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entries tagged with: Mitzvah Day

 

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.”

 
 

Toward creating a national mitzvah day

_JStandardOp-Ed
Published: 02 September 2010
 
 

UJA-NNJ Mitzvah Day benefits recipients and volunteers

image
Liron Karass, youth shlicha at Bergen YJCC, standing, goes over story that was recorded by Hebrew-speaking scouts from Fair Lawn. Charles Zusman

Sunday was a day for feeling good and doing good, as some 1,500 volunteers fanned out in North Jersey for the annual Mitzvah Day coordinated by the UJA Federation of North Jersey’s Jewish Community Relations Council. The November morning’s chill was dispelled by the warmth of “mitzvah” activities at some 40 sites, bringing a smile to seniors, a helping hand to those with special needs, and an assist to nature and conservation groups.

To cite just a few of the mitzvot, youngsters dressed as clowns entertained seniors at the Jewish Center of Teaneck. Teenagers gathered at the Bergen YJCC in Washington Township to record a story, in Hebrew and English, for blind children in Israel and New York. Volunteers helped to put away canoes and kayaks for the winter for the Hackensack Riverkeeper, an environmental group.

“Mitzvah Day is a powerful event,” said Sari Gross, event chairwoman. “It gives people an opportunity to do good and bring joy to themselves and others.”

The event has come of age, so to speak, this being its b’nai mitzvah year. It began 13 years ago with some 300 volunteers and has grown five-fold, said Alice Blass, event coordinator. Other organizations have followed the North Jersey model, but not on the same scale, she said.

“There is something for everyone, including your friendly pet,” Blass said, noting that warm and fuzzy “therapy” animals are a hit with seniors.

Also, she said, the beneficiaries of Mitzvah Day are not necessarily Jewish.

The day had special significance for Vardit Cohen, 17, of Fair Lawn, one of a group of Israeli-born scouts called Tzofim doing the recording at the YJCC. She has a cousin who is blind, Vardit said. When a lot of people join together to do good deeds, the effect is multiplied, she added.

The book chosen for the reading was especially appropriate, said Liron Karass, youth shlicha (emissary) at the Bergen YJCC. “Bone Button Borscht” by Aubrey Davis is about a beggar who comes to a small town that has fallen on hard times. The beggar’s tall tale of how he can make soup out of buttons works to bring the townspeople together.

The scouts recorded the book in Hebrew, and that recording will be sent to a library in Netanya, Israel. The others recorded it in English, and it will be sent to New York.

The scouts taking part in the Hebrew reading were, besides Vardit, her twin sister Sarit, Bar Begev, Noa Moshe, Gal Shaya, and Liran Yarkoni. Volunteers recording the English version were Alex and Ben Weiss, Anya Gips, Jacqueline Gold, and Dara Liebeskind,

A similar program was held at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly with another group of Israeli scouts, Karass said.

At the Teaneck Jewish Center, Abby Steifel, 12, was brimming with brightness and color in her clown outfit. “It’s really fun to make people smile,” she said, and smile they did.

“Lovely, lovely,” said Yafa Weiss of Cliffside Park. “The kindness, the costumes,” she said, explaining that she has been coming to the program for five years.

Eli Szafranski, 12, of Teaneck, wore his clown outfit and makeup like a pro, even though he had just been trained. He deftly twisted a long balloon into the image of a dog, then pulled a marker from his pocket to draw the facial features.

The youngsters were trained by Areyvut, a program guiding youngsters in ways to help others. Its director, Daniel Rothner, also decked out in clown attire and facepaint, watched over his 12 young charges as they worked the room with smiles and chatter for the seniors.

“The goal is to get kids involved,” not just for the day, but on an ongoing basis, Rothner said. A clown outfit brings a smile to people’s faces, he said of the “Mitzvah Clowning” program.

The program in Teaneck is under the umbrella of the Center for Elder Adults at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades and the UJA.

Earlier in the day in Secaucus, Dan and Laura Kirsch and Matt Holland joined other volunteers in helping to store the Hackensack Riverkeeper’s canoes and kayaks for the winter.

Hugh Corolla of the Riverkeeper staff explained that his group promotes clean water, and that goal is served by educating the public about the watershed and waterways.

By extension, therefore, Laura Kirsch said, helping the Riverkeeper contributes to the well-being of those living in the area. “It’s important in terms of ecology. They do a wonderful job,” she said.

That sentiment was echoed by Dan Kirsch, a kayaker himself, who said the Riverkeeper organization does “a wonderful job of education.” He is the chairman of the regional JCRC and his wife is on the UJA-NNJ board.

Holland, UJA-NNJ community purchasing manager, said, through teeth that weren’t quite chattering as a breeze blew off the river, “I am wearing seven layers…. We’re helping … do some good.”

As Corolla will affirm, you don’t have to be Jewish to benefit from a mitzvah.

“It’s such a success every year,” Gross said Monday, assessing the events of the day before. “You bring people together, and it’s a rich experience for the volunteers and recipients.”

 
 

Nechama rallies volunteers in the aftermath of Irene

4th Mitzvah Day will help prepare elderly for emergencies

Larry YudelsonLocal
Published: 16 September 2011

Nov. 6 is the date scheduled for Mitzvah Day, when the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey encourages community members to roll up their sleeves and help their neighbors.

This year, the federation expects more than 1,300 volunteers at some 35 locations, said Alice Blass, who coordinates Mitzvah Day and other volunteer-based programs of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

One new program this year — planned before Hurricane Irene — is the assembly of emergency care kits for the homebound elderly to have on hand in case of blizzard or hurricane, said Blass.

The kits will include such supplies as flashlights and easy-to-open containers of non-perishable food items.

Mitzvah Day is expanding into new regions. For the first time, said Blass, the federation will assemble volunteers in Hoboken, where they will work in the city’s emergency food pantry.

Another new mitzvah venue is the Buckingham at Norwood, a nursing home with a section that serves the Korean community.

“The Korean population in Bergen County is growing by leaps and bounds,” said Miriam Allenson, director of marketing services for the federation. “We thought that this was an important population to reach out to.”

“It’s an opportunity for leaders of the two groups to get to know each other,” Blass added.

“We view Mitzvah Day as an entree to try to whet people’s appetites, so they will continue their volunteering during the year and not limit it to one day,” said Allenson. “We’ve had success stories of schools who have continued visiting institutions, of individuals who have signed on to be more regular volunteers at institutions.”

 
 
 
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