Hartford Federation’s new head reports on his mission to Israel
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – On Monday, July 14, Howard Sovronsky got off the plane from a mission to Greece and Israel. On Tuesday morning, he began his new position as acting CEO and president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.
The West Hartford resident was tapped to step in for Cathrine Fischer Schwartz, who will depart the position of CEO and president at the end of the month to direct the Jacobson Jewish Community Foundation in Boca Raton, Fla.
Trained in social work, Sovronsky comes to the Federation after a career in nonprofit management. He has more than 20 years of senior leadership experience in the behavioral and forensic mental health management field, including work in government, nonprofit, and hospital systems. As vice president for Behavior Health at Nassau Health Care Association in East Meadow, N.Y. from 2005 to 2007, Sovronsky managed a large municipal hospital, nursing home, and health center. For the next five years, he was chief operating officer of Community Health Resources, a behavioral health network in Windsor.
As head of the Jewish Federation, Sovronsky will be responsible for leading the staff in the agency’s 2015 Annual Campaign, and overseeing the organization’s work locally, in Israel and in 70 Jewish communities overseas. He will continue Federation’s collaborative relationship with the Jewish Community Foundation and the Aim Chai Campaign, as well as with area synagogues and the partners, programs, and services that Federation supports.
Sovronsky holds a B.A. from Queens College and earned his Master of Social Work from Adelphi University.
During his first morning on the job, Sovronsky spoke with the Ledger about what he hopes to accomplish during his tenure.
Q: Beginning with the most burning issue in the Jewish community right now, what did you experience in Israel that will inform your new position?
A: The situation there, in the life of the Israelis, is a lot more complex than we appreciate here. We tend to romanticize the Israeli as someone who is not impacted by the sirens, but there is a very real impact on people and especially children. They may look tough and resilient, but it does take its toll. There are huge needs that we can impact, both from a social service perspective – providing and supporting the services available to certain segments of the community – but also in terms of moral support. So many people came up to us during the mission and said, “Thank you for being here and thank you for staying.” It had such deep meaning to them that we, as American Jews, felt strongly enough to remain and stand shoulder to shoulder with them.
We met with the parents of Gilad Shaar, one of the three Israeli teens who were murdered last month. After his father spoke to the group, representatives from each U.S. community on the mission got up and spoke about the rallies organized in their communities after the boys were kidnapped. It demonstrated that we are one large community.
We visited a Jewish kindergarten in Athens where the kids performed “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” and there wasn’t a dry eye in the group. It was a universal experience expressed and shared by everybody. For me, the mission opened up the spigot between intellectualizing things and allowing the experiences to flow into your heart and your kishkes.
The Israelis I met and the politicians who spoke to us all conveyed the same message: this military conflict is not something anyone wants to do. There was no sense of the war-mongering that Western media is conveying. War brings out a wide range of responses and Israel is no different from other countries in that respect. It’s our job to keep a rational and humane course, hold on to Jewish values, and not get caught up in the emotions of the moment. We need to try to find a way to make sense of the situation and remember that the real goal is peace and coexistence, not war and destruction.
Q: Why did you decide to take this position?
A: It came about in a beshert [pre-ordained] moment. I didn’t know the position was available and it had never occurred to me that it was something I would wind up doing. My name was given to the board, they approached me, and I was thrilled to be given the opportunity.
While I have not been involved in Federation or Jewish communal life for a while, I’ve been involved in nonprofit management for most of my career, so I had the technical skills for the job. Reconnecting with the Jewish community made a lot of sense at this point of my life. My wife and I moved to West Hartford three years ago, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with what I see as a very strong, committed Jewish community and to help increase its impact.
Growing up in Queens, I was very active in the Jewish community. I was vice president of the USY New York region, went to Camp Ramah as a camper and a counselor, completed Hebrew high school, and spent a semester at Tel Aviv University. But my life took a different direction. I became a professional social worker. My wife and I were founding members of the Woodbury Jewish Center on Long Island, and when we moved here, we attended High Holiday services with a chavurah at the JCC. For most part, we are sort of secular Jews. Going to Israel this past week helped me reconnect with my Jewish roots and has reinforced and reawakened those parts of me.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure?
A: I’m hoping to keep the ship afloat, try to help the board in promoting best-practices models and help them find areas where we can tweak the organization and make it more productive. I need to engage the lay leadership, which really drives the Federation and its campaigns, and hopefully be a force that helps to not only impact the organization but increase the level of philanthropy that we can develop in greater Hartford, with the goal of having a positive impact locally, globally, and in Israel. I am bringing in my Jewish values and also my professional values as a social worker and community organizer to help facilitate the organization’s optimal impact.
Q: Jewish Federations tend to have difficulty expressing their mission in an effective way to those they wish to engage. Do you see that as an issue?
A: This organization is all about personal relationships and personal stories and my job is to find out what resonates with individuals. What I’m very conscious of is that we’re a very diverse community socio-economically, politically, and culturally, and that different things resonate with different people. To be successful in raising the type of support we need to raise, we need to find what those things are.
“Support” goes beyond writing a check, though that’s most of what we do; the first level of philanthropy is having some emotional connection and appreciating the value of what it is we do, which then helps people come to the realization that they need to support the cause, both in terms of actions and financial support.
I think it’s valuable that I’m coming in from outside the Federation system, and I’m coming in with my own biases, which are shared by a lot of my friends and neighbors. One perception is that Federation is a lot of rich Jewish people writing checks and I think that needs to change. People need to understand that Federation is not just a black hole that money is poured into.
In response to the situation in Israel, we started a “Stop the Sirens” campaign [along with Jewish Federations of North America]. One might think that people understand what the money is being raised for: we’re just raising money for Israel. But the message must be as specific and personal as possible: for example, we’re raising money to extract kids from Sderot, where they spend eight hours a day in bomb shelters. We need to explain how the money will impact people.
Especially with how the media is portraying the situation, people ask whether the money is going to support right-wing religious groups or the war machine. No: it’s being raised for humanitarian purposes. It’s going to help people who happen to be Jewish, who happen to be living in Israel, and who are in need. It will provide bomb shelters where there aren’t enough or let traumatized kids get out of the shelters for a few days of respite in the north.
How do you package the story and get it to resonate? By being willing to recognize some of the negative stereotypes that exist.
We are looking to expand the role of Federation beyond a philanthropic organization. We support social-service and educational entities, and now we want to look at how we can become a convener on Jewish thought, a place to provide a safe environment for people from various denominations and unaffiliated Jews and non-Jews to have open, safe dialogue about some of the more controversial issues that we need to address as a community.
I’m very interested, for example, in finding find Jewish LGBT kids who are struggling. It’s not just a moral issue, but a public health issue as well: the suicide rate among this population is extremely high. What can we do to give them a safe place to express themselves Jewishly?
We need to find ways to expand our reach and appeal beyond what is traditionally seen as the Federation’s boundaries, especially among the younger and unaffiliated populations.
Q: What are some of the more challenging aspects of Federation’s work?
A: On the mission, we went to two Holocaust memorials in Greece. While they were extremely poignant for us, I said to the group that younger generations are not responding to the Holocaust story the same way we did, especially those of us who grew up with parents who were survivors or who went through World War II. We have a very different connection to the power of that narrative, which was the fuel for Jewish life.
As generations now are coming up and their contact with survivors is becoming more and more limited, the power of that narrative is becoming less and less strong. We need to find ways to tell that story a different way or identify another narrative that will engage them at the same level that we were engaged.
I grew up during the Soviet Jewry movement and we had a lot of struggles we could rally around. I’m not sure we’re doing a good job to create the same level of involvement among our younger people, especially the unaffiliated or those in interreligious relationships. We need to find a way of engaging and reengaging them.
I want to encourage people to get involved in the Jewish community in one of the many ways available. Especially now, during the conflict in Israel, there are a lot of opinions being expressed about how the Israeli government and military should behave. We welcome all opinions, but not from the sidelines.
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