President's Message: Federation – A Community Worth Engaging With

By Arlene D. Schiff / President, Jewish Federation of the Berkshires

“Experiencing a sense of belonging is vital for our psychological well-being. Being part of a healthy community can help us feel connected to others, as well as feel we’re part of something larger than ourselves” – Samantha Stein Psy.D., Psychology Today

Can you think of a time when you did not want to be part of a community? I cannot.

Among my most cherished memories from my youth are the times I spent in community. I attended Girl Scout meetings, ran a Big Brothers, Big Sisters program for underprivileged youth at my JCC, went to summer camp, participated in BBYO, was a member of an Israeli dance troupe, and walked to raise money to address hunger.

BBYO, in particular, played a significant role in shaping my sense of belonging and connection to the Jewish community. Whether I was playing volleyball, attending Shabbatons, serving on my local board, or implementing programs, BBYO provided a space where I could be myself, instantly connect with others because of our shared Jewish heritage, and confidently put my leadership skills to work.

When I started college, I joined a sorority. It was a great opportunity for me to meet people who shared similar interests and values. I found a supportive community of like-minded individuals who were invested in my personal and academic growth. Even after forty years, I am still in touch with many of these women. And when we reunite, it feels like we just saw each other yesterday. The bond we share is instant and strong.

Graduate school can be a daunting experience, but I was fortunate to have formed a tight-knit community with my classmates. Together, we provided each other with the necessary support to navigate the rigorous curriculum. It was through this community that we not only succeeded academically but also formed lifelong friendships and valuable professional connections.

When I moved to the Berkshires, I found it challenging to find a community. I would visit a local gym every day, but I never seemed to connect with anyone there. When I shared my concerns with a colleague, they explained that the reason for this was that most people at the gym already had their community. They had grown up in the area and had known each other for their entire lives.

After living here for a while, my husband and I received an invitation to take part in a program organized by Jewish Federation of the Berkshires. Now we had a platform upon which to create community. We attended events with other residents of Berkshire County who were of a similar age and demographic. We would gather once a month to socialize and discuss various Jewish topics. This helped us build deeper relationships and connections with others with similar values.

Throughout my professional career, I have focused on community building. As an active volunteer for both secular and Jewish organizations, my passion for creating and strengthening community has been a driving force. As the current president of the Federation, my top priority is to continue to build community amongst our diverse Jewish population.

Community building is at the heart of what our Federation does every day. We bring young parents and children together through PJ Library, provide scholarships for youth to attend Jewish summer camp or participate in trips to Israel, convene community members for kosher meals, and offer engaging programming and community events, both in-person and online, wanting to offer something for everyone. We support a collaboration with the Clark Art Institute to connect Berkshire County youth with their peers in Israel through the Mishkan Museum of Art, Ein Harod program. Following October 7, we have increased our efforts to stand together to support our community in Israel and to fight against antisemitism here in Berkshire County.

The Federation’s mission is to engage and connect all who desire Jewish interaction. Every individual plays a crucial role in building a strong and thriving Berkshire Jewish Community. As a Berkshire Jewish Voice reader, I hope you feel a deep connection and sense of belonging.

If you are already a program participant, volunteer, or donor, thank you for prioritizing community engagement. I hope the benefits you experience exceed your investment. If you are currently not connected, I encourage you to explore these pages and find something that inspires you to do so.  

Reflecting on my experience, I appreciate the importance of community in our lives and the journey we take to find it. This experience has shown me that finding a community where we feel accepted and supported can be a challenging journey, but it is a journey worth taking.

Arlene D. Schiff’s term as president of Jewish Federation of the Berkshires commenced in January 2024. A longtime resident of Lenox, she is the former national director of Life & Legacy, a flagship program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, where she remains a senior advisor.