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UJA-NNJ head moving on to ‘next chapter’

Last week, after eight years as executive vice president of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, Howard Charish announced that he will leave the organization in December.

While it was not a sudden decision, he said, “it surprised many people. It’s not something one predicts.”

Still, he said, the response to his announcement has been very rewarding.

“You never know when you touch someone’s life,” he said. “At times like this you find out.”

Charish said he chose this time to leave because “as I reviewed the progress of the North Jersey federation, I saw that we were much better poised to move forward than during the past couple of years.”

It was a good time, he said, “to hand the baton on and move forward.”

Looking over the changes during the past eight years, both global and local, the UJA-NNJ head said the current economic situation is unparalleled in most people’s lifetimes. “This has had a real impact on how we do business,” he noted. In addition, he said, “Israel is under siege and more vulnerable than at any other recent time in history.”

In the local federation, as in federations around the country, “the biggest challenge is to engage the next generation, to get the next generation — with their vision and their willingness to grow the community — to step up,” said Charish.

That is already happening to some extent here, he said, citing the Berrie Fellows initiative as a major factor. The grant program produced its first cohort in 2004.

“We have 44 alumni who currently have assumed the presidencies of day schools, synagogues, and agencies,” he said, “and if you listen to them, they speak in a new language that is anchored in Jewish values and thought as well as cutting-edge leadership protocols.”

“[Another] advantage of the fellowship is that it includes men and women from all streams of Judaism, all parts of northern New Jersey, breaking down walls” and fostering collaboration. “It’s great to see,” he said.

Charish said he is particularly proud of the local federation’s enhanced relationship with Israel, through the Partnership 2000 initiative and the continuation of ties developed during Project Renewal.

In addition, “I am gratified that we were able to move our headquarters to a safe, secure building after 9/11. The old building was on stilts, and we were told to change our headquarters for security reasons.”

While the new building took three years to find, “Today, operating expenses at the old building and the one on Eisenhower Drive are the same,” he said. “We have a hospitable, secure facility.”

During his tenure, Charish oversaw the merger of two federations, UJA Federation of Bergen County & North Hudson and the Jewish Federation of North Jersey.

“We had two federations in one geographic area. Where there were two previous efforts at merger that didn’t succeed, we finally did so, bringing two strong communities together.”

He is also proud of federation’s growing role “as concerned citizens of the overall community,” creating such programs as Bergen Reads, Mitzvah Day, and Bonim Builders, as well as crews of volunteers who have helped clean up the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“During the economic crisis we raised additional sums on top of the annual campaign to work with Project Ezra and Tomchei Shabbos to provide relief,” said Charish. “We also developed a pro bono professional network, coaching and providing real services to people who otherwise could not have afforded that help.”

Such crises, he said, have “brought out the best in everyone. This community stands tall for responding to crises. We raised over $6 million for the second Israel emergency campaign, over $400,000 for Katrina, and $200,000 for Haiti. It demonstrates that this community has a big heart and is very generous.”

Engaging the next generation is only one of the challenges facing federation, said Charish. Another is “providing customization so donors feel they are connected to their gift.”

“While the concept of a collective pool is as important as ever and gives us the flexibility to respond, in today’s environment donors — particularly younger donors — want to follow the dollars, and we need to provide the way [for them] to do so.”

His successor, he said, will need to have both vision and the ability to take risks. In addition, he or she must be able to build relationships and must have a passion for Jewish life.

Reviewing his own career, Charish — who has not yet decided on his future course — said, “I’ve been privileged to participate in some of the great events of Jewish life, including the Soviet Jewry movement.”

Not only did he travel to Russia to visit refuseniks, he said, but he went to Ethiopia twice as part of Operation Promise, which joined federations across the country in an effort to address the needs of vulnerable Jewish populations. In Ethiopia, funds were used to provide food, medical attention, and education, as well as to prepare Jews there for aliyah and absorption into Israeli society.

In addition, before coming to this community, he was involved in a federation initiative to revitalize the Argentina Jewish community.

“I realize how blessed I’ve been to have had a part in repairing the world,” he said. “I’m excited about the future, looking forward to the next chapter, and grateful that I had this time in northern New Jersey with outstanding volunteer leaders and staff. I’m in awe of my executive and professional colleagues.”

Alan Scharfstein, now entering his third year as UJA-NNJ president, pointed out that Charish’s term of office will have been “one of the longest tenures of someone in that position.”

“He has accomplished a tremendous amount,” he said, citing the merger of the two federations and the move into the new headquarters. Also, he stressed, it was under Charish that the group’s new strategic plan was crafted and will soon be launched.

Scharfstein said he will soon appoint a search committee to find a new leader, looking for “an individual with energy, enthusiasm, and the vision to lead us into the future.”

The federation has already undertaken the process of creating a “road map,” he said, “which will change the future of UJA in many ways.”

“The greatest challenge facing our federation and others is how to engage and motivate the next generation of Jewish leaders,” he said, echoing Charish. “Our focus has got to change in order to attract and motivate the younger generation of Jews.”

“We know that the next generation wants to follow their money in a more hands-on way,” said Scharfstein. “Saying ‘Trust us’ is not enough. We have to both do the right thing and have more transparency in using money. We also have to leverage our dollars better.”

Scharfstein said there’s a perception that people donate, “and federation has an infrastructure and overhead and less goes to the community. We’re engaged in a program where every dollar we collect is leveraged to generate more money.”

He cited the Kehillah Partnership — which facilitates joint purchasing — as an example of this trend, noting that it saves “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The strategic plan also includes a program through which federation will hire a grant writer available to all constituent agencies, “giving them access to federal, state, and private grants.”

In this way and others, he said, “we’ll leverage dollars to provide more dollars.”

The new executive vice president, Scharfstein said, must “understand the strategic plan and be committed to implement it, [having the] capability of engaging the next generation and the financial skills needed to continue the program of leveraging dollars.”

Scharfstein said the board expressed “thankfulness and appreciation” to Charish not only for his many achievements but, in agreeing to remain until December, “for giving us enough time to have a logical and thoughtful process to find a replacement.”

“He’s the ultimate professional and consummate gentleman,” said Scharfstein, managing his departure “the way he’s done everything else, with concern for how it will affect the community.”

The federation president said he expects the strategic plan implementation process to be a multi-year initiative.

“It gives us the ability to bring an executive on board to be with us throughout this process,” he said. “It’s an exciting point in the life of the federation.”

He also cited the contribution of young leaders in this effort, pointing out that “an extraordinary group” has come to the fore at the federation. “We’re lucky to be where we are.”

Scharfstein pointed out that the federation campaign “is on target for our goals for the year and we’re still working hard to achieve them.” In addition, he said, from the financial management standpoint, “We’ve hit a target we haven’t hit in years,” paying all constituent agencies their full allocations within the fiscal year.

“In recent years, we always paid as allocated, but not as promptly as we would like,” he said. “The financial crisis has caused us to put greater emphasis on financial management and planning. We planned much better this year and executed much better. We have not let the crisis go to waste.”

 
 

Bergen Reads celebrates its 10th anniversary

Adult volunteers for Bergen Reads get as much from their experience as the children they help, says program co-chair Susan Liebeskind.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to give of yourself to the community,” said Liebeskind, one of 129 local men and women who spend an hour each week working with public school children in Teaneck and Hackensack.

The program — now in its 10th year — is a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey (the federation is scheduled to receive a name change Tuesday night).

Liebeskind described herself as a “floater,” working at six schools during her 10 years with the program.

Still, she said, “that is not the norm. Most people ask to return to the same school year after year.”

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From left are Sasha Rose and Samantha Rincon with Bergen Reads volunteer Susan Liebeskind. The girls attend the Whittier School in Teaneck. courtesy susan liebeskind

According to the program co-chair, Bergen Reads sends “reading buddies” to eight elementary schools. A volunteer spends 30 minutes a week with each of two children chosen by teachers from kindergarten to fourth grade. Most of the students are in first and second grades.

“The aim is to make the children see reading in a positive light,” she said. Many come from a home where English is not their first language, while some come from families where no one has time to read with them.

“Sometimes our volunteers bring in their own books to expose the kids to ones that are not in their homes or classrooms,” said Liebeskind. In other cases, children bring in books they are working on in class, or they are permitted by their teachers to bring in any book they would like to read.

While many volunteers are retired teachers, some are simply people who like children and have an hour a week to commit to the program, she said.

“I have no teaching experience. I’m doing something to ‘give back.’ I love watching them progress, particularly the first- and second-graders. In the beginning, you’re doing all the reading. At the end, they read to you.”

Before beginning, volunteers receive training from school staff, whether principals or reading specialists.

“The schools are thrilled,” said Liebeskind. “We’re asked back each year.” She noted that many of the teachers and volunteers have developed warm relationships.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to interact,” she said, recalling that after she visited Israel, a teacher invited her to talk to her class about the trip.

Liebeskind said that while involvement in the project is “really easy, involving a minimal amount of time, one of the goals is for the kids to have a consistent relationship with an adult in a positive way.” That can’t be done if volunteers travel a good deal or are snowbirds, she noted.

While Bergen Reads receives funds from the federation as well as grants from private institutions such as TD Bank Charitable Foundation and the Target Foundation, “we raise a lot of money on our own,” said Liebeskind. One fundraiser, “Centerpieces for Tzedaka,” provides book centerpieces created by a party planner for use at simchas.

“It started three or four years ago,” she said. “We bought used books, and a balloon party planner glued them together to make centerpieces. They look nice, and the money you pay to rent them supports Bergen Reads.”

Program co-chair Sandy Alpern called Bergen Reads “a wonderful, fabulous program, so beneficial to the children.”

Alpern, who volunteers at the Parker School in Hackensack, said, “Being a reading buddy is not the same as being a formal teacher.” Rather, “The goal is to foster the love of reading. Both the kids and the volunteers get so much satisfaction. You make an attachment.”

Alpern said that when the program began, “I was looking for something just like this. It’s just what I wanted. I was a children’s librarian and a preschool teacher. It’s like a dream.”

The program co-chair said that last year, one of her students, an 8-year-old second-grader, wrote that he loved her “more than he loved dinosaurs. And he really loves dinosaurs,” she said. “They learn things they wouldn’t have learned before. It’s like having a grandma.”

“People should volunteer because it is so satisfying, [particularly] if you love books and reading and want to share that feeling with kids who have no one to do it with one-on-one. If you have lots of love and time, it’s a worthwhile volunteer opportunity and a good representation of the Jewish community doing outreach in the secular community. You’re doing something valuable.”

At the end-of-year brunch, to be held on Tuesday, Bergen Reads volunteers will describe what the program has meant to them.

“It’s an open forum where people can talk about their experiences,” said Liebeskind. “We hear incredible stories.”

Volunteers will also be given certificates of appreciation, and those who have served for 10 years will receive special recognition.

For more information about Bergen Reads, call JCRC Director Joy Kurland at (201) 820-3946 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Bergen Reads needs you… and vice versa

 
 
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