Taking on a family’s legacy of leadership
Jewish leadership is practically in Genesia Kamen’s DNA.
Her mother, Harriet Perlmutter, is a long-time supporter of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Women’s Campaign.
Her father, Milton Perlmutter, was president of what was then the Jewish Community Federation of Metropolitan New Jersey when he died in 1978. He was only 50 and had taken office just two weeks before.
“My parents were always totally involved in the Jewish community,” Kamen said. “They were both presidents of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, and they got me involved in the youth group, and I learned through their example. And the late Rabbi Barry Greene was always big at getting me involved.”
On June 8, Kamen is slated to become president of the American Jewish Committee’s Metro New Jersey Region.
Although she is a quiet donor to the GMW federation and a veteran board member of B’nai Jeshurun, AJC is her major passion when it comes to Jewish life.
Kamen has been active in the organization for 10 years, working first with its Stamp Out Hate Coalition. Her interest in foreign policy was piqued after she attended the organization’s Global Forum in 2006, an annual event in Washington, DC, that brings members together with world and national leaders.
Back in New Jersey she helped organize “parlor and policy events,” bringing experts on global issues to AJC members’ homes, always in hopes of recruiting new and younger people to become active in the organization.
Kamen has also been involved in AJC’s citizen diplomacy, according to John Rosen, the NJ region’s executive director. “More and more we are doing real diplomacy through events to build relationships between foreign nations and the Jewish community,” he said.
At present, New Jersey AJC has ties with officials from Greece, Panama, Slovakia, and India.
As part of an effort to seek closer ties between Greece and Israel, Kamen has had formal meetings with Greek officials at the United Nations. But because “a lot of these diplomats don’t know Jews,” relations can be touchy, she said.
During a recent meeting at the UN, one diplomat asked Kamen, “What is Hanukka?” Because the festival commemorates a Jewish rebellion against the Greek empire, she said, “you have to be a little delicate when you explain Hanukka to a Greek person. I told him: ‘It is a joyous family holiday and you’d be most welcome at a party.’”
From April 6 to 12, Kamen was part of an 11-member AJC delegation to Germany. Members from different parts of the United States were hosted by Konrad-Adenauer-Siftung, a political foundation linked to the Christian Democratic Party of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Kamen and fellow delegates arrived with an agenda that ranged from Germany’s relations with Israel to the lives of Jews in Germany to Muslim extremism.
In Germany, she told NJ Jewish News, “the Holocaust constantly comes up; there are memorials everywhere.”
“The Germans own up to it. They have bricks in the ground with the names of Jews who were taken from [nearby] buildings. We visited the Topography of Terror Documentation Center in Berlin, a museum that is all about how the Nazis rose to power and their reign of terror. In Berlin there is also what they call the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.”
Kamen said contemporary Germans have been much more honest about their nation’s brutal history than the United States has been about its treatment of blacks and Native Americans.
“I can’t imagine on the Mall in Washington having a memorial to the slaughtered Indians,” she said.
During discussions of the Middle East, it emerged that some Germans “believe Israel is the bad guy and the settlements are the problem,” said Kamen. She and her fellow AJC leaders pointed out that there had been hostility toward Israel even before the settlements became a hot-button issue.
Kamen, who currently cochairs the AJC NJ region’s Diplomatic Outreach Initiative, said one of her intentions is to involve more local members in AJC’s Project Interchange, which sponsors week-long trips to Israel for political and community leaders.
“It is not a propaganda trip,” she said. Organizers do connect the leaders “with their Israeli counterparts, but they don’t hide things. They will bring people to the West Bank and talk to Palestinians so they can appreciate the complexity of the situation.”
Kamen grew up in Short Hills and graduated from the Pingry School in Basking Ridge. She spent her undergraduate years at Princeton University before attending Columbia Law School. There she met her husband, Steven, “when he asked me to work on an outline for our course on mergers and acquisitions.”
Like their mother, the Kamens’ two daughters are Princeton students. The older one, Anna, is in South Africa as part of a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Public Policy, where she is focusing on education for women in the developing world. The younger, Emily, is involved with environmental studies as she winds up her freshman year at the university.