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Profiles from the Field
Profiles from the Field
Spertus Students and Alumni Are Serving and Shaping Their Communities
In This Time of Challenge and Change
We connected virtually with Spertus alumni and students, checking on their welfare amidst the pandemic. Our conversations confirmed the resourcefulness and resilience of these committed individuals, who work for a range of Jewish organizations across the country.
These remarkable leaders have utilized what they learned at Spertus, applying Jewish learning and professional best practices to serve their organizations and communities in this challenging time.
Here are their stories.
Cathy Gardner is the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton. She is an alumna of Spertus Institute's Executive MA in Jewish Professional Studies program.
Cathy Gardner has been working as a Jewish communal professional for 27 years. She oversees Dayton’s Integrated Federation and its agencies, including its Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Services, and Jewish Foundation. She is also a master calligrapher who talked to us from her home office and studio.
Gardner spoke of the challenges for Dayton’s tight-knit, 4,000-person Jewish community: “When COVID-19 became so dangerous and we all had to isolate at home, we very quickly adjusted our programming. Our Federation is responsible for connecting our community through our agencies, foundation, and newspaper. We had many activities planned — and we knew we had to maintain critical community ties. Immediately, we developed a virtual platform and a concept built around the theme ‘stay connected.’” Coming up on the docket was Dayton’s Jewish Film Festival, which they ambitiously transformed to a view-at-home format with opening night at the drive-in.
Leveraging community-building skills fostered through her Spertus program, Gardner forged cross-agency partnerships and new initiatives to maintain communal cohesion. With her team, she added virtual daily drop-in experiences (Mental Health Monday, Trivia Tuesday) for community members to connect and exchange ideas, akin to visiting a virtual coffee shop. Importantly, they also heightened their social services, ensuring that those in need could get help accessing vital services including food and health care.
In an effort to stave off the loneliness inherent for those staying safe alone, Gardner and her staff also phoned individual community members to check in with them.
Gardner also implemented ways to communicate with her staff. She said, “We are nothing without the people who work for us. They needed to be supported while doing things they’d never done before. I needed to pay attention to their needs.”
In describing her leadership style, Gardner articulated two principles. First, “I expect everybody to do their best work and I support it.” Secondly, in considering how to respond to challenges, she advices her team to ask: “What’s the right thing to do?” because that should be their guiding light.
Gardner reported that, as quickly as she and her team were able to open virtual doors, community members were able to come together and feel they were a part of something. She said, “That was the most incredible aspect of this very quick shift.”
Until November, Michael Rawl was Executive Director of the JCC of Youngstown, OH. He is now CEO of the JCC in Buffalo, NY. He is a student in Spertus Institute's Executive MA in Jewish Professional Studies program.
Recalling the early days of the pandemic, Rawl shared what many of us felt: “We didn’t know what was happening. There was great fear and uncertainty.”
Marshalling his learning on leading both people and organizations through change, Rawl set his eyes on the long term and successfully positioned the JCC of Youngstown to thrive in the virus economy. Due to Rawl’s foresight, the organization emerged having served urgent community needs — and, incredibly, having the most financially successful year in its history.
Rawl’s COVID-19 response included a number of consequential steps. Key among them, he saved — then expanded — the community’s mobile meal program. In March, in an emergency meeting with Jewish agency executives, he learned that the nursing home, under lockdown, could not continue the meal program that served homebound seniors. “I was on the other side of the table, very concerned about the fate of the JCC and its employees. The JCC had two large kitchens, so I offered to take on the contract.”
To Rawl, two things seemed clear. There might be increased need because of the pandemic, and if they ramped up the number of meals, it could save staff jobs.
With energy, commitment, and a critical understanding of both finance and operations, he snapped into action. He engaged the JCC’s health, wellness, and membership teams to set up a phone bank and contact members to determine how they could assist. They ended up cooking, packaging, and delivering 4,000 meals a week, with the program run by lifeguards, personal trainers, and front desk staff.
That wasn’t all. The JCC stepped up in other significant ways as well. They shifted their early learning center to provide childcare for the children of essential works. With their facility open and staffed throughout the pandemic in order to meet essential needs, they were ready to serve their own members the moment that restrictions lifted. In June, they were able to safely open their day camp, welcoming community kids with an opportunity to get out of the house and enjoy outdoor activities. They were one of only sixteen such camps across the country that was able to do.
This problem-solving search for opportunity is consistent with Rawl’s approach. Rather than furloughing staff, he was able to redeploy them, providing them “an opportunity to have meaningful impact on the community. You can imagine how powerful that is. They rose to the occasion.”
Aaron Weil is Executive Director and CEO of the Central Florida Hillel. He is an alumnus of Spertus Institute’s MA in Jewish Professional Studies.
In his reflections on 2020, Weil thinks back to other times of crisis, including when he lived in Israel during the Second Intifada. Today’s college students — in their late teens and early twenties — don’t have that kind of perspective. Weil said, “They are suffering. They have mental health needs. They need connection.”
Under Weil’s leadership, Central Florida Hillel has created an ambitious array of new offerings. Among them is a wellness program that provides one-on-one online counseling to students, regardless of their ability to pay. With frankness, Weil said, “we evolved our understanding of how we need to support students in the virtual world. This crisis has forced us to transform how we do business.”
He continued, “We are working on ways to use technology to create an experience that students want.” Referring to his students’ time facing the challenges of COVID-19, he said, “We want to help them grow.” He spoke about the deep, meaningful learning he gained through his Spertus program —about how his Spertus experience empowered him and the impressive members of his cohort by challenging them to bring creative, innovative thinking to their Jewish organizations. He strives to be an ambassador, bringing that same authentic Jewish experience to his students. Weil said, “It has impacted the way I am as a Jewish professional and as a Jewish leader.”
Laurence Bolotin is the Evelyn R. Greene Executive Director of AJC Chicago. He is an alumnus of the Certificate in Jewish Leadership, presented by Spertus Institute in partnership with Northwestern University.
Between global and regional programs, AJC’s calendar is traditionally crammed with educational and advocacy opportunities. But Bolotin knew that he was responsible for one additional essential piece—ensuring that local AJC constituents remain connected and engaged.
When COVID-19 hit, he and his staff began personal check-ins with board members and then implemented new, interactive, more intimate programs. “We needed to give constituents opportunities to connect on a deeper level, even if we’re not face-to-face.”
In this time of challenge, Bolotin has managed to maintain his office’s offerings and even facilitate an important outside initiative. In October, he launched two local cohorts of Jewish Women International’s At the Table: Men as Allies in Workplace Equity. Drawing on lessons in collaboration and power sharing, he said, “I want to see what I can do with my voice, allyship, and influence to make a difference.”
Gabrielle Burger is Director of Jewish Educational Engagement at the Macks Center for Jewish Education in Baltimore, MD. She is an alumna of Spertus Institute's Executive MA in Jewish Professional Studies.
Compassion is the value running through Burger’s response to the pandemic. Compassion for the families that the Macks Center for Jewish Education serves and compassion for the staff she leads. After listening to constituent families, Burger and her team began to offer their programs through multiple formats — in-person, live-streaming, and recorded for viewing later.
They were astonished to discover that with the choice of formats, they were welcoming more people than ever before. With her trademark compassion, Burger said, “It was hurtful to realize that we had been missing a portion of our population…We don’t want to leave them behind anymore. We didn’t know we were missing them, until we knew. And now we’re never going to let them go.”
About her community’s engagement in their new types of programs, Burger said, “We earned their trust with the value we put on their safety and the value we put in our relationships with them.”
She credits Spertus for teaching her the importance of providing staff and constituents the opportunity to “kvetch a little bit, to mourn what they’ve lost, to own that loss, and then to move on. People need to close that loop to move forward.”
Ian Solow-Niederman is the Regional Director of BBYO’s Rocky Mountain Region. He is a student in Spertus Institute's MA in Jewish Professional Studies.
Last March, Solow-Niederman was visiting hotels to prepare for a regional convention when he learned that BBYO needed to shut down in-person activities. He had to share that news with teen leaders, even as he was still grappling with its implications.
“One of the interesting things about working for BBYO,” he said, “is that a lot of your processing involves helping teens process.” He leveraged lessons of crisis leadership to “help them get to a place where they could be successful.” That approach—being honest and transparent, embracing vulnerability — typifies Solow-Niederman’s leadership style. He treats teens with respect, encouraging them to lead. “The reason we’ve been successful is that our teens are actively involved in the process.”