Klugman’s career has evolved from science, to business, and finally to the Jewish community. Her first foray into Jewish communal work, aside from Hebrew school teaching, which she always did, was in 2011 when she was assistant to the executive director of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan.

The impetus for applying to a synagogue job was the hope that she and her husband Alan, who at the time was national director of ORT America, could celebrate holidays together — only to find that “in a synagogue you worked on the Jewish holidays.”

But Klugman appreciated how the job provided her with a tangible sense of Jewish connection amid the amorphous sense of Jewishness that pervades New York City.

“I love the synagogue,” she said. “It is in the heart of New York and is so Jewish you feel at home the minute you walk in — so it was a very
good move.”

And from the professionals she worked with, she learned “what it takes to run a synagogue.”

She and Alan moved to Princeton Junction in 2016 and she commuted to her job at the synagogue. A friend notified her of the job opening at Beth Chaim, a local Reform congregation. “I encountered a very warm and welcoming community,” she said. “I’m here since May.” She replaced Alex Grumbacher.

A native of Jerusalem, Klugman moved to Rio de Janeiro at age 4, where her father was one of the first Israeli diplomats to South America. That was where she made the first transition into the peripatetic lifestyle of a child of diplomats, a precursor to being the spouse of a peripatetic Jewish professional. At age 7, she moved to Quito, Ecuador.

“Jewish identity and Israeli identity were ingrained in me more so because I lived abroad — more so than they would have been if I was raised all my life in Israel,” she said.

After two-and-a-half years in Quito her family moved to Israel and later Klugman finished high school in Caracas, Venezuela.

As the child of a diplomat, she saw herself as a representative of the State of Israel. “Our face to the Jewish community and the community at-large was ‘We are Israelis and Jews, and we are proud to be Israelis and Jews,’” she said.

Klugman met Alan while she was in her preparatory year at Hebrew University for students who had not taken the Israeli matriculation exams. His parents had made aliyah when he was 19, and he was doing a year abroad from Connecticut College. Klugman was staying with her grandparents and relishing the opportunity, she said, to get “to know my grandparents on a daily basis.”

At the end of the year Alan returned stateside to finish college, but they met up again when she was doing her army service and he was in Israel for year one of a master’s degree in social work from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

They married and lived in Israel from 1981 until 1984, when they moved with 18-month-old Nadav to Boston, where Alan became a fund-raiser for Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Orly a researcher in a hematology laboratory. Their daughter Sarit was born in Boston.

In 1989 they moved to Springfield, Mass., where Alan was associate director of Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and Orly recruited patients for pharmaceutical research in maternal fetal medicine at Bay State Medical Center.

While in Springfield, Orly also took courses at University of Massachusetts in infection and immunity. When a professor, impressed with her research paper, asked if she had thought of going to medical school, it reignited her dream of becoming a doctor. Her children were 7 and 2 at the time.

She remembered studying for her MCATs when “My little daughter climbed into my lap and looked at me; I looked at my daughter, my son, and my husband and said, ‘I think the time has passed for me to go to medical school.’ I did not want to sacrifice my children’s childhood — I wanted to be very much present in their lives.”

With her family’s frequent moves within the U.S. she recognized that being a diaspora Jew placed special demands on parents. “I very quickly understood that in order to keep our Judaism alive, it wasn’t good enough for my husband to work in the Jewish community,” she said. “The only way to do that was to put our children in Jewish day care, send them to Jewish camps, and give them a Jewish education.”

In 1992, they moved to Boca Raton, Fla., where Alan was director of American Friends of Hebrew University’s southern region, while Orly reviewed clinical studies at Kos Pharmaceuticals, but also took some courses in accounting. In 1996, when Alan became the federation’s associate director of fund-raising in Louisville, Ky., Orly decided to pursue an MBA in entrepreneurship at the University of Louisville.

After they moved in December 2000 to Palm Springs, Calif., where Alan served for nine years as director of the Jewish Federation of Palm Springs and the Desert Area, Orly acquired a franchise for AIM Mail Center. Eventually she opened a storefront in the heart of Rancho Mirage and ran a successful business for five years.

Then they moved to New York for Alan’s new job as national director of ORT America. “And that’s when my life took a turn,” Orly said. That turn landed her in a synagogue in New York where, happily for Beth Chaim, she learned all the skills she needed to come onboard as its new executive director.

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