Born to lead

Born to lead

The head of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey tells his story - and federation's

From left, federation leaders Dr. Zvi Marans, Roberta Abrams Paer, Jason Shames, Jayne Petak, and Robin Rocklin are in Israel in 2014.

Learning to cull less-than-perfect goldfish as they hurtle by you on a slimy assembly line, using your bare hands, disposing of them in garbage bags, is not a skill most nice Jewish boys acquire.

Nor is standing in the middle of an ice-cold pond in a torn wetsuit and hand-selecting the most decorative available koi, at the orders of overseas hoteliers, again with your bare hands.

Jason Shames of Haworth did both those things, during a stay on an Israeli kibbutz. Those and similar skills, oddly enough, were part of a logical progression that took Mr. Shames from the Bronx to the helm of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, a job he accepted four years ago this week.

His story – which in many ways is the prototypical eastern European mid-twentieth-century Jewish story, from which absolutely no element of tragedy or adventure or chance is left out – is “a logical evolution of who I am,” Mr. Shames, 44, the federation’s executive vice president and CEO, said.

Mr. Shames grew up in the northeast Bronx, near Van Cortlandt Park, “the last person to have a bar mitzvah at the Van Cortlandt Jewish Center,” he said. His family had a rocky trip to Van Cortlandt’s relatively rolling green hills. His mother, Helene Shames, was born in a DP camp in Germany. Her father, Leon Shames, came from Lviv, a city that bounced between Poland, the Ukraine, and Lithuania, landing – at least for now – in Ukraine. Her mother, Hannah, was born in a shtetl near Warsaw and grew up in the big city. The two took different paths to Siberia, where they met and married.

Both stories are tragic. “My maternal grandmother’s mother died giving birth to her,” Mr. Shames said. Her father was basically chasidic. She had tons of older brothers, she had a stepmother, and she was very close to her father.” The family was poor and not particularly well educated. It was also warm and loving. And war loomed.

“My grandmother’s best friend said to her, ‘If we don’t get out of here, we will die.’ But she couldn’t leave her father. Her friend, Dina, kept hocking her and hocking her. Eventually she said, ‘I am going. If you don’t come with me, you will die.'”

The two women snuck away together in the middle of the night. “She had just one picture of her father and her stepmother,” Mr. Shames said. “She never said goodbye to her father.” All her family died in Auschwitz.

His father’s family, on the other hand, “was far less warm. When I was growing up, my grandmother would never talk about Warsaw, only about her family. And my grandfather would only talk about Lviv, but never about his family. I know nothing about them.”

He does know, though, that his grandfather, Harry Levine, who was the youngest of 13 children, had a relative who owned a barbershop, and he began working in the shop when he was about 11 years old.

“One day, my grandfather came home, and a neighbor told him that the Germans had been looking for him,” Mr. Shames said. The neighbor said, ‘I don’t like Jews, but as far as Jews go, you’re a good guy.’ He gave him a loaf a bread and he ran.”

Most of his family died in the camps, but “he had one sister who had moved to Austria, went upscale, and then moved to New York.” That family figures in the story later.

In Siberia, Mr. Shames hitched up with either the Red Army or the partisans – his grandson isn’t sure which, but he knows that either would have been a pathway to survival. His grandparents met, and “family legend is that he proposed to her by saying that if you marry me, you will never be hungry again.” She accepted. Soon she was pregnant.

“After the war, my grandfather wanted to go back to Europe to see who he knew who had survived,” Mr. Shames said. “My grandmother just wanted to go to Israel.” He won, so the family of three found a home in a DP camp in Berlin, where their second daughter, Helene, was born.

In 1948 the family moved to Jerusalem. They moved into a tiny room, with no plumbing and no electricity, although there was gas for a small stove. “Life for everyone was hard then,” Mr. Shames said. That definitely included his grandparents. “They had the two kids in this one room. They used to pee and poop in a pot by a tree. They had nothing.” His grandfather was drafted in the IDF.

“My grandmother didn’t want to leave Israel, but my grandfather immediately wanted out,” Mr. Shames said. “He was tired of war.” All he knew how to do was work in a barbershop, “but he had trouble owning his own shop.

“My grandfather truly believed that the streets of New York were paved with gold.”

In 1955, the family moved to New York, sponsored by the sister who had moved there decades earlier.

“My grandmother always slept with a knife,” Mr. Shames said. “To the day she died, her distrust of non-Jews never went away.” They both died in their late 80s.

Mr. Shames’ father, Albert Yale Levine, came from a family that had moved to the United States a generation earlier, and so escaped the war. His father’s father was born in Boston, the son of a jewelry-store owner; “they were pretty well off until his father had a heart attack when my grandfather was 10, 11 years old.” Then the child had to help support his family.

Esther and Harry Levine lived in Brooklyn, and Hannah and Leon Shames lived in the Bronx, before the children were born. By the time Jason and his sisters, Caryn and Amanda, were born, though, they all lived within a few houses of each other in the Bronx, and the children grew close to their grandparents in that wordless way that sometimes thrives when words fail. “My grandfather spoke very little English, and I spoke no Yiddish,” Mr. Shames said.

This story is perhaps a bit confusing because of the names. Jason Shames grew up as Jason Levine; as convention dictated, he and his sisters took their father’s name. But one of the last things that Leon Shames said to his only grandson was, “When I die, my name is gone.”

In 1994, right after his grandfather died, Jason Levine changed his last name to Shames. “It just felt like the right thing to do,” he said.

His parents sent Jason to public kindergarten, but from first through eighth grades he went to SAR Academy. (The school, formed by the merger of three older institutions, was still fairly new then; he was in its 10th graduating class.)

He went to Ramaz for ninth grade. That summer, when he was in camp, his parents moved the family to Rockland County. (“It was disorienting,” Mr. Shames said. “I went to camp with my cousins. They had been living in Peekskill, and that summer they moved to Monsey. Very disorienting.”) He finished at Ramapo High School, graduating with a cousin.

High school graduation found Jason Shames “very much a Zionist, with a strong Jewish identity, very little tolerance for anti-Semitism, and fighting with religious dictum,” he said. That solid identity has matured but not changed, it seems.

After a year at SUNY Stony Brook, way out on Long Island, Mr. Shames found a program, the National Student Exchange, that allowed him to pay SUNY’s state-school fees while going to classes as an exchange student in the University of South Florida. He found that he loved Florida, so he took a semester off to establish residency and then finished school in Tampa. “I graduated in 1993 with a degree in history. I wanted a year off before graduate school – I had to go to graduate school because what do you do with a history degree?”

(Note, readers, please, that Mr. Shames is here to teach us, among many other things, that among the high-level jobs to be obtained with a history degree is the executive vice presidency of a Jewish federation.)

Because he had always wanted to spend time in Israel, Mr. Shames went to Israel on a program called Project Oren, which put him in an ulpan program and gave him six months to work on Kibbutz Hazarea, about 20 miles outside Haifa.

The kibbutz had fishponds.

“On my first day, they told me that I had to be outside the laundry facility,” Mr. Shames said. “It was cold and wet. It was winter. We waited outside, and a huge pickup truck came and they said to hop into it. It was me and these two other guys – a German and a Belgian, neither of them Jewish – and they took us on a 10-minute drive to the other end of the kibbutz property, to this fishpond thing.

“They made us get into this quasi wetsuit and put us in a room with a huge vat and a conveyor belt and said, ‘Okay, you have to pick out the bad goldfish.’

“Then they open the vat and there is a rush of water and goldfish.”

An existential question – what is a bad goldfish? Goldfish are so cheap to produce that if they are not easily saleable – if they are off-color, or spotted, or over- or undersize – they are absolutely disposable. “If you have 10,000 of them, and 3,000 of them are good, that’s good,” he said.

“It was disgusting,” Mr. Shames said. “My fingers turned blue. It was from 5 to 8 in the morning, and I was literally, ‘What am I doing here? I have no job, I have debt – what am I doing?

“And at 8 o’clock they told us to get back in the pickup truck and we went to the chadar ochel” – the dining room – “for breakfast. And then I get back, and they say here, put this wetsuit on – it had holes in it – now we have to bring the koi fish in and feed them.

“So I have to walk into the middle of a huge pond, with water up to here” – he pointed at his chest – “and feed the fish.”

Koi are ornamental karp that are prized as decorations in fancy fishponds, and Israel was second only to Japan in their production. “A pure Japanese koi fish from Japan was going for $1,000 a fish,” Mr. Shames said. “Israel would have near-similar quality and could charge $250 a fish.” It was a thriving business.

It was messy and smelly and unpleasant, but Mr. Shames was stubborn and scrappy, and he worked hard. He would not be defeated by fish, gold or otherwise. Soon, the Israelis came to respect him. He never became an insider, but he gained some kind of intermediate status. “I knew I made it big when they stopped giving me the wetsuits with the cracks in them,” he said.

He remembers the last time he worked in the koi pond. Some English buyers had come, and although many kibbutzniks were fluent in English, they wanted him, a native speaker, to provide an extra layer of comfort. He put on a wetsuit, they put him in the middle of a swimming pool, they flooded it with water, and they dumped in the koi. “They are literally pointing at the koi they wanted, and I have to get them with my hands,” he said. “I am in there for an hour. And then – and my kids particularly love this part of the story – one of the fish jumps out of the water and knocks me right over.

“I go right over into the water, and my head knocks against the side, and I start to bleed a little bit.

“Then I got swapped out.”

How can a fish attack you like that, he was asked. “When you put 50 to 100 big fish in a small pool like that – they jump,” he said.

His work day ended at 2 in the afternoon; “I would sleep until 6, and then we’d go to the pub,” he said. “I don’t know how I survived, but, oh man, was I in good shape.”

He learned a great deal about Israel and himself during those nine months. Among them was a renewed appreciation for his own stability. “A lot of people went to Israel looking for something missing in their lives,” he said. “Not a lot of us started sane and rational, who wanted to explore the Zionist dream.” He did.

“Israel for me was always the eternal Jewish homeland,” he said. In fact, when he was in SAR, for two years in a row he held the flag in the Salute to Israel parade as it marched up Fifth Avenue, and he cherished that chance. “The Zionist dream. It is not necessarily a place where I need to live, but a place that I always support.”

When he came back from Israel, Mr. Shames went to graduate school. He wanted a master’s degree in public administration, applied to and was accepted into four schools, and chose the University of Arizona. “There were two reasons,” he said. One, his experience in Tampa taught him that he loved heat. The school was in Tucson. No contest there. The other was that “Arizona was the only school where the MPA was in a business school, not a social science school.” That is another thread that is woven prominently through Mr. Shames’s life – he is working in a job that often goes to a social worker or other social scientist, but he is approaching it with the understanding that it is, in fact, a business. A nonprofit business, a business with a mission not to make money but to help the community, but a multimillion-dollar business nonetheless. That approach, which is native to him, was further honed in graduate school.

One of Mr. Shames’s internships was in Israel, at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He lived in the dorm in Tel Aviv, and “while I worked at the think tank, I met Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, the day after the first time he was elected.”

Mr. Shames’s work at the Jaffee Center, undertaken 20 years ago, centuries ago in computer time, took five months; today, it would take maybe five hours. He made spreadsheets to “research all the Arab countries in terms of military and economic indicators.” It was a reference guide for the center’s annual report; it was detailed, specific, hands-on, and “very cool,” he said.

The University of Arizona does not require dissertations from its graduate students, but it does ask them to defend a final paper. Mr. Shames researched the Jewish Agency; “my thesis was that its sustainability depends on two factors – marketing and branding and federation support,” he said. One of the professors in front of whom he made his defense was Dr. Rhonda Troutman, a non-Jewish criminologist from Kentucky. “She hands me a fax that basically said that an organization in New York at the time, the Council of Jewish Federations, was in the process of merging,” and that they were looking for young people to work for them.

They had jobs, “I was desperate for a job,” so he faxed a resume. “I had taught Hebrew school in Tampa, I was a USY adviser in Tampa and in Tucson – but I knew nothing about federation,” he said.

That was about to change.

“I was told that there were planning associate jobs in Miami, Atlanta, and Minnesota.” Clearly Minnesota was out. Mr. Shames likes it hot. “And I said go first for Miami, there is a lot of stability.

“I passed the phone interview, got flown down to Miami, and was offered a job as a planning associate in the Greater Miami Federation,” he said. “I started in August 1997.”

Just before he started his new job, he and Amy Tobman, a physical therapist who is originally from Montreal but grew up in Florida, got married. They came back north – the ceremony was at the Rockleigh, here in Bergen County.

He started working with social service agencies, including vocational services and residential and other programs for the elderly and for Russian immigrants. His portfolio steadily grew as JCCs and overseas work was added, and soon he became a senior planner. In 2001, he became the planning director in the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County – more commonly known as the Boca Raton federation – a position for which he had been considered too young, but which he pushed to win. “I was just shy of 31, and on the management team of a large city federation,” he said.

“One of the big things I felt is that I should be rewarded for what I am capable of doing and what I am doing, not how old I am,” he said.

He took what he learned in Miami, and “I blossomed in Boca,” he said. “My first year in Boca, we raised an extra million. I went from being the managing director of planning to the managing director of the campaign. And then the second year we surpassed $20 million in our annual campaign for the first time.

Still, after seven years, it was time to move again, this time to Washington, D.C., where he became the local federation’s chief development officer. “It was a different world,” he said. “I was brought in to help organize and raise another $25 million for the transformational campaign,” which was to “transform the programming and facilities of the Washington, D.C., community – something I would love to do here,” he said parenthetically, “but we are nowhere near ready.”

As it turned out, neither was Washington. “I got hired in January 2008, and the death blow for the transformational campaign was on December 11, 2008, when Bernie Madoff was arrested.” The Washington federation had not had much of its funds invested with Madoff – but many of its large donors did.

“We went from having $4 million gifts to $2 million gifts overnight, and people were calling their gifts back. Our role went from trying to build a utopian Jewish community in a nontraditional Jewish community to planning for less revenue and reconfiguring our business. I went from doing something I really wanted to do to something I really needed to do, to the nuts and bolts of running the campaign.

“It was very difficult. We went to the emergency assistance campaign two years in a row, and we had to ask for more from donors, and that still didn’t make up the gap.

“I did that for three years, and then this job” – the executive vice presidency of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey – “opened up.”

Should he try to make the move? Many factors pushed him toward it. “My kids were young – my son, Josh, was in second grade, and my daughter, Sarah, was in pre-K.” That made it an easy time to move.

“Having grown up in the area, I already was a New York Yankee and New York Giants fan.” His mother and his sister and many other family members live here. There was much tugging at him.

It can be said that he has the right personality for the area, brash, straightforward, occasionally confrontational. “I get a lot of grief for saying what’s on my mind,” he said. “I don’t hold back too much.”

On the other hand, northern New Jersey is not warm.

Still, “even in our Boca days, Amy and I had discussed that to get ahead, we’d have to move, and there were only three areas we’d consider.” One was Washington – they’d already done that – and this was another. (South Florida was the third.)

And then there was the lure of the community, and of the job itself.

“I was already somewhat familiar with the community,” Mr. Shames said. “It is a major suburban community that has a tremendous Jewish infrastructure. Being Jewish here is just about as easy as it is anywhere on the planet.

“The quality of life is great. The Jewish quality of life here, both institutional and individual, is something we often take for granted. You have to live in other places to know that. Wherever you live in the community – in the eastern corridor or on 278 or in Wayne – it is the easiest, most convenient way to live a Jewish life as you see fit, whether you are Orthodox or not, whether you need social services or not, whether you are interested in Jewish camping or synagogue life or not, it’s all here.

“You can identify here as a Jew in any way you want to. No matter how you personally feel about your Jewishness, if you want to do something, no matter what, you can do it. Not a lot of places have that. And I knew before I moved here that it appealed to me.”

The federation appeals to him as well. “This is a lay-driven organization, owned by the volunteers,” Mr. Shames said. “I work for them. I feel like I have the opportunity to work with leadership to move the community forward.”

He is struck with the quality of the people he works with; as he describes them, it is clear that these are not pro-forma sentences he is spitting out, but his real truth. “Even Amy says to me that the people who work here are very good people,” he said. “‘The feeling that I get from your leadership here is different from the leadership everywhere else,'” he quoted his wife as saying. “‘They genuinely care. They genuinely want to be part of it. They genuinely check their egos at the door. ‘”

When he is talking about leaders, he added, he does not mean only people who donate money, but also volunteers, who give their time.

He talked about the last three presidents, and the incoming one – Alan Scharfstein, David Goodman, Dr. Zvi Marans, and Jayne Petak. “You are talking about an eight-year seamless transition of leadership, and you probably won’t see that in any other community.

“They are consistent, they get along, they are driven by mission and value, not dollar and ego.

“If it weren’t like that, I might not want to be there. That’s what makes my job so enjoyable, and fun. It’s because we have people like that on our board.”

It is because the board is so competent that “so much of my time can be spent not only internally but externally. That was a major cultural change that this organization was looking for. They were looking for somebody to come in and spend time meeting with other facets of the community.” Until 2008, federation CEOs tended to operate like COOs, he said; that no longer works. Nor should it work, he continued. The COO should have the day-to-day responsibility of running the business; the CEO should develop relationships with the rest of the community.

There is a good reason for that, and his tone gets more heated as he describes it. He is tired of the federation being thought of as a greedy bureaucracy, doing nothing but asking for more and more. That is both inaccurate and insulting.

“We are in the business of community building,” Mr. Shames said. “The way we build community is through philanthropy.

“That is where the rest of the community has to lighten up on us. The fact that we ask people for money shouldn’t be seen as a negative. It’s a positive. While it is not an obligation to give, it is our obligation to ask.

“People should feel that when they give to us, they are giving to a common cause, to benefit all of us, and to build the Jewish community. It’s not that I am asking people for money because it is my job to ask for money. I am asking for money because we are doing something great. You have the right to say no, but do not get upset that we ask.

“The money isn’t for here. It goes out the door. We are about meeting Jewish needs. And that isn’t only welfare, it also means Jewish identity and community needs.

“Fundraising is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. That is what people have to understand.”

The federation has been through hard times, Mr. Shames said. There was the crisis posed by the crash in 2008, and then Madoff. After years under one CEO, there was a transitional year with an interim, and then he was brought in.

“Federation had been perceived as your father’s Oldsmobile,” he said. “Not user friendly. Not innovative. It had been sort of plodding along. They knew it wasn’t the right way to go, but they didn’t know what the right way was.

“Part of it was changing the culture from reactive to proactive.

“The beauty of the federation system is that the core mission is the same today as it was the day it was first said – the mission of building Jewish community and meeting Jews’ needs. Serving the Jewish people. But now the strategies and tactics for doing it have to change. I believe that is what I was brought in to do.”

Alan Scharfstein of Woodcliff Lake was the federation’s president when the selection committee chose Mr. Shames. “We ran an exhaustive process when we were looking for a new CEO,” he said. “It was very important that the CEO have a very focused sense of running the federation as a business. A business with a heart – but it had to be someone who had the discipline and the experience to treat it as a business. That’s what our constituencies were demanding.

“We saw in Jason someone who is young, dynamic, and could relate to our younger donors in the next generation of federation stakeholders while at the same time able to relate to our historical base of stakeholders.

“We saw someone who is clearly passionate about what he does, and who is willing to be very direct and forceful in terms of expressing his views.

“Also, we find that great professionals attract great volunteers, and great volunteers attract great leaders. When you look at the quality of the leaders we have today, and at the strength of the bench of the ones coming up, it is better than I have ever seen it.”

David Goodman of Paramus took over the presidency at the same time that Mr. Shames took on his new role. “My kids called him my new BFF” – best friend forever – “because we spent so much time together.

“Now, four years into his tenure, he has been able to create a lot of really good relationships with a lot of different people in the community. He has been able to gain their trust and make the changes he wanted to make, and he has been able to explain it.

“It is a generational change. He is younger than me, and I’m not that old. I’m 51. It’s great.

“He is a real leader. He has a vision, and he gets people to understand it, to buy into it, and to act on it.”

Dr. Zvi Marans of Teaneck is president of federation now. “Jason and I have traveled together,” he said. “He is fun to travel with. He is a good guy. He is not guarded; he’s open. He almost reminds me of a camp friend. He takes his job very seriously, but he also has the flexibility to enjoy the unimportant things in life.”

He also is doggedly determined. “We were in Israel together last July, and literally there were bombs bursting in air. We were in Tel Aviv, and a small group was going to go to Sderot,” the city that often is in the bull’s-eye for bombers. “I had reservations about going into the lion’s den. I was going back and forth about it. But for Jason it was a nonissue.

“It didn’t matter to him who else was going. He had his shorts and his sneakers on and his bags were packed and he was going.” In the end, the trip was postponed, despite Mr. Shames’s wishes and to his deep frustration. “It was a manifestation of his conviction and his passion,” Dr. Marans said. “He was not just doing his job.” His job and his beliefs coincide.

“He is able to dial it up and dial it down, and that is a very good quality,” Dr. Marans continued. “He needs to have a certain stature in his position, and he does. He functions smoothly, easily, and with authority and seriousness. He is also able to be flexible when it is appropriate.

“He has strong opinions about most things, both within and outside federation, but he is not stuck in those opinions. When he disagrees with people he respects, he keeps himself open, and ruminates, and sometimes when I talk to him a few days later he says, ‘I have been thinking about it,’ and sometimes he changes his mind.

“He is not at all wishy-washy, but he is open to rational discussion about things he is serious about.

“He is authentic,” Dr. Marans concluded.

Jayne Petak of River Vale will take over the presidency in June. “Jason has been an absolute thrill to work with,” she said.

“He is funny and easy to work with, and very clear. When something is important, he tells us about it, and helps focus us on it, gives us all the relevant information.

“It is great to have a colleague who understands our mission. Even when we disagree, I know that my voice is heard. That everyone’s voice is heard.

“We are not making decisions in a vacuum. I know as a leader that before we move forward, we have to know exactly what we are facing. He is great at doing that research and putting it together. Jason has set us on a course where we will see results, and that makes us all work harder. I just love seeing how we are moving forward.

“Jason always wants to know what we can learn from any experience. He walks out of a meeting and says, ‘How do we bring that home? How do we give that message or bring that concept to our community?’ It is wonderful to see.”

Jason Shames has finished his first four years in the community. A student starting high school when he began would be graduating now. Much has changed in that time. The next four years will be the equivalent of college. Dreams lie ahead. The community is looking forward to sharing them with him.

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