Super Tzedakah Week – Plant the Seeds that Make Our Community Bloom!

With Super Tzedakah Week just around the corner, our co-chairs Lara and Jonathan Denmark share their thoughts on what makes our Jewish community so special and worthy of support.

Jewish Federation of the Berkshires kicks off its 2023 Community Campaign on Super Tzedakah Week, starting May 21. Join us in building a safer and stronger Jewish community through your investment and participation in our work. This year. As we focus on sustainability, we invite you plant the seeds that will help our Jewish community and our world bloom.

As part of the campaign kickoff, Federation hosts Jewish Community Day on May 21 at High Lawn Farms in Lee from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Last year, more than 350 people attended – can we top that in 2023?

Throughout the month of May and coinciding with Shavuot, our Granola for Good! Drive will collect donations of packaged whole-grain granola and granola bars for donation to local food pantries. Drop-off sites are: Hevreh of Southern Berkshire and The Berkshire Food Co-op (Great Barrington), Concepts of Art (Lenox), Federation offices (Pittsfield), and Williams College Bookstore (Williamstown).

On Wednesday, May 31 at 7 p.m., the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires presents “To Boldly Grow: Judaism, Food, and Sustainability,” an inspirational and timely discussion with journalist and author Tamar Haspel. She will be in conversation at Hancock Shaker Village with environmentalists and educators from the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. See the BJV Interview with Tamar below left.

This year, we may not be calling, but we are asking – PLEASE DONATE! 

For over 80 years, the Federation’s annual campaign has sustained our Jewish Berkshires and provided the resources to care for those in need and ensure a safe and strong Jewish community. Never was that more evident than over these past few years of changing needs.

Federation’s 2023 campaign goal is $1.2 million. Your gift will help bring dignity and care to the vulnerable, build and strengthen the Jewish identity of our children and young adults, support vital community programs, and create meaningful Jewish life across the Berkshires and beyond.

“Super Tzedakah Week gives our donors, volunteers, and community members the powerful opportunity to come together to make a real and lasting difference,” says Federation president Elisa Schindler Frankel. “Your collective generosity will help us to take care of our entire community, ensuring that those who are at their most vulnerable can live with dignity and keeping our Jewish community strong, safe, and vibrant. Every gift counts!”

Meet Our Super Tzedakah Week Co-Chairs – Lara and Jonathan Denmark

As locals who grew up and are now raising a family in Pittsfield, Lara Denmark and Jonathan Denmark have had a front-row seat to the evolution of the Jewish Berkshires over several decades. Both remember a time when the now-closed Jewish Community Center on East Street was central to Jewish life in the Berkshires, a place where Lara (from a Knesset Israel family) and Jonathan (from Temple Anshe Amunim) attended Hebrew school at a time when the two congregations offered a joint program.

“Judaism and the Berkshire Jewish community were always central themes in our house,” recalls Jonathan. “It was something you participated in that was very vibrant, very robust and its importance, the importance of Federation, were instilled in us.”

The Berkshires of their childhood, however, was different from the Berkshires in which the Denmarks are today raising their two sons, Levi (age 12) and Noah (age 10) – major industries departed, the local demographics changed, and the Jewish community is no longer able to support an institution like the JCC. But Federation remains the key source of Jewish connection in the Berkshires, one that is providing avenues of Jewish development for the Denmark children just as it did for their parents.

That continuity is one of the main reasons that Lara and Jonathan have stepped up this year as our 2023 campaign chairs, and will be spreading Federation’s message as we kick off our fundraising efforts around Super Tzedakah week.

Says Jonathan: “When I was going to college, there were Federation scholarships and things of that nature, but I didn't know the regional and global significance of Federation until I moved back the Berkshires and saw the impact of our Federation and the dollars being spent in this community. I realized the importance of partnership with Israeli organizations, with national Federations, and with the money that's raised here that serves our community’s Jewish children. Federation is the connective tissue that holds our congregations together and provides a voice for the Jewish community in the Berkshires.”

Both Lara and Jonathan received Federation support to go on Birthright Israel trips while in their twenties, and later participated in Federation-sponsored leadership seminars for young adults. Both have given back to the Jewish community as leaders at Knesset Israel, with Jonathan having served as that congregation’s president. Professionally, Lara is a licensed mental health counselor/therapist and Jonathan is president and COO of MountainOne Insurance, as well as a board member for 1Berkshire and the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority.

Recalling his time as a leader at KI, Jonathan says “one of the things that really surprised me was the rabbis and presidents’ meetings, where we found opportunities for volunteerism or collaborative events. Federation reported on its initiatives so that a common message was spread throughout the congregations. There's never been the ‘us-versus-them’ attitude that you often see in different organizations. It's always ‘we.’ And Federation is our community’s spokesperson of the ‘we.’”

One of the important ways he and other congregational leaders worked with Federation was on security. When, in the wake of synagogue shootings, local congregations focused on implementing heightened security, “immediately the Federation provided a conduit for training, for updates, and eventually for grants. The help was tremendous. Our congregation has been able to do a number of security upgrades that were significant, and Jewish Federation of the Berkshires is the primary reason that we were able to get those things done. “

As parents, the Denmarks’ efforts to raise their sons Jewishly have been supported by Federation first through PJ Library (which sends free books that celebrate Jewish values and culture to families with children from birth through 12 years old), then through Jewish Education Grants to the Hebrew school their sons attend, and also with day and overnight camp scholarships to Camp Eisner in Great Barrington. “We attend all of Federation’s family programming,” says Lara. “Our sons take advantage of those opportunities to engage with other Jewish kids besides the ones they know from Hebrew school.” Both Lara and Jonathan have fond memories of the way their adolescent participation in USY and NFTY through their congregations broaden their Jewish horizons. Part of their message when they visit our local congregations will be the importance of Jewish involvement for local youth after their b’nai mitzvah experiences.

“Once kids are past their bar mitzvah ages,” says Lara, “it's challenging to keep them involved and invested in Jewish education. Federation provides ways to get together to sustain that social piece that keeps Judaism alive in their lives outside of what we as parents do in the family religiously and during holidays.”

“If our kids stick with camp, Federation will help them get a chance to go to Israel for the first time when they're 16 or so, which would be incredible,” says Jonathan. “They are supported with such a nurturing Jewish environment here in the Berkshires, with such small numbers. It’s the collaboration and the involvement through Federation, and all the families that are engaged in different ways here. It prepares them for their summer camp experience so they get the most out of it. We're building such a great foundation of Jewish values for these kids to be good people as they grow up. That's the most important thing for us.”

Adds Lara: “And that's the biggest Jewish value there is.”

In particular, the Denmarks love the top-flite Jewish entertainers and musicians the Federation brings to the Berkshires for its annual summer concert, Shabbat Across the Berkshires, Community Day, and other events. A co-founder (with Colin Ovitsky) of the Berkshire Jewish Musicians Collective, Jonathan says:  “In the last 15 years I’ve had the most rewarding musical experiences of my life playing for the Jewish community in the Berkshires. Federation brings in incredible artists like Sam Glaser, Rick Recht, and Jacob ‘Spike’ Kraus – the Berkshire Jewish Musicians Collective was able to sit in with all of them. Even when it's 30 degrees out outside like it was last Chanukah at The Mount, and our fingers are falling off, we're having a great time. We were even able to play at Harold Grinspoon's 90th birthday party! The Federation is just so supportive of music and involving local musicians.”

Summing up the message the Demarks will be sharing as campaign chairs, Jonathan says: “The Jewish community needs to continue to adapt and meet people where they are. Federation does an excellent job of that. They make events that are not religiously based. There may be some component of education, but it's more collaboration and it's networking, and it's getting to know people and building a foundation. And that is a very difficult thing to do, to meet people where they are. So as there are new people coming into this area, it’s an important focus for Federation to continue its outreach, continue to market, continue to advertise, be on social media, get the word out, and provide opportunities for volunteerism. Federation needs to continue to have ambassadors of young families to tell people that these things are happening.”

“We need to continue to invest in Federation because we can actually see our dollars at work in the Berkshires –  more so than in some of these larger communities. For some of our Berkshire snowbirds who may be going back and forth between different parts of the country, perhaps it's harder to see their dollars at work in their larger communities. And so we'll tell the story, at least for our family, of how this Federation’s dollars have gone to work and what we've seen throughout our lifetime and, most importantly, where we're involved now because of Federation’s role in our lives.”

Says Lara: “I think it'll be fun for our kids to get involved in this, too –  to know we're doing this kind of work for Federation and to watch us do it. Jonathan remembers seeing his parents being part of this Federation and I remember seeing my parents being so active. I think i will be nice for our kids to see us doing this work, as well.”

Photo: Lara, Levi, Noah, and Jonathan Denmark with their dog, Kodi.