By DEAN M. SHAPIRO, Special to the CCJN
With the tragedy at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue hate crime still fresh in people’s minds, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana (JEF) went on with their 105th annual meeting at the Uptown Jewish Community Center on Tuesday evening, October 30. Homage was paid to the victims and the two organizations’ officers were chosen to carry on the benevolent missions of their respective organizations.
An armed security contingent from the New Orleans Police Department was standing by to ease whatever fears attendees might have had following last Saturday’s bloody massacre of unsuspecting congregants at a Shabbat service some 1,100 miles away. At the New Orleans meeting, tributes were paid to the 11 victims and a moment of silence and prayer was observed in their memory. Then the new chairman and five new members of the Federation’s Board of Trustees were elected.
Joshua Force succeeded Henry Miller as chairman and a slate of trustees consisting of Gail Chalew, Peter Seltzer, Jackie Stern, Joanna Sternberg and Ben Swig was selected to be begin their terms of office effective January 1.
It was also officially announced that R. Justin “Bobby” Garon will become JEF’s next executive director, effective January 1, succeeding Saundra “Sandy” Levy who is stepping down after 27 years at the helm.
Garon made the presentation of the Herbert and Margot Garon Young Leadership Award to Bradley Bain, the current chair of the Federation’s Community Relations Council. The award is named for his parents of blessed memory.
In his brief acceptance remarks, Garon thanked the Federation Board for “having the confidence in me to be able to assume such a daunting task.”
Praising the work Levy accomplished over her long tenure at JEF, Garon said, “I know I am stepping into some big shoes and I look forward to being able to learn from her. She has promised she will make the transition an easy one.” He then said, “Thank you to the community that has shown me so much love and for reaching out to me.”
As to Bain, Garon termed him “a shining star in our Jewish galaxy” and “an incredibly valuable member of this community.” Among other accomplishments, he praised Bain’s work to reverse the New Orleans City Council’s rescission of a pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), anti-Israel resolution earlier this year and his assistance in persuading Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards to renounce the BDS movement statewide.
In his brief acceptance speech, Bain thanked Garon family, the Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Council and members of their staffs and volunteers for “this incredible honor. And all those working in the larger community, all determined to make Greater New Orleans an ideal place to live, to raise our families and to invest for the generations to come,” he added.
“As much as I appreciate this great honor, this isn’t just a recognition of me and my work,” Bain said. “Rather it’s indicative of the important work that our entire Jewish community does and I’ve just merely been fortunate enough to be involved throughout the process. For that I want to thank all of you.”
Arnie Fielkow, the Federation’s CEO, presented a 20-minute report on the status and ongoing mission of the 105-year-0ld organization.
Fielkow began his presentation by “extending prayers and thoughts to the eleven victims and their families in Pittsburgh, as well as the first responders who responded so quickly and undoubtedly saved many lives through their heroic actions.” Praising those who took part in a vigil in Metairie that brought out about 400 people, Fielkow called it “a beautiful expression of support from not only the Jewish community but from the community at large.
“Every faith, every religion, every race was represented,” Fielkow continued. “I can only hope that we go into the future . . . wherever there is hate and wherever there is anti-Semitism or racism or bigotry or discrimination or xenophobia, let it be the Jewish community that stands up and combats it, no matter what the implications are. Because hate against one represents hate against all.
Fielkow extended thanks to the local Jewish community for welcoming him and his family back to New Orleans to take the helm of the Federation last year, as well as those who “extended prayers and well-wishes” during his recent medical issues. “I have been uplifted so many times by the warmth of the people of this community and I thank you for the privilege of working with the organization. The work that we do is so important and I am honored to be able to do it,” he said, thanking the officers of the Federation and its Board and the staff by name who stood up and were applauded individually.
During his talk, Fielkow spoke of a “New Federation,” noting that when he assumed his current position he felt that, “It’s time for change. The Federation needed to look inward and outward and not be afraid to change to reflect the realities of the time. Change would lead to a new Federation in terms of how we do our business, who we interact with, how we interact, and how others perceive us. With new lay and professional leadership coming on board a year ago, I think the time was right for that change.”
Elaborating, Fielkow spoke about reaching out to other members of the local, non-Jewish community, including members of other faiths and nationalities, including the Palestinians. He described the Federation as “a vibrant, progressive organization which, in every way, serves as the tip of the spear and the quarterback for the Jewish community of Greater New Orleans.
On the fundraising side, Fielkow proudly noted a $100,000 increase in the annual campaign for 2017, adding that it was the largest increase in the years following Hurricane Katrina. He also spoke of a threefold increase in sponsorships and grants over the past year designed to help constituent agencies and hinted at an announcement in the coming days of another large grant.
“I would like to believe that the new Federation is a more friendly constituent organization than it has been seen as in the past,” Fielkow said. I have met with every constituent agency in the city and its beneficiaries, if for no other reason than just to say ‘we’re here’ as partners. Your success is our success and vice versa and hopefully we can continue that type of partnership together,” he added while thanking the heads of the various organizations.
Fielkow also discussed what he called “the changing nature of philanthropy” from what it had been for previous generations. “People are more astute now about what and how they give. We have to put programs and services in place where people would want to be part of this organization and I believe that we are doing just that,” he said.
In the broader scope, Fielkow proclaimed, “We are a Zionist organization. No doubt about it. I am proud that we fought against the BDS resolution on the council and at the state level. And, although there is not always agreement on Israel, we need to at least ensure there is a dialogue going on that is respectful. We support programs to bring to light the beauty and culture of Israel so that people can see it in a non-political way,” referencing an initiative called “Re-setting the Table” that, he said, directly talks about Israeli-Palestinian issues with people in a very dignified, respectful way. We’ve had a couple of sessions and I think they’ve been very positive.”
In addition, Fielkow cited initiatives citywide with key members of the African American community. Indirectly referencing the Civil Rights Movement, he spoke of “a historic bond between our communities. There was fracture in those communities and we need to not have that. We’re working to establish new partnerships and renew ongoing ones.”
Wrapping up his remarks, Fielkow alluded to his former employer, the New Orleans Saints by saying, “The organization used to work for is 6-1 and vying for another Super Bowl. I can say this to you: I already represent a championship organization.”
Following Fielkow at the podium, Miller spoke on issues related to security, in light of the Pittsburgh tragedy.
“Because of what happened in Pittsburgh, we know safety is at the forefront of all our minds,” Miller said. “Our Security Committee, led by Aaron Ahlquist and Irwin Lachoff, is working diligently to keep our community safe. Our work has helped several community agencies and synagogues receive grants for security upgrades from the Department of Homeland Security,” he added, noting that a meeting held that morning “addressed what our next steps will be. We will keep our community aware of our efforts.”
Miller also spoke about the “brain drain” affecting the local Jewish community and what steps are being taken to keep young professionals from relocating to other places where there might be greater opportunities and financial rewards. Programs are being designed to give online mentorship to those considering leaving the city and offer financial incentives to retain them, including grants to help out with professional licensing, certification courses, membership fees and professional conference attendance.
In addition, Miller detailed outreach efforts the Federation is making toward the city’s LGBTQ community. Then, redirecting attention toward the subject of anti-Semitism, he addressed the defacing of the Northshore Jewish Congregation (NJC).
The evening began with an invocation by Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg of Congregation Beth Israel, during which he also paid tribute to the Pittsburgh victims. The slate of Federation candidates was then elected unanimously via a voice vote.
Also at the meeting, a JEF report was given by its president, Andrea “Andi” Lestelle. During her report, Lestelle praised donors, board members and their staff for “another remarkable year.” She thanked Miller, Fielkow and Levy and also praised Garon, terming him a “visionary leader who will guide JEF into the future. We are looking forward to a seamless transition as JEF continues to assist our donors and our community in charitable giving,” Lestelle said.
Getting into the numbers, Lestelle said 2017 established a new local record for giving. The total of $8.5 million in growth brought JEF’s total assets up to nearly $62 million, which continued to build in 2018. She also announced that, in 2017, JEF disbursed more than $4 million to a range of 500 Jewish and non-Jewish charitable organizations, and so far this year it has distributed close to $3.5 million.
Lestelle said that 2017 saw about $111,000 in grants given from the general fund and about $95,000 so far in 2018 to create new programming and continue existing programming. She also announced that JEF has received about $25 million in promised legacy gifts.
“We may not be a large Jewish community but we certainly provide a lot of philanthropy throughout it,” Lestelle said.
JEF was created in 1967 to be a source of support to the community and provide a future for Jewish legacy giving. “However, despite the success, many more commitments are needed if we are to secure the future of the Jewish community for generations to come,” she warned. She then thanked outgoing board members Reuben Friedman, David Kushner, Seth Levine, Ann Lowenberg, Betty Meyers, Melinda Mintz and Max Tobias for their service.
Nominations were placed on the floor for new JEF board members. Selected to serve two-year terms were Robin Giarrusso, John Haspel, Howard Hirsch, Harry Lowenberg, Sidney Pulitzer Jr. and Mark Stein.
Re-elected to a two-year term beginning in 2019 were Robert Brickman, Susan Hess, Jill Israel, Keith Katz, Julie Wise Oreck, Dana Shepherd, Rose Sher and James Spiro.
Savannah Cutliff, a 17-year-0ld NJC member and senior at Mandeville High School, delivered a closing inspirational message in which she spoke out against the anti-Semitic images and words that were spray-painted on the congregation’s walls this past September.
Cutliff’s remarks were warmly received by the predominantly older members of the audience. Recounting the slogans and symbols painted on the side of the building, Cutliff said, “These vicious acts are not rare occurrences.” She went on to reference similar defacements at a synagogue in Carmel, Indiana and a Holocaust memorial in Madison, Wisconsin.
“It may be easier to bite our tongues and bury our heads in the sand and pretend these are anomalies, but doing so would be foolish and detrimental,” Cutliff said. “We’ve been taught that, in the midst of tragedy, we must stand our ground. We must take pride in our faith. We must speak up because the last time we neglected to do so six million of us were slaughtered.
“I am unable to comprehend such intolerance but, in spite of this hateful act, we’ve grown closer as a community,” Cutliff added. “The love and outpouring of support from throughout the state is proof that there are more well-intentioned people in this world than ill-intentioned ones. And that gives me hope.”
She concluded: “If I have learned anything in my 17 years of living it’s that life is a storm that cannot be weathered alone. So I thank everyone who did so for linking arms with us to stand tall against the wind. Love always trumps hate.”