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Conversation with Howard Sovronsky

“Nationwide, the Federation is going through an identity crisis, moving from primarily a fundraising philanthropic organization to one that positions itself more as a community planner, leader, innovator, and educator.”

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – After six months on the job as interim president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, Howard Sovronsky has been named to the permanent position as of Jan. 1. In his new role, Sovronsky will oversee the strategic initiatives and day-to-day operation of the Federation’s six main divisions, including campaign development, finance, planning and allocations, public affairs and social justice, Jewish education and leadership, and marketing and communications.

“Over the past six months, Howard’s leadership and nonprofit management expertise has been of great value to the board, community trustees and to our partners,” said Federation Chair Robert K. Yass. “This is an exciting time for us as we move forward with a new leader whose vision and enthusiasm will help transform the Federation into a more vibrant, relevant and powerful force for our Jewish community.”

A West Hartford resident, Sovronsky is a professional social worker who came to the Federation staff after holding a range of executive-level positions in the non-profit, public, and hospital sectors. After serving in Nassau County on Long Island as Commissioner of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities and then as Vice President for Behavioral Health at the Nassau Health Care Corporation, he was recruited in 2007 as chief operating officer of Community Health Resources, a behavioral-health network in Windsor.

Sovronsky spoke with the Ledger about what he hopes to accomplish in his now-permanent capacity.

 

Q: Why did you decide to continue on in your position?

A: Over the last six months, I’ve been spending less time in the office and more time developing relationships with all sectors of the community – not just meeting with our donors, which is important, but serving as a community liaison. We have to bring the Federation to the community and not expect the community to come to us. I’ve been here six months and it’s been quite a wonderful experience. I came from outside the Federation world and, after working with this amazing team of professional and lay leaders and with the leadership of all our partner agencies and synagogues, I am certain that this collective has tremendous potential and offers us a wonderful opportunity to continue the path toward a strong and vibrant Jewish community in Greater Hartford.

 

Q: In your view, what role does Federation play in providing for a thriving Jewish community?

A: We have a renewed commitment to see the Federation as a leading force in bringing together the various sectors of the community toward achieving that goal. Nationwide, the Federation is going through an identity crisis, moving from primarily a fundraising philanthropic organization to one that positions itself more as a community planner, leader, innovator, and educator – one that can mobilize a community in a time of crisis and facilitate conversation to address key and fundamental community issues. While raising money is essential for the ongoing continuity and growth of the community, our organizational identity needs to be broadened beyond our role as a philanthropic agent.

We are successfully improving our marketing strategies and expanding our use of social media. This includes developing a more cooperative and collaborative marketing campaign with our partner agencies. We want to listen to the community and learn from them what is needed. There’s a huge amount of intelligence and human capital in Greater Hartford that needs to be tapped to help inform the Federation in its planning and community-needs assessment. It is these activities that directly impact our annual allocations process. This will create a more diverse and inclusive approach to planning and engagement. The only way we can do that is through going out to meet and talk with people. I’ve been spending a lot of time with our agencies’ directors, rabbis, and professional staff and lay leaders, trying to get input directly from those people most directly involved with the day-to-day life of our Jewish community.

There’s a lot of talk about reaching out to the unaffiliated, but nobody knows whom they are or where to find them. I am beginning to think that we are better off focusing our efforts and resources on strengthening the ties with those who are known to us, those who have put their “toes in the water” and are demonstrating in some way their interest in connecting with the Jewish community. They may not be fully engaged in the community but they are expressing some interest in exploring their Jewishness. We need to focus on that group who, if they have a positive experience, will then bring in those people who are living in the periphery and whom we label as “unaffiliated.” The “unaffiliated” don’t want to be found, they’re not interested, so to approach them through a traditional avenue like a call on Super Sunday doesn’t work. Creating strong, committed emissaries or champions from those who are both already involved and those just beginning to explore ways of being involved is our best way of reaching those not involved.

 

Q: Who are those people “putting their toes in the water?”

A: For example, those parents who put their children in a Jewish preschool program but otherwise are not involved in the Jewish community may be testing the waters. The challenge is to find ways of reaching these families who have already expressed some identification with the Jewish community. Let’s not assume that placing a child in Jewish preschool guarantees a relationship with the Jewish community. It has been observed that many families join a synagogue primarily to enroll their children in Hebrew school. After the bar or bat mitzvah, the family leaves. While many consider these families “affiliated,” we can do a better job engaging those families by finding better ways to maintain their involvement in synagogue and communal life.

Another trend we see is that younger people don’t want to be tied into traditional, dogmatic approaches to Judaism; they want to find their own ways of expressing their Judaism both culturally and spiritually. As a community, we must be less judgmental and more inclusive and respectful of individual choice.

That becomes a very important condition when we’re talking about the high rate of intermarriage. We’re finding that keeping the door open and demonstrating the beauty and value of our culture and religion may be the most effective way of relating to these families and bringing Jewish life into their homes. By closing the door, we guarantee that there will be no connectivity to the Jewish community. We have seen children being raised Jewish by parents of other faiths even when those parents have not converted. So the question is how to maintain connectivity and use that relationship as a way to get the individual in the door and introduce them to the beauty of Jewish life.

We must pay attention to the low Jewish birth rate and the need to replenish our community. As an organization, we also have to find ways of replenishing our leadership and donor base. Our most fervent supporters are getting older and many of their children no longer live in Connecticut. This presents a real challenge for the ongoing support of our local institutions, Israel, and the global community. It is for this reason that we need to support the Aim Chai Endowment Campaign to establish a firm base of endowment and legacy funds for the continued sustainability of our Greater Hartford Jewish community.

 

Q: How does Federation engage that younger demographic?

A: We do this by bringing in younger Jewish families and individuals who are capable and willing to assume leadership positions through our leadership-development programs and engage them in ways that they will find meaning in the collective power of our Jewish community in hopes that will be something they want to support financially.

We’re looking to expand our leadership-development programs. The Federation supports the Wexner Heritage Program that trains young leaders and provides them with an extensive educational experience culminating in a trip to Israel. We offer the Howard J. Siegal Leadership Initiative. We’re looking at reactivating our Community Leadership Institute, which provides training to leaders in our synagogues and other Jewish institutions and is often a route to Federation leadership.

I’m trying to break out of the traditional views of leadership development and find new, more appealing ways of getting younger people involved in Federation, but also help identify and cultivate people earlier on. We have to accelerate the path to leadership; some of the traditional notions – you have to spend 10 to 15 years on committees and donate a lot of money and you get the honor of sitting on a board – have become outmoded and ineffective. We have to take some risks on bringing people in who might not be fully matured in their leadership role but who have real potential and something valuable to offer.

 

Q: What else do you hope to accomplish?

A: We want to find ways of reaching out to Jewish communities outside the core of Hartford – Farmington Valley and East of the River – and engage with those communities that traditionally have not been active in Federation life and find ways of meeting their needs and responding to their concerns.

We’re looking at trying to find ways of expanding our Jewish Coalition for Literacy as a way of building a bridge between us and the Hartford public school system.

We’re looking at creating a structure to foster and develop meaningful volunteer opportunities for people who are looking to become civically engaged in both the Jewish community and in broader social concerns. If we are able to show that it’s okay to be a Jewish environmentalist or a Jewish civil libertarian, will that open the door for a broader conversation about Jewish life and the value of being part of this vibrant community?

We’re looking to bring different skill levels and competencies to Federation so that we’re competitive and operating on par with industry standards by using data analytics, objective evaluative techniques, and matrixes that can move us from what has been a somewhat subjective process of evaluating what we do to a more objective, data-driven way of operating. This upgrade will positively impact our campaign as we rely more on data and less on anecdotal experience. We can then have a more targeted and efficient way of raising money.

We want to find ways of incentivizing more missions to Israel, specifically for people who have not been to Israel. We need to follow up with mission participants after they get back. What can we do to ensure that young people returning from experiencing Israel through the Birthright program remain connected with their local Jewish community? We know, and many studies bear out, that a trip to Israel is probably the most transformative experience in connecting people with their Jewishness, but is that connection short-lived because we are not doing a better job building upon that experience once they return? The burden is on us to find meaningful ways of getting those people involved.

We’re also looking at creating greater responsiveness on the part of our educational institutions to children with special needs. We’re interested in expanding our WOW! Project to find new creative, exciting options for kids and helping synagogues create more innovative approaches to education.

We’re about to start a training program with the Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel Action Network, training some 20 lay leaders and professionals in how to have a competent conversation about Israel that respects a range of views and opinions.

We’re trying to expand and strengthen the connection between Connecticut and Israel around technology and business development.

We’re doing more and more in the area of interfaith work. We have a strong bond with the Muslim community in Greater Hartford, we have a men’s group meeting regularly with Faith Congregational Church in Hartford, and we’re exploring other ways of connecting with our communities of faith around the area.

Our community is looking for a change. There is a wide range of support to grow the Federation into a more relevant, inclusive and responsive organization.

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