Undoubtedly Fortuitous - Development Officer Janet Lee on Her New Role

"Undoubtedly Fortuitous" - Federation’s new development officer reflects on coming home to take on a new role serving the Jewish Berkshires

By Janet Lee

Most of us are familiar with the adage, Home is where the heart is – but never did these words ring more true for me until my experience this past year. 

After living in the Berkshires for nearly 20 years, I accepted an offer to work for a Reform congregation outside of Philadelphia in February 2020.  At that time, no one could have predicted that a global pandemic was on the horizon; regardless, the homesick feeling I endured reminded me of my 8-year-old self at sleepaway camp. I had been unaware of how strong my ties were to this amazing community. 

As COVID-19 began to shut the world down, my isolation and loneliness grew, and I longed to be back in Western Massachusetts despite the cold and snow. I missed my husband, Tim, who had stayed in Great Barrington to finish out the school year as Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School’s principal. After the COVID-19 disruption, he decided that he needed to stay one more year to see the school district through the crisis. I missed my friends, and I longed for my Jewish home and the community I had served for so many years as the executive director of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire.

When I made the difficult decision to give up my new job and move home, I had no idea what I would do next. I just knew that I needed to return to where my heart was and where I felt connected.

It was undoubtedly fortuitous that I ran into Dara Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, on a cold winter day in early February.  Dara and I had worked together on many projects and programs over the years, and as we stood in the produce aisle of Price Chopper, she gave me a synopsis of what Federation’s year had been.  I was impressed – but not surprised – with how quickly the Federation was able to pivot during this crisis and continue to serve and support those in need. 

The Federation has been a staple in the Berkshire Jewish community for 80 years. My first personal experiences included the annual financial support they offered each religious school family at Hevreh, and the PJ Library programs we attended when our daughters, Alison and Ruthie, were younger.  Over the years, I enjoyed Federation-sponsored lectures and concerts but knew little about the importance the Federation played in providing social services and resources for those in need.

Early in my professional career at Hevreh, I began to truly understand the vital role the Jewish Federation of the Berkshire has in our community. Not only does it help to link the synagogues throughout Berkshire County with programs like Shabbat Across the Berkshires, but it also responds to crucial issues in real-time. When a Hevreh student faced anti-Semitism in his middle school, the Federation moved quickly to create an anti-bias education program with the ADL and lead the charge in helping young people to stand up against hate. When synagogues across the country began receiving multiple bomb threats, the Federation helped provide security walk-throughs to identify areas of vulnerability and resources to create new security protocols.

When I had the opportunity to join Federation as its development officer, it felt “beshert.” I am so excited to begin my work to help the Federation reach our 2021 campaign goals.  Our kickoff event held at High Lawn Farm on May 23 could not have been more perfect.  After a year of isolation and lockdowns, over 200 people came out to tour the farm, eat delicious ice cream, and, most importantly, re-connect.  (Please see photos on page ##.)

Seeing so many friends and meeting new members of the community touched my heart.  I look forward to working with the staff at the Federation, the board and its president, Elisa Schindler Frankel, and the abundance of dedicated volunteers in order to raise awareness and the necessary funds to fulfill the Federation’s ongoing mission. 

Remember that it all starts with you, and every gift makes a difference. 

If you haven’t already sent in your pledge or made your donation this year, please help us reach our goals.  Your financial support enables us to build a stronger Jewish community in the Berkshires.

Janet Lee is the development officer of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires. Contact her at jlee@jewishberkshires.org, or by calling (413) 442-4360, ext. 19.