SOUTHBURY – After nearly 20 years as executive director of The Federation Jewish Communities of Western Connecticut, Rob Zwang will end his tenure in June.
Zwang, who grew up in Danbury, came to Jewish communal work accidentally. After earning a Masters degree in counseling psychology, he worked as a therapist in Florida when he saw a newspaper ad for a job with B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO). He served as the assistant director of North Florida BBYO, then moved to Richmond, Va. to head BBYO of Virginia and North Carolina. Soon, he was offered a year-long position as assistant director of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, a stint that lasted four years.
Zwang was hired by the Jewish Federation in Waterbury in 1992. Like many American Jewish communities, Waterbury was in transition: the population was aging, younger families were moving to outlying suburbs, and there was no influx of new arrivals. Zwang’s first task when he arrived in Waterbury was to lead a strategic planning process, along with board chair Jerry Sugar. The resulting move a decade later to the new Walzer Family Jewish Community Campus in Southbury would redefine the Jewish community; Zwang would reignite it.
An innovative model, the campus houses the Federation, which runs the William and Audrey Walzer Alef Bet Preschool and the Brownstein Jewish Family Service, as well as the B’nai Israel Reform congregation and the Conservative Beth El Synagogue.
Nancy Becker was on the committee that hired Zwang and later served as federation board president. She had already heard about him from relatives in Richmond. “His enthusiasm preceded him,” she says of their first meeting in New York, and it is what he brought to the job. That, and a visionary creativity. “Rob would always say, ‘Nothing’s too big a project for our small community,'” Becker recalls.
Soon after his arrival, Zwang brought the Anne Frank Project to Waterbury, a national traveling display of memorabilia set up at a local college. Thousands of visitors, many of them area schoolchildren, came through the exhibit, and were engaged in discussions on diversity and tolerance.
That wide reach and community-building would become hallmarks of Zwang’s tenure.
“I was always curious about how writing checks somehow connected our global Jewish community back to the local Jewish community,” Zwang says. “It didn’t make sense to me.”
Twelve years ago, as the Jewish Agency for Israel’s “Partnership 2000” was taking shape, pairing Diaspora Jewish communities with Israeli partnership areas, Zwang took the concept a little further. “I thought it would be great to create this kind of connection with our Israeli partner, Afula-Gilboa, and a Jewish community outside Israel, so that we have a triangle,” he says. “That way, our local community would be able to experience federation’s global work.”
The National Conference of Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) made the shidduch, connecting Waterbury with Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan in the Former Soviet Union. “Nobody knew from Kazan, Tatarstan,” Zwang says, but the Federation organized five trips to the area, bringing goods and funds to the Jewish community, hosting Kazan’s Jewish leaders on a visit with Connecticut Jewish organizations, and sponsoring Jewish physicians from the Kazan medical college in advanced training in Connecticut.
Under Zwang’s leadership, the Jewish Federation created a dental project in Afula, Israel, bringing oral-health education and tools to more than 10,000 Israeli Jewish and Arab schoolchildren every year in the under-served area. A full-service dental clinic at HaEmek Medical Center is in the works to reach families who cannot afford to pay for care.
“Ultimately the work of our Federation in Israel, is to strengthen Israel’s security and to support efforts which develop equality and co-existence between Jewish and Arab Israelis,” Zwang says.
While reaching out around the globe, Zwang also made sure to cultivate Jewish life at home. He helped start a Hadassah chapter and a Jewish culture club at the Heritage Village senior community. He helped secure funding to create the Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life in the northwest corner of the state. He created a strong relationship with the Yeshiva Gedolah of Bridgeport, insisting that a kosher kitchen be included in the new Jewish campus so that yeshiva-community members could use the facility. As a result, says Federation president Bob Tendler, yeshiva students and families turn out in impressive numbers to help with the annual Super Sunday fundraising campaign.
Tendler is an example of how Zwang inspired others to get involved. The two met 10 years ago, when the Tendlers first relocated to Southbury from Ridgefield, and had just returned from their first trip to Israel. Tendler had no plans to volunteer in the Jewish community and had never been involved with a Jewish Federation. But that first trip to Israel changed Tendler’s perceptions.
“The bus stops, and we get off at a place overlooking Jerusalem and I said, ‘I’ve never been here before, but I’ve always felt a connection to Israel. Where did I get the feeling?’ Growing up, we had a pushke, a blue box from the Jewish National Fund, to buy trees for Israel, but it took that moment in Jerusalem to really put it all together.”
Tendler returned to Southbury and immediately became involved in the Jewish community, returning to Israel with Zwang three more times to help with various projects. When he was asked to serve as vice president at Federation two years ago, he immediately accepted.
“Rob knows how to get people involved,” he says. “He’s cultivated the majority of our donors. I don’t believe that anybody is irreplaceable in a professional capacity, but some people leave a lasting memory when they’re not there any more. That will be Rob’s legacy.”
The search is now on to find a new executive director, Tendler says.
Zwang is upbeat about the future. “I don’t know what I want to do yet, but in order to become clear, I need to first separate me from my role here and then I can start thinking more about what I’d like to do and what’s out there and how to make a shidduch,” he says. An avid scuba-diver, he likens his next adventure to that last moment on the boat. “I’m viewing this transition with excitement and a feeling somewhat similar to when I’m all suited-up for a dive, and the seas are calm. I sit on the edge of the boat waiting for the signal to enter the water and when it comes, I take that first breath from my regulator, flip backward not knowing what I’ll find around, or underneath me when I open my eyes. I view my future as another adventure of discovery, and I anticipate that my next challenge will offer new experiences and opportunities for expression.”