By Cindy Mindell
BRIDGEPORT – In August, the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County (FJP) welcomed its new executive director, David I. Weisberg. The 18-month-old merged entity of UJA/Federation of Eastern Fairfield County and UJA/Federation Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk, FJP moved in June from its Westport offices to the new Jewish Senior Services campus on Park Avenue in Bridgeport, where the JCC of Eastern Fairfield County stood for 50 years. Weisberg, 48, succeeds Steven M. Friedlander, who served as CEO of UJA/Federation Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk and FJP for 11 years.
A native of Philadelphia, Weisberg was two when his family moved to Harrisburg, Pa., where they joined Chisuk Emuna Congregation, a Conservative synagogue, and the JCC, where his mother was a director of the nursery school.
“It was kind of the center of my Jewish existence,” Weisberg says of the JCC. “This was where much of my life was spent – playing JCC floor hockey and being in the teen musicals, and joining the AZA [BBYO chapter], which eventually became the biggest part of my high school years.”
It was at BBYO that Weisberg first encountered opportunities to serve in leadership roles, and ultimately was elected regional president.
After graduating from Penn State University with a degree in American Studies, Weisberg spent the early part of his career in local government. At age 23, he became town manager in Mahanoy City, Pa. (population 5,000), a borough in the once-thriving Coal Region of the state. After three years, Weisberg became town manager of Columbia, Pa.
By then, Weisberg was married and a father to two elementary school-aged daughters, and his Jewish life had waned at college and during his tenure in municipal government. When he and his then-wife decided to seek a Jewish community for their family, Weisberg applied for the executive director position at the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center, and got the job.
“At the time, I described the opportunity as someone who grew up as a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies and then got to manage the team,” he says. “That’s what it was like for me to run the JCC that I grew up in; that was my dream job.”
Less than a year later, the director of the United Jewish Community of Greater Harrisburg announced his departure, and Weisberg was encouraged to apply for the job, while also retaining his JCC position. He was hired, serving from 1999 to 2007 as executive director of both organizations and answering to two discrete boards. “Sometimes the boards would disagree and they would ask me to argue it out amongst myself, which I would do,” he says. “Halfway through my tenures, for reasons other than my own sanity, I convinced the community to do a merger.” In 2002, the United Jewish Community of Greater Harrisburg and the JCC were consolidated into the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg.”
Weisberg rallied the community through difficult experiences, from a major flood on the JCC property to the death of a young community member in the July 2002 Hebrew University bombing. He also helped to increase the Jewish Federation’s fundraising campaign and JCC membership.
In 2007, Weisberg was tapped to become the first executive director of Friends of the Arava Institute, an environmental and academic institution in Israel that works to advance cross-border environmental cooperation. In addition to being able to run the non-profit from Harrisburg, Weisberg was intrigued by the idea of working for an Israeli organization.
“The work that they did was largely uncharted territory for me – both their focus on environmental studies and their student body, made up of Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and others,” he says. “So working in one of these unique areas of cross-border cooperation was a powerful experience for me. There were powerful stories that came out of that and I built relationships with people who I never would have spoken to otherwise. Beyond anything, it gave me a sense of hope in the long term.”
Weisberg also enlisted the help of many celebrities to promote Arava’s cause, including the legendary American folk singer, Pete Seeger.
“I had to navigate with him through very difficult circumstances, when he was pressured by the BDS movement to pull out of an event that supported the work of the Arava Institute,” Weisberg says. “So I had to go head-to-head with the BDS movement to keep Pete engaged with our work and the program that he was involved in.”
After four years, Weisberg moved on to direct the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, leading the organization through a significant turnaround process. He helped stabilize a difficult financial situation, diversify the center’s programming, and expand its markets. The transition resulted in the groundbreaking 2014 merger between Isabella Freedman and Hazon, the largest Jewish environmental non-profit in North America. Weisberg co-directed the new entity with Hazon founder Nigel Savage, who now serves as the merged organization’s president and CEO.
While at Isabella Freedman, Weisberg created new programs to engage Jews who were often completely disconnected from Jewish life. Among all the innovation, Weisberg is proudest of the Jewish LGBTQ & Ally Shabbato which, according to Weisberg, was the first national Jewish LGBTQ event in the country, presented in partnership with the national non-profit Keshet organization.
In 2015, after working for 25 years without a break, Weisberg left Isabella Freedman and took a six-month hiatus, working on projects in the music and theater worlds. When it was time to seek out his next undertaking, he learned of the opportunity in Bridgeport.
“What I look for – because it’s what I enjoy doing – are organizations that are in transition, communities where there’s a need for increased Jewish engagement,” he says. “I’ve always said that someday I’ll go to a place that’s a finished product, but I don’t think that would be as much fun. I like the opportunity to come and make change and fix things. There’s clearly a board here that’s very open to that, that views this newly-merged organization as being a start-up, and that’s very attractive to me.”
The FJP board selected Weisberg because of his notable track record.
“David’s unique skills and expertise in leading organizations through mergers, turnarounds, and transitions, while developing innovative solutions to build community, reach the under-served, and engage the disengaged, are perfectly tailored to address the opportunities in our community,” says FJP board chair Bonnie Slyn.
Weisberg has spent his first six weeks meeting people across the 11 towns and two cities in FJP’s catchment area, and has already floated several ideas to the board and other Jewish community leaders.
“It’s been a very welcoming community and one of the things that’s most important to me is that we make sure that this is as welcoming a community to others and provides the opportunities for engagement and involvement to others that it has for me,” he says. “I believe that we don’t engage people by telling them what they need to think; we engage them by meeting them where their interests are, and that’s part of the transition that we need to go through, as a federation and as central Jewish institutions: to understand that our population has changed and interests have changed and we need to be willing to meet folks where their interests are and use those interests as portals for engagement.”
For starters, Weisberg estimates that at least 50 percent of the area’s Jews are disengaged, a reality fueled by two major factors: as described in the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, half of the Jewish population nationwide don’t identify with the organized Jewish community. And, at the local level, the FJP Jewish community is congregationally based, so it’s challenging for Jews to engage without affiliating with a synagogue.
“So we need to open doors that allow folks to feel connected to the Jewish community without having to take a big leap when, at first, they might want to just take a step,” Weisberg says. “Those are the kinds of structures that we need to develop. We need to provide those opportunities for folks to feel welcome and get their feet wet and be on a Jewish journey.”
After seeing several Jewish organizations through transitional processes, is there a secret behind the successful turnaround?
“At the end of the day, it’s about crafting a vision that’s reflective of your constituency and around which they can feel ownership,” Weisberg says. “Federation needs to not look at itself as an umbrella that’s over everything, but as something that’s owned by everyone and has a role and a vision that the community crafts together.”
Weisberg says that FJP is gearing up for just that sort of communal process, planned for early 2017.
CAP: David I. Weisberg