As we have since 2004, the Ledger is pleased to publish our picks for this year’s Movers & Shakers — individuals throughout the state who are making a significant difference in Connecticut’s Jewish communities today. This year we’re giving our 2015 list a twist: For the first time, the list focuses exclusively on Jewish communal workers — dedicated professionals on staff at Connecticut’s many Jewish organizations. It goes without saying that this list is by no means comprehensive. In fact, we salute all our Jewish communal professionals for their devotion, compassion and commitment – and, of course, their hard work, year in, year out. Kol Hakavod!
Stacey Cohen is “the heart and foundation of Temple Shalom,” says Jodi Przybisiki of Norwalk, whose two children attended the Temple Shalom Preschool, and who cites Cohen as one of the primary reasons she joined the shul to begin with.
“Her heart is in every aspect of everything she does for the Temple,” Przybisiki says. “People are drawn to Stacey because of her warmth and her dedication to the Temple. She loves every child who walks through that door and she finds a place for them, even the kids who can’t find a place for themselves – whether they have special needs or are just having transition problems – up through high school age in the religious school. She goes out of her way to make sure everyone is comfortable. She just puts so much of her heart into everything she does.”
Cohen earned a Master’s degree in Early Childhood/Elementary Education from New York University in 1984, was an assistant director at Children’s Energy Center in Greenwich Village, N.Y. when, at age 25, she became director of the preschool program at the YMCA of Greater New York. While there, she was selected by the Government Services Administration to design and manage the first government-sponsored childcare center in New York City. She later went on to design childcare centers at the New York City Police Department headquarters and at the Veteran’s Administration, before relocating to Chicago, where she became a roving manager for Children’s World Learning Centers.
Sometime later, Cohen and her family moved to Norwalk and joined Temple Shalom. She volunteered for a year in the preschool and, in 1999, was appointed the school’s executive director.
“Stacey is the ambassador of Temple Shalom, developing and nurturing personal relationships with each and every congregant, regardless of their age,” says Donna Stillman, the shul’s president. “Stacey makes everyone feel welcome and important. She is the “go-to” when anyone requires help or direction. She recently took our struggling preschool and, under her direction, grew it into a thriving ‘gold star’ school.”
The synagogue’s clergy appreciate the success Cohen has had in filling several synagogue roles.
“Stacey has many unique gifts that enable her to juggle an extremely busy and varied role at Temple Shalom,” says Cantor Shirah Sklar. “As the executive director in charge of keeping all of our operations running, the religious school educator, and director of our preschool, she is truly a ‘jack of all trades.’”
Rabbi Mark Lipson agrees.
“Stacey’s dedication touches the lives of everyone in our congregation,” he says. “She has her finger on the pulse of everything that happens at Temple Shalom, and works closely with our staff and leadership to build a vibrant and meaningful Jewish environment for our community. Her warmth, exuberance and the personal connections that she makes with congregants, students, and their parents are the hallmarks of her leadership.“
In fact, says Sklar, it is thanks to Cohen’s “extraordinary leadership, organization, perseverance, and sheer determination,” that “the preschool was able to expand to an extended-day program, better serving the needs of the working parents in our community.”
Says Sklar, “Her love and care for the staff and children in her programs come through clearly in the smiles that grace our synagogue halls every day. Stacey treats each of these children as her own and really sets the tone for a wonderful, nurturing, and positive educational environment.”
Anne Danaher joined Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford (JFS) in 1987 as director of operations. Her two-year stint as interim executive co-director from 1998 to 2000 was the bellwether of things to come, as she was appointed associate executive director in 2001 and executive director a year later. She has helmed JFS ever since.
And no wonder.
“Anne is always thinking about what is in the best interest of the community,” says Merrill Mandell, JFS president. “She works creatively and collaboratively to ensure that the highest quality counseling, education, and support are given to those who are in need. She is completely committed to the work of JFS and to the people we serve. She is the type of community leader we should all aspire to be.”
To wit, “Anne has contributed to the Greater Hartford Jewish community by building strong alliances both inside and outside that community,” says Joan Margolis, JFS director of Operations and Community Programs, noting that Danaher serves on the boards of both Federation Homes –
low-income, independent housing for older adults and individuals with disabilities, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development – and Catholic Charities, a sister agency of JFS.
“As a colleague and one of the trustees of the governing board of Catholic Charities, Inc., Archdiocese of Hartford, Anne is first and foremost a dedicated and tireless advocate for people who are disadvantaged and in need,” says Marek Kukulka, CEO of Catholic
Charitie-Archdiocese of Hartford. “She is a highly knowledgeable, intuitive, intelligent, caring, sensitive person with implacable ethical and professional values and an ample amount of common sense. She is a very supportive, reliable, loyal, and hard-working professional. It is an absolute delight to work with her.”
Among Danaher’s many projects is the JFS Kosher Food Pantry, which she spearheaded more than 10 years ago. What started in a small JFS closet now distributes 350 bags of food every month, as well as special holiday food packages for Thanksgiving and Passover.
“Anne is at the forefront of organizing those days, packing the bags, often with her husband and other family members working alongside the other volunteers,” says Michael Cohen, 2nd vice president of JFS. “She really has inserted herself into the work that JFS does. She leads by example, by being there to participate in everything. She doesn’t just give orders and hope that everybody else is going to do the work; she decides what needs to be done and then steps up to do it herself, along with everybody else.”
Those duties often extend beyond the usual 9-to-5, 40-hour work week.
“Whenever there’s an after-hours client problem, Anne comes back to the office; she’s come back in the middle of the night to get things done,” Cohen says. “So it’s not just a job for her. We have a mission statement and she makes sure that we fulfill it and she lives our mission for us.”
Looking out and up from the trenches, as Cohen puts it, Danaher inspires co-workers and the community at large.
“I think virtually everyone who has ever come in contact with her in any capacity just marvels at her ability to get things done in often difficult circumstances,” says JFS board member and past president Felix Springer. As a result, he says, “JFS is at a high watermark in terms of community support and respect and people who think well of it.”
JFS Administrative Coordinator Patti Weiner sees Danaher as a mentor, and friend. “It has been an honor and privilege to work with Anne and JFS for the past 20 years,” Weiner says. “Anne demonstrates what it truly means to ‘embrace possibility.’”
Margolis echoes the sentiment. “When we face a challenge, Anne is known to say, ‘We’ll figure it out.’ And under her leadership, we always do.”
In his role as head of JFACT, Bob Fishman is not just an advocate for Connecticut’s Jewish community; he is also, say his many admirers, an “unsung Jewish hero.”
“For 25 years Bob has been the face of the Jewish community at the capital and around the state with various constituencies,” explains Eric Zachs, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. “He has delivered time and time again — from the resettlement of Russian Jews, support of our community infrastructure, recognition of the Holocaust, support of Israel, and now with pressing security needs. More than that, he has formed meaningful bonds and goodwill with governors, legislators and other faith and interest groups. He is unsung. He is a Jewish hero. JFACT is a precious treasure for all Jews of Connecticut.”
Michael Price, the former executive director of Goodspeed Opera House and a past president of JFACT, concurs. “I think that Bob is an authentic leader and moreover, the most important convener or ‘knitter’ for bringing all of the Jews in Connecticut together,” Price says. “He’s really an unsung hero.”
As the head of JFACT, Fishman oversees state and, federal public policy advocacy on behalf of al of Connecticut’s Jewish agencies. He also serves as spokesman to state organizations and interfaith bodies and testifies at state hearings on relevant issues on behalf of all the Connecticut Jewish communities, the elderly, children, immigrants and refugees. Over the years, Fishman succeeded in securing more than $5 million in funds from foundation, state and federal grants for Connecticut Jewish agencies.
Regarded as the “go-to” person for the state’s Jewish communities on matters of public policy, advocacy and more, he has fostered personal relationships with members of Connecticut’s legislature, the governor, as well as the state’s U.S. senators and congressmen. His bridge-building between the Jewish community and state policy makers is appreciated by the heads of the various Jewish Federations around Connecticut.
“Bob is a level-headed, kind, and considerate person,” says Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut. “He has established excellent relationships with the key people in state government and with all the key people in the Jewish Federations throughout the state. He knows how to bring people together and make the case regarding different issues that are important to the Jewish communities and he knows how to present and interpret Israel to the general community. What’s nice for me personally is that he’s taken the time to come to our Federation’s annual meetings and some of our programs. He pays attention to the smallest of Federations as well as to the largest.”
Fischer’s assessment is echoed by other Connecticut Federation heads.
“Bob Fishman has diligently and devotedly served our statewide Jewish community with his work as a lobbyist and his dedication to major issues of our day,” says Sydney Perry, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. “It is nice to know that Bob is always ready to assist whenever it is needed.”
In addition, notes Howard Sovronsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, “[Bob] has been a moving force in getting resources to our community, on behalf of our community, from various government and legislative sources. He’s somebody that the community relies on to be the face of our community in times of crisis.”
In September 2014, Fishman was honored for his work on behalf of Connecticut’s Jewish community as a recipient of the first annual Henry M. Zachs Spirit of Judaism Awards, presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.
A resident of West Hartford, he previously served as executive director of the Connecticut Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, as commissioner of the Connecticut-Israel Economic Exchange, and as a founding board member of Federation Homes.
“Bob Fishman has become the ‘face’ of the Jewish Community at the Legislature and throughout the State,” says CT State Representative David Baram, who has worked with Fishman for more than 30 years. “He lobbies for our priorities including funding for Jonathan’s Dream, the Hebrew Home and Hospital, and the Neighborhood Assistance Act, Holocaust Education, trade with Israel, against anti-Israel BDS campaigns, and promotes coalition building. Without doubt, Bob is one of the most important movers and shakers in Connecticut.”
On our 2004 list of Movers & Shakers, the Ledger’s saluted the coordinators of JCC Jewish book festivals around the state for their hard work in lining up terrific authors and speakers that brought thousands of community members to their book fairs. Among those staff members were Shelley Gans and her colleague, Linda Farr, who produced the JCC of Greater New Haven’s Jewish book festival.
At the time, Gans was director of the Center’s Programs and Cultural Arts, a position she took in 1998. She first joined the JCC several years earlier, leaving a job in the corporate sector to helm the Membership department. In 2009, she was appointed director, garnering many more reasons for praise.
Gans’s job is of the behind-the-scenes variety, and success is evidenced in the smooth running facility she overseas – a facility within which is offered a broad range of programs that enrich body, mind, and spirit and place emphasis on Jewish values. Gans oversees a team of staff members who design and coordinate everything from fitness classes to programs for children and seniors to cultural arts to the Edge of the Woods Market cafe.
“Shelley is dedicated and committed to the JCC and to the betterment of the JCC, first and foremost,” says JCC board president Bob Felice. “For her, it’s all about making sure that the members get the experience that they are looking for, whether they are on the property or through the community outreach programs that we run,” like the recent “Hands on Hanukkah” event held at the Westfield Connecticut Post Mall in Milford.
“There could not be a better person to be the director of the JCC in New Haven than Shelley Gans,” says Sydney Perry, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. “She is vivacious and personable, creative and indefatigable, and driven by her commitment to offering engaging Jewish programs and experiences to the whole Jewish community. From the time she began work at the JCC as director of membership, with a professional background in marketing, Shelley has been a whirlwind of energy and new ideas. We have been very fortunate to have her vision and her skills as program director and now director of the JCC. She is all in, all the time!”
Felice says that Gans’s passion for Judaism is one of her driving forces. “She’s also very smart and creative, and she thinks out of the box quite a lot,” he notes. “She’s not afraid to try new things for the JCC; she takes on any challenge that’s put before her and some that aren’t. For example, she’s not really responsible for fundraising, but she is pioneering a fundraiser for our playground. It may be considered ‘outside’ of what she’s been doing but she’s learning it and she will be good at it. As the head of any non-profit, you juggle a lot of balls and try to manage them as best you can, and Shelley keeps a lot of balls in the air.”
JCC board vice president Scott Hurwitz echoes Felice’s sentiment. “Shelley is an extraordinary person and asset to our community,” he says. “She works tirelessly and enthusiastically to touch everyone in our community with all that the JCC has to offer. Shelley’s love for the JCC and our community touch visitors to the JCC every day. We are lucky to have her.”
Michael Johnston was appointed president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford in February 2012, after serving for three years as CEO of the United Way of Western Connecticut. Prior to working in the nonprofit sector, he spent more than 20 years working on Wall Street in the financial services industry.
It is that experience that makes him so great an asset to the Jewish Community Foundation.
“Michael has brought a new strategic thinking to the work of the Foundation and a new sense of community collaboration between the Federation and Foundation and all the agencies and synagogues in our community,” says Foundation chair Leigh Newman, who is also a past chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. “From the minute he arrived, he forged very strong relations with the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford leadership. Michael has been the driving force behind the Foundation’s Aim Chai campaign, our most public cooperative venture, spearheaded by the Federation and Foundation and engaging 25-plus community partners – synagogues, day schools, and agencies. The idea behind the campaign is that building an endowment to secure the future of the community is not just about the Foundation; it’s about all of our constituents. That has been the centerpiece of the work we’ve done since Michael’s arrival, and he and his staff have really embraced this concept.”
Johnston holds an MBA and Master of Urban Planning/Economic Planning from New York University and a BA in Political Science from Drew University.
“Michael possesses a unique blend of skills: business acumen, spirituality, reasoned decision-making, and a willingness to take risk,” says Foundation board member and past board chair David Miller. “He is an attentive listener and an articulate communicator. He has been broadly embraced by our synagogues, agencies, schools and Hillels as a thought leader with a long-term vision for our community.”
It was Johnston’s vision that led to the development of the Foundation’s new Center for Innovative Philanthropy, says Kathryn Gonnerman, who is the Center’s director. Gonnerman calls Johnston a “natural collaborator, optimist, and voice for Jewish values.”
“Michael consistently advocates on behalf of the community and the needs of the community,” she says. “Some would call that selfless – I would flip that and call it ‘community-full.’ He is a leader in example and word. His speeches, blogs, and thoughtful comments in day-to-day interactions inspire all of us to do better, be better, and take action for what we believe in. He also introduces new ideas, encourages his staff and colleagues, and tirelessly devotes himself to the work.”
Johnston’s counterpart at the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, Howard Sovronsky, says the two have forged a partnership that benefits the entire Jewish community.
“Michael brings to our community a wealth of experience, knowledge, and vision for how we can create a resource base that will ensure the continuous survival and growth of our community,” Sovronsky says. “I’m proud to call him my partner and my friend, and both the Foundation and Federation working together is heralding in a new period of cooperation and collaboration that can only strengthen our community and guarantee its continued vibrancy and growth.”
But Johnston offers something more than just his strategic and business skills.
“He is positive and upbeat and believes in the power of the collective. He lives and breathes Jewish values and brings that to everything he does, which really is an inspiration to everybody who has the good fortune to work with him,” Newman says.
In 2012, Rebekah Kanefsky applied for a counseling position at Jewish Family Service in Stamford. There was none to be had, but CEO Matt Greenberg offered her a part-time receptionist gig. Soon, Kanefsky had picked up all the tasks that were falling through the cracks – donor thank-you letters, social media, constituent database – and cobbled together a full-time development associate position. With no fundraising experience, she created successful online campaigns for Giving Tuesday and Small Business Saturday.
So when two part-time jobs opened up – in case management and the Jewish Family Life Education program – Greenberg refused to lose his ace development staffer, but he knew that Kanefsky wanted to use her counseling degree.
“She took that job and ran with it,” says Greenber. “The numbers of people we were serving more than doubled in less than a year.”
Ditto for the JFS Kosher Food Pantry, opened in 2000, which saw one or two clients a month until the 2008 economic crisis. When Kanefsky took it over, the pantry was providing 6,000 meal units a year. Last year, 24,000 meal units were distributed to more than 800 individuals, and Kanefsky added a monthly fresh produce and baked-goods component to the program.
“That happened just because of Rebekah’s energy and the fact that she was reaching out and making connections,” says Greenberg. “She galvanized a cadre of volunteers who passionately have taken over the food pantry and our Passover and Rosh Hashana food programs.” Kanefsky then went out to engage area Jewish day school students in tzedakah projects that benefit the food pantry.
“Whenever I’m with her in the office, there are phone calls, people coming in, and she drops everything and manages to multi-task. I don’t know how she does it,” says Risa Goldblum, a food-pantry volunteer. “She’s very conscious about confidentiality and being respectful of somebody who might be uncomfortable about being needy. She’s very open to suggestions and very collaborative, which I love about her. If I come up with an idea, she says, ‘Great, just do it.’”
Kanefsky juggles a job that often requires evening and weekend duties, with family life – raising three children, who help out with programs like a recent Thanksgiving food drive outside a Stamford Stop and Shop. She just secured a $30,000 grant from MAZON – A Jewish Response to Hunger to identify seniors in the community who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“Rebekah’s just one of those employees who does what you ask them to do, who’s always got a smile on her face, who’s happy to come to work, who takes her job not only seriously but cares about it, pushes it,” says Greenberg.
That dedication means “failure’s not an option,” says Eve Moskowitz, director of Clinical Services at JFS. In November, Kanefsky decided that JFS should “adopt” several area Jewish families who couldn’t afford Chanukah gifts, reaching out to the Stamford community and beyond for donations. As soon as toys and clothing had filled every available space in the JFS office, Kanefsky launched a coat drive.
“I think Rebekah falls asleep thinking, ‘What can I do to help?’” says Moskowitz. “She’s just a pure, good-hearted soul who is loving her job and loves to help people, which all comes from a place of goodness. She’s kind, patient, empathic, and people love her.”
Ordained in 1999 from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, this year Rabbi Craig Marantz marks his 10th anniversary as spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Haverim in Glastonbury. In addition to his position as head of the Reform congregation, Marantz has served as chaplain of the Connecticut House of Representatives of the State of Connecticut since 2013 and on the Crane Lake Camp summer faculty.
“Rabbi Craig is the spiritual leader of a diverse congregation, and he steps up to that challenge with intellect and grace, providing an environment that is welcoming and stimulating,” says congregant Dr. Aaron R. Sherman. “Founded in faith, he makes Judaism relevant in our times and extends that compassion beyond merely the Jewish community. He is a constant reminder that Judaism is founded upon principles of peace, tolerance, inclusion, love, and faith. Its messages and relevance extend to all of humankind. His teaching and leadership directs all who care to listen to lead a fuller life based on good deeds, kindness, and community.”
Marantz is known for his dedication to interfaith relations and social justice. At Kol Haverim, he works with the outreach committee on programming geared toward interfaith families. As a member of the Glastonbury Interfaith Clergy Group, he involves his congregants in community-wide events like the annual Thanksgiving worship service and the annual Holiday Toy Drive for the Village for Families & Children in Hartford.
“Though Rabbi Marantz is an incredibly gifted teacher of Scripture, he is also open to the wisdom of other faith traditions,” says Rev. Dick Allen of the,Congregational Church in South Glastonbury. “Whenever the community is called together, Rabbi Marantz shows up with his guitar, his prayer shawl, and his wisdom. He is passionate about justice. He takes responsibility for mending the parts of Creation that are still broken.”
He engages with challenging current events, telling the Ledger in August that it is the duty of a pulpit rabbi to discuss the Iran nuclear deal from the bimah. In addition, in September, Marantz traveled to Raleigh, N.C. to take part in America’s Journey for Justice, an historic 40-day, 860-mile march from Selma, Ala. to Washington, D.C., organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in partnership with the NAACP. The event encouraged activism to protect the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education. Last month, Kol Haverim was the site of a memorial service for Richard Lakin, a Glastonbury resident who made aliyah and was murdered by a Jerusalem terrorist attack in October.
“It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to partner with Rabbi Craig musically and spiritually over the last decade of my 20-year tenure at Kol Haverim,” says cantorial soloist Tami Cherdack Sherman. “What stands out the most about Craig Marantz is not merely his role as a rabbi but who he is as a person. He does not merely talk the talk; he walks the walk. Leaders can lead by word or example, but rarely do they consistently do both and Rabbi Craig is unfaltering in his mission to do so.”
Christina Cohen remembers the first time she met Rebecca Olshansky.
“I attended a group tour of Tower One/Tower East and Becky spoke to the group about her decision to move her mother to the Towers. It immediately became clear to me how devoted she was to not only her mother, but to the Towers residents in general,” Cohen recalls.
Soon after this first meeting, Cohen began working with Olshansky on the “Towers Times” newsletter and other projects, as a volunteer graphic designer for Tower One/Tower East, an apartment and assisted living community for senior adults located in New Haven whose mission “is to provide older persons of varying means with high quality living arrangement and services based upon Jewish values and traditions.”
“I have been working regularly with her for more than five years now,” Cohen says. “Not only do we communicate about the various projects we are working on; we frequently send each other long emails just about ‘life.’ Through this I feel that she isn’t just someone I’m working with, but a friend as well.”
A native of West Haven who now lives in Milford, Olshansky attended Mitchell College and began working at Tower One/Tower East in 1998 when she was hired as marketing and fundraising coordinator. By 2002, she was serving as marketing and admission manager, which eventually led to her role as director of marketing and occupancy.
“Becky has been a dedicated employee of Tower One/Tower East for 17-plus years and is recognized as a leader in the industry,” says Mark Garilli, the facility’s president and CEO. “She continues to offer the best in housing with services for our residents and our Greater New Haven Jewish elders.”
In addition to her work at Tower One/Tower East, Olshansky also serves on the boards and committees of organizations such as the InterAgency Council-South Central Area on Aging, the Greater New Haven Chamber Healthcare Council, the Shoreline Eldercare Alliance, the New Haven Senior Networking Group, the Connecticut Assisted Living Association, and Leading Age of Connecticut.
“Becky probably has one of the busiest schedules of anyone I know, between being a great mom to her daughter and spending long hours at the Towers,” Cohen says. “No matter how late at night I email her about a project, she emails me back even later!”
Garilli lauds Olshansky for her dedication to both Tower One/Tower East and the local elder population and agreed that he considers her a “Mover & Shaker.”
“Year after year, Becky volunteers her time on countless boards and committees and we are proud of her dedicated service to the community,” he adds.
When Joshua Ratner left the world of corporate law to enter the Jewish Theological Seminary, a collective cheer went up in the Jewish community of Greater New Haven. Not really, but it would, six years later, when Ratner became a Jewish communal professional in two arenas: the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. Ratner first appeared on the Greater New Haven scene just after ordination in 2012, when he became the last rabbi of Kol Ami in Cheshire, shepherding the Conservative congregation through its closing in May 2014.
Ratner joined the JCRC in 2013 and Slifka in 2014. He packs a lot into the two part-time roles, often bringing them together, as he did in the recent community-wide program commemorating the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Here’s how Sydney Perry, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, describes Ratner and his impact. “If you think Sheryl Sandberg is a superwoman, raising a family and having a demanding career, I’d like to introduce you to her male counterpart, Rabbi Josh Ratner. Josh, father of four, seems to be able to balance a very active family life, allowing his wife Elana, an obstetrician-oncologist, to practice her profession, [while he is] teaching and preaching at Yale, leading the Conservative minyan, programming and doing outreach work with graduate students, and working part-time in interfaith community relations. Whether meeting with the clergy in Mayor Toni Harp’s office, convening the seven community synagogues who are assisting with resettling immigrants, giving workshops on ecological and environmental issues, or responding to groups considering boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, Josh never appears harried or stressed. He just leans in and with his keen intelligence, interpersonal skills, and excellent public speaking style, gets the job done. Originally trained as a lawyer, Josh Ratner then chose to be a rabbi and a life of service, and the Jewish community in New Haven is fortunate that he did so.”
At Yale, “Rabbi Josh is a wonderful and compassionate teacher of Jewish values,” says Rabbi Leah Cohen, executive director and senior Jewish chaplain at the Slifka Center. “He embodies a warm, inclusive approach to Judaism which inspires students and helps them connect to their community and faith.”
It is not unusual to encounter inventories of admirable characteristics and deeds listed by Ratner’s colleagues, says Allan Hillman, president of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut and past JCRC chair.
“Josh has demonstrated remarkable intellect; a kind and sensitive manner; a deep concern for social justice, interfaith and interracial harmony and understanding; and other causes relevant to the local Jewish community, including hunger, education, elderly community-members, and the environment, and not least, the cause of a secure, free, just, and compassionate State of Israel.”
At 40, Ratner is poised to have a significant impact on the Jewish community.
“He is a man of grace, generosity, and diplomatic skill – all essential in the performance of his role as a Jewish leader,” says Hillman. “I cannot overstate how much I have appreciated the opportunity to work with Josh, and how fortunate our community is that he is here, serving with and guiding us. He is one of our finest young leaders, without question, and is truly a mensch.”
When describing Nancy Schiffman, Eric Koehler, CEO of the Stamford Jewish Community Center, cites the book, Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie.
“In the book, there’s an assessment test to determine your five strongest talents, which you can leverage to work better in your home or professional or social environment,” Koehler explains. “One of Nancy’s talents — and it’s one of my favorites — is ‘WOO,’ winning others over; that’s something that’s in her DNA and that she’s so good at. She’s so infectiously positive that it’s easy to be won over and want to work with her.”
Hired in May of 2000 as managing director of youth services, Schiffman was promoted to associate executive director in 2007.
Her primary focus is community engagement, Koehler says. In addition, she’s in charge of programming related to Israel, adults, and arts, including: Tsahal Shalom, an annual program that brings active duty IDF soldiers to the community; the JCC Shaliach program and the Jewish Arts & Film Festival of Fairfield County.
“These programs require a significant amount of fundraising because they don’t sustain themselves, so we have to rely on the passion and generosity of our community to ensure that those programs can be delivered annually. Nancy has a leadership role in making all that happen,” Koehler says. “She is one of the most dedicated, committed, caring, passionate JCC employees. She just never stops until she gets done what she needs to get done. The JCC is truly in her heart. She loves everyone who is willing or potentially willing to be involved at the JCC and in its programs and services, and people really love her because she exudes such love and kindness.”
“Nancy has been an integral part of why I’m involved in the JCC,” says Joy Katz, vice president of the JCC’s board of directors, a committee member of the Jewish Arts & Film Festival and past co-chair of Tzahal Shalom. “As an individual: she is ‘menschy’ —she really has her heart and soul in the JCC and in the Jewish community. You feel the love she has for what she does and who she meets. She’s a genuine person. I think that’s the most important contribution that she makes: her genuine connection to the people and to the community.”
JCC President Jeff Goldblum marvels at Schiffman’s great attitude.
“When I think of Nancy, the first thing that pops into my head is ruach. Nancy is the spirit, heart and soul of the Stamford Jewish Community Center,” says Goldblum.
Schiffman also holds a special place in the hearts of Stamford JCC’s volunteers.
“Year after year, she brings fresh enthusiasm and joy to the programs she runs. I work with her on Tzahal Shalom and it never becomes routine,” said Wendy Handler, the Stamford JCC Volunteer of the Year 2015. “She reminds us each year of our purpose and mission and brings new excitement all over again. It’s infectious. She also has a way of working with her volunteers that makes us each feel appreciated and valued, not once at the end of the project, but with every interaction.
Volunteer Lorraine Kweskin calls Schiffman her “‘Can Do’ model.”
“She is so receptive and supportive of new, out of the box ideas,’ Kweskin says. “She is the warmest, kindest person I have ever had the privilege of working with. We are so lucky to have her on our J-Team!”
In a way, Ita Selengut may have saved the Jewish community of Waterbury.
“A few years ago, we had a beautiful community and a wonderful private elementary school but we were at a crossroads,” says Rabbi Baruch Levine, vice principal of the Yeshiva K’tana elementary school. “Our girls had to go away to New York and New Jersey for high school, and it was not ideal to have young girls, 13 and 14 years old, boarding away from home. We realized that if we didn’t get a principal in to start a girls’ school, our community would be in limbo, because continuity has to do with education.”
A search committee of parents, including Levine, received a recommendation about Ita Selengut, who had a good job teaching at a girls’ school in Brooklyn. “All we asked of her was to come visit for Shabbos,” says Levine. “She came and realized that there’s a calling and a need here that she knew she could fill in her confident yet humble way.”
Rabbi Yehuda Brecher is principal of the Yeshiva K’tana and one of nine original families who helped rebuild the Orthodox Jewish community in Waterbury 15 years ago. He calls Selengut’s decision nothing less than “make or break” for the community.
“She kept a lot of families, ours included, from moving on,” he says. “I had sent away my two boys to a yeshiva in New York and we didn’t want to have to send away a third child.”
Bais Yaakov High School – the only Orthodox girls’ high school in the state – welcomed its first ninth-grade class of four students in September 2013. “But Mrs. Selegut ran it as if there were 400,” Levine says. “Even being very budget-conscious, the girls got something in every area – education, extra-curricular activities, doing chesed, doing play productions. In the first year, there was a staff of 20 – a lot of volunteers. She wanted these girls to get the full experience of being in a top-notch girls’ high school. And being a visionary, she was plannng for the future: she knew that soon, there WOULD be 400.”
Now in its third year, Bais Yaakov is fed by the Yeshiva K’tana and has 18 students in three grades. The school will expand to accommodate its rising 12th-graders next year.
“Mrs. Selengut is an initiator,” Levine says. “She took this job and ran with it; she didn’t wait to rely on other people to step up to the plate. She initiates things that she’s not even asked to do, both in the school and in the community. I don’t think she has a lazy bone in her body. At the same time, she and her husband, Yehuda – a scholar and community leader in his own right – manage to raise an amazing family.”
Levine says that Selengut has the reputation among students as being no-nonsense and fair, someone who is committed to their physical and emotional well-being.
“Mrs. Selengut is an amazing principal,” says 11th-grader Sarah Brecher. “She has the creativity and charisma to make our small school into a full-fledged, high-level institution. BYW is a place that is challenging, fun, and fulfilling, where each girl is cared for by Mrs. Selengut as if she were her own daughter.”
The girls’ high school is just the latest pillar holding up a growing Orthodox community that has been steadily adding amenities to attract and retain members. Levine predicts that this expansion will continue. “And when Waterbury becomes a huge Jewish community in Connecticut,” he says, “Mrs. Selengut can take a huge piece of that credit.”
Next year marks Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus’s 35th anniversary as spiritual leader of Congregation Or Shalom in Orange.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Wainhaus was raised in an Orthodox home in Boro Park, Brooklyn and received his ordination at Yeshiva Beit Meir in Tel Aviv in 1972. He gravitated toward Conservative Judaism, serving congregations in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and Manhattan until 1981, when he became the first and only rabbi of Congregation Or Shalom, the merged entity of the Orange Synagogue Center and Temple B’nai Shalom in Milford.
A professional musician who performed and recorded with the late Hebrew folk-singer, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, he frequently incorporates his music into his sermons and services. Fluent in Yiddish, Wainhaus is a noted lecturer on Yiddish humor. In 2005, he received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan for his contributions to the Jewish community.
“Rabbi Wainhaus is a very warm and giving person and for him, synagogue life is all about the kids and what we can do to keep the kids engaged in a time when that’s harder and harder to do,” says Jody Dietch, former Or Shalom administrator and current administrator at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge.
Wainhaus connects the teens to the greater community, taking them on monthly trips to deliver “Teen Tech Talks” at the Orange Senior Center or to meet with residents at Tower One/Tower East in New Haven; to the Or Shalom Cemetery in West Haven before Veterans Day to put American flags on the veterans’ gravesites; and to replace missing numbers on seniors’ mailboxes so that emergency vehicles can locate the houses. At the synagogue, he coaches teen cantors and can often be found with the eighth-graders, playing ping-pong or out in the parking lot, teaching the authentic Brooklyn stickball he played as a child. He also leads congregational bus trips to New York’s Jewish Museum, the Lower East Side or to Boro Park to celebrate Purim.
As a member of the Orange Interfaith Clergy Fellowship, Wainhaus is involved in community-wide programs like the interfaith Thanksgiving service and the annual Hope After Loss service for parents who have lost a child, as well as the forum on violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings.
Fr. Peter Orfanakos of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Orange has worked with Wainhaus in the Fellowship for more than 20 years. “He is a dear friend and colleague who tirelessly works for the well-being of the Town of Orange and the spiritual well-being and edification of the members of his synagogue and the Greater New Haven area,” says Orfanakos. “You can always count on Alvin for his passionate outlook on life and his sincere desire to make the world a much better place.”
Wainhaus brings Torah to Jews and non-Jews alike through his long-running weekly class, “Coffee &… Learn!” which explores what the Torah has to say about contemporary issues.
Among the students – often numbering 60 or 70 – is Rev. Stoddard “Tod” King, the retired pastor of the Orange Congregational Church.
Of Wainhaus, King says: “He’s compassionate, well-read, and alert to contemporary issues. I’ve learned more about Judaism in the years I’ve been in Orange than I ever learned in seminary. That’s been a very happy and positive experience and Alvin has certainly been at the center of that. He’s my rabbi.”
Or Shalom administrator Rachel Steigleder, who grew up at the synagogue, attributes the rabbi’s success to his human touch with everyone who walks into the sanctuary. “When non-Jews come to our synagogue for a bar or bat mitzvah, Rabbi Wainhaus makes them so welcome,” she says. “He’s right at their level and explains the service and the customs and makes them feel included. My [non-Jewish] in-laws were so intimidated when they first came but they left adoring Rabbi Wainhaus.”
Linda Zwerdling, chair of Or Shalom Adult Education, calls Wainhaus the “lifeblood of the synagogue.”
“He is loved by all age groups,” she says. “He adores the children; he has set aside the first Friday of the month as a family service, where he gets down on the floor and reads and acts out books for the kids. He comes to every single board meeting and committee meeting. He dresses up for Purim. He does hours of research for our annual Kristallnacht program.”
In the Greater New Haven Jewish community, Wainhaus can be found teaching at the annual A Taste of Honey celebration of Jewish learning and participating in the communal Lag B’Omer program.
“He’s a people’s rabbi,” Zwerdling says. “I once asked him why, when he signs something, he doesn’t sign it with capital R for ‘Rabbi.’ He said, ‘I am just a regular person; I want to be on the same level as everybody else.’ He embraces that. He would drop anything and do for anybody. He’s just a real cool dude.”
Karen Wyckoff has headed the Mandell JCC’s Camp Shalom for 21 years.
But It’s not only the length of her tenure that’s impressive; perhaps even more significant is the fact that she took a break in 2001 and was asked back to rebuild the camp’s reputation and registration after a not-so-successful summer. By summer 2002, Wyckoff had restored Camp Shalom’s standing in the Greater Hartford Jewish community, and has served as its director ever since. When camp is not in session, Wyckoff oversees youth programming at the Mandell JCC, including the youth and teen theater programs and the Teen Leadership Initiative.
“Karen Wyckoff IS Camp Shalom,” says David Jacobs, the JCC’s executive director. “What stands out most to me about her is her consistency. Year after year, she jumps in to provide a treasured summer outdoor experience that builds character, strengthens values and makes treasured members. She’s so attuned to the campers’ needs and she has seen two generations of children come through the camp – welcoming children today whose parents are Camp Shalom alumni.”
Dr. Dena Hoberman is one of those alumni who was a camper and a counselor, as well as the parent of a camper.
“Karen is the most deeply-feeling person I’ve ever met,” says Hoberman, the current camp doctor. “She so wants the kids to have a good experience. I have remained involved in the camp for so long because it is my happy place. When I am stressed in my life, instead of traditional yoga or meditation, I close my eyes and go to that little patch on the Rainbow Reservoir in Windsor and think about carefree summer days. That camp drew me into Judaism more than the synagogue or Hebrew school or anything else that I did. It was my holy place.”
Longtime Mandell JCC board member and past president Brian Newman sent his two kids to Camp Shalom; his son returned for the past two summers as a counselor.
“I’ve always had a great love for Camp Shalom because I view it as one of the great resources in the Jewish community,” Newman says. “My kids really loved the place, where they made lasting friendships, had great recreation, and strengthened their Jewish learning. Having Karen as the face of the camp has been great for the JCC.”
Dr. Stephen Becker, former executive director of HARC, sends his twin great-nieces to Camp Shalom on their annual summer visits from New York. “My initial interaction with Karen was to find out about the camps, and I immediately got the impression that she was totally immersed in the field of children’s recreation,” Becker recalls. “If you combine her skills and knowledge, personal characteristics and passion, and administration and supervision, Karen has the pulse on everything that goes on at that camp.”
Hoberman describes a typical encounter with Wyckoff, at a recent audition for a JCC Youth Theater production. “My daughter, Jane, was very nervous because she’s never auditioned before,” Hoberman recalls. “A little girl came out of the audition and Jane was asking her what to expect. When she heard that Karen was in the audition, there was an audible sigh of relief. Karen has that way about her: she makes the kids comfortable and happy with where they’re at.”