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Friday, July 28, 2017 8:01 pm

Young leaders embrace and engage their peers — why?

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
— Rabbi Hillel

By Ricki D. Shapiro
Although Hillel spoke these words in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) more than 2000 years ago, their relevance remains clear today in the young men and women who are wearing the mantle of leadership in the Young Adult Division, known as NextDor, of Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York.

Their backgrounds are as diverse as their reasons for saying “yes” in a generation that more often puts “me” over “we.” They come from working class families whose parents’ economic struggles were underscored by their rich values; they were hooked from the teenage joy of being in Israel and celebrating Shabbat with the entire country; they realized as new mothers the importance of practicing and passing along sacred Jewish traditions to their children.

And their love for Judaism has translated into being engaged, active and empowered as young Jewish leaders committed to insuring the future of the Capital District Jewish community. Many do so through the Jewish Federation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to build and maintain a strong and united Jewish community in order to ensure the creative survival and continuity of the Jewish people. The Federation is the community’s central agency for meeting Jewish needs and articulating Jewish concerns.

The Jewish World spoke with several of these young leaders to learn why they engaged and serve.

Andrew Abramowitz, 25, Shabbat Connections Chair, NextDor cabinet; and head of his synagogue’s (Albany’s Congregation Beth Emeth) young professional group, The Tribe, for 22-30-

Andrew Abramowitz takes a break from his NextDor Cabinet and synagogue Tribe
responsibilities to go hiking in South Africa.

year-olds. Professionally, he serves as a Special Assistant at the NYS Homes and Community Renewal Agency’s Asset Management Unit, which monitors the state’s affordable housing portfolio for low-income New Yorkers.

How does your occupation impact your role at the Federation?

My parents struggled their entire lives to be self-sufficient. They provided me opportunities, they grounded me with values, and they pushed me to succeed so I would have a better life. A lot of my professional work deals with the most disenfranchised, helping them to be self-sufficient as well. I always worked hard to distinguish myself, by being committed to this community cause.

I love being involved as a young Jewish leader because I’ve always had a strong passion for public service, and I love being active and enriching our Jewish community. We need more people in society who commit themselves to helping others – the highest form of charity. I think I have succeeded, as I have been given opportunities with NextDor and the Tribe because I stand out in a generation that is perceived as not working as hard.

What are your goals in your community position, and what have you accomplished thus far? I think Jews should embody the qualities of empathy, support, Tikkum Olam, loving kindness, and a commitment to education, family and community. And that’s exactly the “click” I found when I joined Congregation Beth Emeth.

I started to engage people my age by organizing Shabbat dinners, initiating events to accommodate young adults with young children, and personally reaching out to individuals who were otherwise excluded. The Federation asked me to join the NextDor cabinet because they recognized my contributions to the Jewish community.

I also was so very honored when my synagogue asked me to develop and organize the Tribe, which is dedicated to providing fun, meaningful, and vibrant programming and opportunities to young Jewish adults. Through activities such as our first-time hummus cook-off,  Shabbat dinners, movie/challah baking nights, Happy Hour and trivia nights, and community service projects, the Tribe has become a platform for younger Jews to feel connected to, and welcomed into, Judaism again.

Nikki Alcala says that her passion for Tikkun Olam,
and serving vulnerable people, has become part of the fabric of her life.

Nikki Alcala, BSN, RN, 36, member of the Jewish Federation’s Pearl Society, a Member-at-Large with the LGBTQ NextDor Cluster, and participant in a Federation’s Leadership Training Program through her congregation Berith Sholom. Professionally, she is a nurse who oversees the Health & Wellness programs at a local homeless shelter.

How did you develop an interest in serving the Jewish people? What is it that makes you want to be or act Jewish?
I have always had a passion for Tikkun Olam in many forms. As a queer woman I recognize the need for Jewish LGBTQ programming and partnerships. Volunteering with Federation enables me to be a part of creating that locally and having an impact on the Jewish LGBTQ population globally. Being of service to at-risk, marginalized, and needy populations has become part of the fabric of my life both professionally and personally.

What obstacles do you encounter in your Federation or community efforts, and how to you work to overcome them?
I think a lot of Jews, especially younger Jews, have some very antiquated ideas of what the Federation is and what its role is in the community. I love sitting down with folks and explaining the things we are doing and the exciting events we have coming up.

Gary Ginsburg, 32, Chair of NextDor and a member of the Jewish Federation of Northeast New York Board of Directors. Professionally, he is Deputy Communications Director for the New York State Senate Democratic Conference.

How did you develop an interest in serving the Jewish people? What is it that makes you want to be or act Jewish?
My parents and family provided the solid foundation of Judaism in my life and that was buttressed by my synagogue, Temple Israel. This foundation enabled me to grow as an individual and helped mold me into the person I am today. It gave me the confidence to attend a college (Norwich University in Vermont) where I effectively was the only observant Jewish student, to participate in the World Union of Jewish Students while in college, and to serve as the Vice President of the North American Jewish Student Alliance. Additionally, this foundation and the leadership skills I learned in school helped me accept opportunities to give back to Temple Israel and the local Jewish community once I returned to Albany after graduating from college.

What are your goals in your community position, and what have you accomplished thus far?
As Chair of NextDor, my goal is to provide a welcoming environment that helps strangers become friends, and encourages continued attendance at events that deepen their participation with NextDor, the Federation, and our local Jewish community. Our activities include community-wide programming, social events, Israel advocacy and lectures.

Jane Berger Ginsburg, 41, a member of the Endowment Board and Women’s Philanthropy Board, and former member of the Federation’s Board of Directors and NextDor. Professionally, she serves as the Executive Director of the Alzheimer’s Association, NewYork State Coalition.

How does your occupation impact your role at the Federation?

I have worked in the nonprofit world for more than 15 years – in and out of the Jewish community – and have an appreciation for the work and the conversations that go on behind the scenes. Sometimes staff present less-than-ideal concepts to the board that are meant to satisfy all constituents, but I always feel it’s my responsibility as a board member to speak up and ensure that all issues are raised and considered… issues that may be sensitive or inappropriate for staff to bring up; or sometimes just to offer another perspective. We are all used to doing things “our own way” but I always challenge my own board to contribute new and fresh ideas and I try to do the same as a community volunteer.

How did you develop an interest in serving the Jewish people? What is it that makes you want to be or act Jewish?
I became very involved with my youth group, Jewish Center Youth (JCY) in high school, and traveled to Israel when I was 16 on a partial scholarship from Federation. From then I was hooked. I was so impressed with the generosity bestowed to me by Federation that I was an instant “convert” – at that time my family was very not involved in our Federation (Lehigh Valley, PA) but I immediately saw its value.

The trip to Israel and my youth group was equally transformative. I loved celebrating and “doing Jewish” with my friends for entire weekends in high school and still get that same excitement when I am with other Jews at community events or even when I wish another Jew a “Shabbat Shalom” over email or through Facebook (and certainly in person!)!

What obstacles do you encounter in your Federation or community efforts, and how to you work to overcome them?
As someone whose roots are based in philanthropy and community, I am always saddened by the number of people my age who so easily say “no” to coming to Federation – or other Jewish community – events; or to donating, say, $180 to Federation for an entire year when I know they easily spend that amount of money on “frivolities” regularly.

I’m not suggesting that people need to make major sacrifices to give, but the money Federation raises is truly going to those in need and supporting our Jewish community. I am not sure whether people don’t really understand what and for whom Federation raises money or just that we have become a too self-involved community.

Like Nikki, I also hear people talk about the “old way” of doing things, such as fund raising or putting on events. People my age want to be engaged in their own way, on their own time. It seems to me that to drive people to events, they need to be fun, different and/or meaningful. My husband and I work very full-time jobs and have two great kids, so we need to be truly motivated to attend an event. Our peers are very much the same. NextDor has introduced new programming to spice events up, and Women’s Philanthropy is now also looking to change the way it’s doing business to engage more people at every age.

Jessie Yael Reinhardt, 34, is founder and leader of Strong Moms Fitness at Temple Israel, and a participant in the Yesod Leadership Training course representing Temple Israel.

How did you develop an interest in serving the Jewish people? What is it that makes you want to be or act Jewish?
I was born and raised culturally Jewish, but after having my own children (Mirabelle, age 3, and Max, 18 months) it was important to me to become more involved in the local Jewish community and begin practicing more Jewish traditions, like Shabbat candle-lighting and family Shabbat dinner, and going to shul on Shabbat mornings. When my children are old enough they will go to Hebrew school or to Hebrew Academy.

What are your goals in your community position, and what have you accomplished thus far?
I have a background in public health and fitness, and was a personal trainer before I had children and became a stay-at-home mom. My goal is to build a sense of community for young Jewish families in the Capital District. From this vision, I started Strong Moms Fitness, a small group training program that I run at Temple Israel, where my daughter goes to pre-school, to bring health and fitness more into the community. I hope to continue to bring fun and affordable health and fitness education to young Jewish families, and especially to mothers of young children, with expanded programs over the summer.

Chanie Simon with Jacob Gurock at the Kids Mega Challah Bake.
They are reciting psalms for the safety of Jews in Israel.

Chanie Simon, 30, is co-director of the Bethlehem Chabad, which has partnered with the Jewish Federation for community-wide events.

How did you develop an interest in serving the Jewish people? What is it that makes you want to be or act Jewish?
Growing up in a Chabad home in Milwaukee, Wisc., I had tremendous role models to guide me. I was raised to believe that whatever talents and skills a person has, they can and should always use them to benefit others. My foremost role model was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, who was known for his tremendous Ahavat Yisroel – love for one’s fellow. He would care for every person, no matter their background, ethnicity or knowledge. He truly would see the good in every person and would try to empower each to be a better person by doing another mitzvah – good deed.

What are your goals in your community position, and what have you accomplished thus far?
As co-director of the Bethlehem Chabad, our goal is to foster a strong sense of Jewish identity and strengthen the local Jewish community by helping and encouraging each individual to do one more mitzvah. We have partnered with the Federation on activities such as the Kids Mega Challah Bake, and with NextDor on holiday programming and developing volunteer opportunities with the Shalom Food Pantry.

My husband and I have seen tremendous growth since we moved to Bethlehem six years ago to lead the Bethlehem Chabad, from working out of our home, to working out of a storefront, to now being located in a beautiful historic building. But the beauty of Chabad cannot be measured in numbers or in buildings. It is all about the individual and seeing that each individual’s needs are met both materially and spiritually.

What obstacles do you encounter in your Federation or community efforts, and how do you work to overcome them?
One of the main obstacles we face is the number of Jews who do not realize the importance of Judaism. So we try and engage people through one-on-one encounters. I think by showing people the relevance, beauty and depth of Judaism we can overcome that. In turn, as more people become involved in the Jewish community, it has a ripple effect… friends have an impact on their friends and it only snowballs from there. When a community as a whole has a vested interest in strengthening their Jewish identity, they can accomplish so much more and it becomes so much more powerful.

Ricki D Shapiro has more than 40 years of diverse experience in communications and public relations, most recently with GE Global Research, from which she retired in 2016. She has a strong commitment to Judaism and will always be grateful to have realized the words “… next year may we be in Jerusalem” when she visited Israel for the first time in 1977.

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