Outgoing Federation president reflects on 4 years of changes and challenges

By Judy Usow / President, Jewish Federation of the Berkshires

I’m an obsessive planner. I can’t sleep at night unless I’ve resolved the particulars of whatever I’m working on. As a kid, when I would describe to my parents an ambitious, detailed plan, my dad would smile at me, encourage my aspirations, but cautioned me to be flexible. He used one of those perfectly appropriate Yiddish sayings that, in English, means, “man plans, God laughs.” I think of my dad’s knowing smile now while I write my last column as president in the midst of a global pandemic. You see, it is not a coincidence that my youngest daughter is supposed to be leaving for college just as my presidency ends. I planned it that way.

I’ve been anticipating my newfound freedom as an empty nester and I thought I had figured out the details of the next phase of my life. I planned to stay active in the Federation but I hoped to embark on a second career, downsize our home, visit my parents in Florida more often, and travel the world with my husband.

My horizon looks different now, not only because I find myself adjusting future plans due to the current worldwide pandemic, but also because I did not anticipate feeling sad to end my time as president of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires.

 With all my planning, I don’t think I considered the possibility that I might actually enjoy being in this position of leadership and that I would feel so grateful for having had this opportunity.

 As I look back on the last four years of my presidency, I feel incredibly lucky to have met so many members of our community who are dedicated to creating and preserving Jewish life here in the Berkshires. I feel deeply grateful for all the support I’ve received over these years, and proud of all that we have accomplished.

During these times of vulnerability and uncertainty, I have faith that the Jewish Federation has the right leadership and foresight to continue to guide our community through whatever lies ahead. I know our community will come out of this stronger.

Over these past years, I have had the privilege to see, firsthand, how we came together through the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires to repeatedly mobilize our community to address challenges locally and in the broader Jewish world.

One area I am particularly proud of is how our Federation has taken a proactive leadership role in helping local schools address the growing issue of bias that has manifested itself in various forms, including racism and anti-Semitism, over the years. I am grateful for the strong support and partnership Federation has received from across the Jewish and broader community to help bring the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference© anti-bias education program to thousands of students in middle and high schools throughout the county.

I take comfort in the knowledge that the Federation will continue to respond to the needs of our community, demonstrating our ability to care for one another. If the last few months have taught us anything, it is that we are stronger together.

Just as we learned of the spread of the pandemic, the Federation was thinking of the future. The strategic planning committee was concluding the final stage of a strategic planning initiative and intended to present the findings of our new strategic plan to the board of directors. While we needed to put that on a temporary hold in order to direct our financial and human resources to respond to more immediate needs, we do plan on sharing the findings of the plan soon.

The information we gathered and the feedback we received from town hall meetings, focus groups, individual interviews, and an online survey affirmed that the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires enjoys a high level of trust from our donors, as well as from the individuals we serve and the organizations we work with.

 It is because of these strong relationships, that the Federation has been able to mobilize the resources needed to advance our mission of caring for the most vulnerable and building and supporting a vibrant Jewish community. Engaging more Jewish individuals and fostering a powerful sense of Jewish identity are essential for the health and vitality of our community. In addition, we have been able to support efforts of tzedakah and tikkun olam beyond our own community, something that is so desperately needed in our world today.

I want to conclude my last few words as Federation president by expressing my gratitude to all of you, our donors and supporters. Thank you for your generosity, for your participation, and for sharing your heart with our community. To the Federation staff, who always work hard, but who have worked tirelessly from home these last few months, providing the needed lifeline to the most vulnerable members of our community – thank you!

 Thank you to the Federation’s board of directors for your support, hard work, and commitment to achieving our mission each year. I am also grateful to our rabbis and my fellow lay leaders in our community for their dedication and partnership. Finally, the Berkshires is so fortunate to have a committed, innovative leader. I am deeply grateful to have had the privilege to serve with our formidable executive director, Dara Kaufman.

Mazel tov to Amy Lindner-Lesser, who will be taking on the presidency at our annual meeting on June 30. I also look forward to working alongside Amy and the rest of our board as I continue to serve our community and the Federation in the role of treasurer.