Since discovering the power of tzedakah and the rewards of giving back to the Jewish community some 30 years ago, Jeff now brings his extensive Jewish community leadership experience to the role of Chair. This includes having previously served as Vice-Chair of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and Co-Chair for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the advocacy agent of Canada’s Jewish Federations. Jeff’s involvement with UJA stems back to 2011, when he served as Co-Chair of UJA’s Annual Campaign.
Jeff’s previous community roles include serving as Vice-Chair of the Sinai Health Foundation, Co-Founder of Venture Sinai, and Chair of the Canadian Shaare Zedek Hospital Foundation.
We recently sat down with Jeff to learn more about him, his vision for our community, and the importance of our collective efforts to strengthen the Jewish people.
We’re about to cover a range of topics about how you hope to help realize the vision of a strong and engaged Toronto Jewish community. Before we do, let’s touch upon the topic of Israel. This has been a tumultuous time for world Jewry in light of ongoing security concerns. What are your thoughts about how UJA can best address these recent events locally?
There’s no doubt that it has been a challenging time for Israelis. Once again, Israel came under attack and needed to defend itself. Israelis are now living through a number of immediate security concerns that have Diaspora communities heavily engaged in discussion about the best way forward to ensure a thriving and secure Jewish nation-state.
Notwithstanding these external threats that arose over Passover, Israel has been internally divided politically and socially, bringing significant numbers out in protest of proposed government reforms and the way they were introduced. Our incredible Toronto community, like much of the Diaspora, finds itself in similar circumstances as the debate continues. But from my point of view, no matter how polarized or heated those conversations get, we see, as ever, the impassioned engagement from all sides that reveals a fundamental truth within our community—a united love and caring for Israel.
UJA is hopeful that the negotiations now taking place between Knesset parties under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog will culminate in a compromise that will be reasonably acceptable for all. However, it’s important to remember that those discussions—as well as the protests themselves—are a testament to the democratic nature and strength of Israeli society. And that strength is reflected in our local community and communities worldwide. For Diaspora Jews, this is a moment to lean-in—to deepen our engagement with the people of Israel. When Israelis are hurting and under fire, we must be there to help them.
There are many ways to do that here in Toronto. One way is via our upcoming annual Walk with Israel, that sees tens of thousands of people join in solidarity to celebrate the nation and raises funds to support some of Israel’s residents experiencing vulnerability. To be absolutely clear, dollars raised by UJA only go to civil society projects that may not otherwise get funded, to support those in need. Another example is our Israel 75 mission, which will deliver a once-in-a-lifetime experience to participants that will deepen their connection to the country.
How did you get involved with UJA Federation and Jewish community work?
My initial involvement with the community began as a result of being drawn in by a family friend who was involved with the State of Israel Bonds organization many years ago. I found the experience of giving time to the community to be very positive. Later, my wife Lori and I both became involved with UJA, and we found that we had become part of a community of likeminded people, sharing similar Jewish values.
My experience volunteering with UJA allowed me to appreciate the uniqueness and depth of our Toronto community. The Federation was very accommodating in helping Lori and I find roles that were of great interest, and allowed us to make an impact.
As you note, you’ve been involved with different community organizations in the past. What makes UJA Federation stand out for you?
I want to note that all the organizations I’ve been involved with addressed very important needs, but the breadth of UJA’s impact is unlike any other. UJA reaches and touches so many people, both across and outside of our community. UJA is able to bring operating and financial leverage to the table to increase its impact. As a lay leader, one can really see the results of the work completed over time. It’s truly gratifying.
We are incredibly fortunate that there is such a high caliber, talented group of lay leaders to draw from in our community, and they do some very heavy lifting in support of the organization. Of course, the actual “blocking and tackling” of issues on the ground gets done by UJA’s highly talented and dedicated professional staff. We are very fortunate to have such an exceptional group of people working for the community.
How would you describe your personal approach to lay leadership? What key traits or skills do you hope to bring to your role?
Having been engaged with UJA and CIJA for so long, I hope that I am able to bring a strategic perspective to the big issues that face our community and UJA specifically. I really enjoy helping to achieve the delicate balance often required when dealing with these complex issues and the inevitable array of positions that arise. This is a broad leadership role in a complex organization, and there are so many smart people involved–both professional and volunteer–to learn from and listen to, on a myriad of issues.
As I stepped into this role, one of my core objectives was to stay focused on elevating the level at which lay leadership engaged. I'll consider it a success if two years forward, I have been able to help the board function at a more strategic level, leaving the day-to-day tactics and operations to our professionals. We need to continue to find, develop and incent the best professional talent, provide them whatever resources we can, and let them execute. It is our role as lay leaders to provide guidance, input, and feedback while holding management accountable for their key deliverables. It's management's role to execute on those strategic objectives, returning to the board for periodic check-ins.
What are the big issues you think are crucial for UJA to move forward on as a community over the next couple of years?
There’s a long list, but I think at the top for everybody is how we go about successfully combating antisemitism. Unfortunately, I don't think this is a problem that's going to be resolved any time soon.
We've enjoyed great prosperity as a broad community for the last decade and now we're in a bit of a downturn. People are struggling economically. I think that always brings out tougher attitudes towards Jews, but things ultimately do turn around.
To be clear, we are never going to convert the people who are ardent antisemites. What we can do is develop effective strategies to minimize the impact of antisemitism, both at the local, and hopefully, national and international levels. We can look at more proactive strategies with outreach and education, engaging with youth from outside the Jewish community to help break down barriers early on.
Any other items in your priority bucket?
One of my other priorities is thinking about how we grow our Jewish Foundation. This is going to be critically important to our community’s success going forward. It represents a tremendous opportunity on so many fronts. We can help families plan for their philanthropic futures and ensure continued support for the community as we see the next generation of leaders emerge.
The Jewish Foundation is an outstanding option for engaging families by ensuring involvement of their children and grandchildren as families grow, giving these new voices a seat around the table, and a venue to develop their philanthropic thinking.
What are some of the other community strengths you see in Toronto?
We are home to the largest segment of the Canadian Jewish community, with around 200,000 community members in the GTA out of a total of nearly 400,000 across the country. Our fundraising campaign is also the largest in the country and one of the largest in the world. As a result, we can make a significant impact, both locally and overseas.
Toronto as a community model has a lot to offer and we are culturally distinct from our American community peers. We operate and think a bit differently on many fronts. However, we are always held up as an example by many American communities as to what a successful Jewish community model looks like. We are second-to-none in motivating community members to contribute not only their money but their time and skills. We are a proudly Zionist community.
At this stage in your involvement, what do you love the most about your volunteer leadership role?
Engaging with community members and professionals has been rewarding. I really enjoy the opportunity of thinking through the strategic issues facing our community and attempting to find constructive ways to approach them. The ongoing dialogue and development of these relationships continues to be very important and seeing first-hand the impact that we are having, both here and in Israel, is always the most fulfiling part of this work.
Lastly, what gives you hope for the future of the community?
We are fortunate to have a relatively large number of talented people in our community who want to step up and get involved. We have a lot of really engaged, resourceful and impressive young people who are dedicating their efforts in many different capacities—watching, learning, developing, and waiting for their turn to lead. To me, that's unbeatable. That gives me tremendous hope!