INSIDE UJA: We Are All One Large Community

In conversation with William Kleinbaum

Based in Israel, William Kleinbaum (known to most as “Willie”) has served as the Managing Director of Israel & Overseas at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto for over five years. With deep knowledge of the needs and challenges in our overseas communities, Willie leads our strategic support of projects in Eastern Europe and Israel related to immigration assistance, mental health and trauma supports, community-building, and much more. Willie chatted with UJA’s Rebecca Ostroff about the unique experiences and passions that brought him to this role, and what his work has looked like over the past year.

Tell me a bit about your background. Did you grow up in Israel?

As the name “Willie” suggests, I was born in the States. My family made Aliyah when I was about three-years-old. I had a very Israeli upbringing, but my parents, my sister and I mostly spoke English at home.

You’ve trained as a medic. Did you ever think about pursuing a career in the medical field?

After high school I worked in a hospital as an orderly. I thought it would be interesting and exciting, as well as an opportunity to help people, which for me is very important. My dad and uncle are both doctors. I think that’s what actually drew me away from that career path, because I know what it includes. If your heart is not fully in it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it, and you could really do a disservice to someone.

I actually think that’s good advice for any career path.

Yes, definitely. Eventually I decided to go to Ben-Gurion University to study political science and history. One of the professors suggested I go to on this program with a group of other students, where they issue a delegation to a Jewish community that's on the verge of extinction. So I was very fortunate to spend close to eight weeks in a community in Ukraine in 2009. This was my first real introduction to this consciousness of Jewish peoplehood. I got a sense that, in some way, that community in Ukraine also belongs to me. That we are all one large community.

What did you do when you got back to Israel?

There's this NGO called “Nalaga’at”, which in Hebrew means “please touch”. It operates a cultural center with a deaf-blind theater group and cafe where all the waiters are blind or visually impaired, and they serve food in complete darkness. After working there for a short while, I was asked to move to the fundraising team. And I started managing the shows. I picked up sign language and was involved and moving the whole center to New York for about six weeks, then managing the restaurant there. It really opened up a whole world for me that I wasn’t previously aware of. My wife and I actually got married there at the center. One of the partners who we worked with was the British Council. They asked me to work on their partnerships and strategic planning vision. After leading the strategic planning and partnerships there for four years, I joined the Federation.

In light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, has your role at UJA looked different this past year?

UJA has always been very mindful of Ukraine, the social needs there, and trying to rebuild the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union where it didn't exist. But the recent crisis really showed us how fragile life is in general, and how precarious Jewish life and Jewish existence is in so many places. Jews in Russia and Ukraine are looking to Israel for support, and are looking to organizations like the Jewish Agency to help keep their Jewish existence and experiences going. I’m so grateful for the work done in past years by my predecessors and people at UJA to make sure strong infrastructures are there. Because of that, we’ve been able to mobilize so quickly to get people out of danger and provide assistance for people who can't or won't leave Ukraine for whatever reason.

It's a bit scary to think of what would happen without those infrastructures.

It really is. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow. And that’s the challenge, right? In addition to the war, there's all the recovery that needs to get done in its aftermath. And that's going to be a huge undertaking, which we don’t know the magnitude of yet. It's definitely something that we're focused on and attuned to now.

Rebecca Ostroff serves as a Content Writer at UJA.

William Kleinbaum serves as UJA’s Managing Director, Israel & Overseas.