Experiencing the Power of Community

By John S. Ruskay

As some of you may know, my mother passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 93, having lived a long and vibrant life. I’ve been under the radar for some time now, first dealing with her final illness, then with her death and sitting shivah. In these last months and weeks, I’ve experienced firsthand the kind of caring community that I speak of so often. There is no surprise here, just appreciation.

During her final weeks, my mother received exquisite care at the Mollie and Jack Zicklin Jewish Hospice Residence in Riverdale, created six years ago through UJA-Federation’s end-of-life initiative. And when she died, the comfort and kindnesses that were shown to my family and me by visits, cards, calls, emails, and delivered meals vividly illustrate the embrace of the Jewish community. We do not give tzedakah to receive it in return, nor build community to serve ourselves. But pivoting from giver to recipient — from one who calls for the creation of caring and inspired community, to one who is experiencing its power — leaves an indelible imprint.

As my family and I adjust to a new personal reality, life also moves forward. The power of our community was also evident last week as our philanthropic leaders gathered at the home of Andrew and Ann Tisch for the launch of UJA-Federation’s 2012 Annual Campaign. Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister, Dan Meridor, brilliantly outlined the changing reality in the Middle East and thanked all in the room for “having their hearts and minds with the state of Israel.”

Twenty-four years ago, Andrew Tisch, then our major gifts chair, asked Ace and Kathy Greenberg to host the launch for the 1988 annual campaign. Over the years, this annual event, which became known as “Greenberg,” has raised a staggering $719.4 million. This year’s event paid tribute to Ace and Kathy, as philanthropic leaders John Rosenwald, John Paulson, Andrew Tisch, and others toasted the Greenbergs. Kyle Koeppel, their granddaughter, thanked them for being such an inspiring model. While the venue was different, the spirit of the Greenbergs imbued the evening with intimacy, warmth, and an animated sense of purpose. More than 100 major donors gathered and, together with those unable to attend, pledged a record-breaking $44 million. As men and women stood to announce their gifts, many recalled longstanding friendships and family ties to UJA-Federation.

Next week, I head west, joining a UJA-Federation contingent chaired by Evelyn Kenvin and Cheryl Fishbein, together with President Jerry Levin and Board Chair Alisa Doctoroff, at the General Assembly (GA) in Denver, Colorado. This is the largest annual gathering in the Jewish philanthropic world, and I look forward to experiencing the energy and vitality of diverse Jewish communities and the many other organizations, large and small, whether in formal sessions or in the hallways. I will report back when I return.

Until then, I thank each of you — our board, volunteers, staff, and agency leadership — for all that you do to strengthen our community. I extend this appreciation today not only as CEO, but also as someone who has experienced yet again the power and meaning of what we make possible every day.

John S. Ruskay is executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.

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