The Jewish community needs more friends.
That’s why the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey has hired Dalia Zahger Levy as its first director of civic and community engagement.
“We want to build relationships,” Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, said. “This is kind of a new strategy for us in trying to combat antisemitism and improve communal relations.”
In her position, Ms. Zahger Levy is tasked with building alliances with northern New Jersey’s non-Jewish communities.
“It’s been going pretty well,” Ms. Zahger Levy said. “People are very willing to listen and to talk and to meet.” She started in late March.
It’s a bit of a complicated process, which starts with “mapping out and identifying who potential partners are in the greater community,” Mr. Shames said. “In Bergen County, there are more Jews than there are African Americans, more Jews than there are Asians, more Jews than people who identify as LGBQT. So they’re not as organized as the Jewish community.
“We need Dalia to find people in those communities who not just exhibit similar values to us, but also have some sway in their communities and are willing to partner with us on things that are beneficial to the common good.”
As Mr. Shames explains it, Ms. Zahger Levy’s work is part of a three-pronged effort to address local Jewish community’s relationship with the broader community. That work also includes the federation’s security director, Timothy Torell, and Alana Burman, who came on board last month as director of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee. The latter position is focused on relations with state and local governments; Ms. Burman’s role was previously held by Ariella Noveck, who has moved to head the federation’s affinities division.
“When we found Dalia, we won the lottery,” Mr. Shames said. “Her success in already working with other ethnic groups was an asset for us. She came with the personality, the intelligence, the understanding, the experience — and a real passion.”
Ms. Zahger Levy came to the federation after working for the Maccabee Task Force, a group formed in 2015 to fight BDS and antisemitism on college campuses. She got that role immediately after graduating from Columbia, where she co-founded the school’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel.
She was born in Los Angeles to Israeli parents from Haifa, who returned to Israel when she was 1. When she was in second grade, the family moved to Lehavim, a small village near Beersheba. On her mother’s side, “I’m a fifth generation Israeli,” she said, descended from pioneers who founded some of the towns in northern Israel.
From her grandmother, she heard stories of how, when she was a child, before Israel became independent, the family would hide some of the Jews who made their way to Palestine illegally, despite the British blockade. “Her father would go to the beach to greet them,” Ms. Zahger Levy said. “She used to sit on the cabinets where immigrants were hiding when the British came to her house to look for them.”
Her father was the only child of two Holocaust survivors. His mother spoke seven languages; he spoke only English — a language he had taught himself by listening to the radio — to Dalia when she was growing up. (Her mother spoke to her in Hebrew.) Multilingualism, after all, can be a lifesaver.
Between the two sides, “my Zionist vision is there from birth — but in different ways,” she said.
Ironically, it was Zionism that led her to study in the United States after she finished her army service.
She was in Central America, a popular destination for Israelis taking time to travel after being released from the IDF, where she met an Englishman who “tried to convince me that Hamas was not a terrorist organization. It blew my mind.
She realized that “I wanted to do something to better Israel’s image in the world,” she said. “To understand the way it looks from the outside, you should be on the outside. With that in mind, I decided to move to New York and get my studies accomplished here.”
At that time, “I thought that the bad image of Israel would be fixed if only people understood certain things about its policies.”
Her experience at Columbia quickly showed her “that was not the case.
“My dad taught me that antisemitism in the U.S. is a fringe, not something that would happen on a normative American campus.”
She soon learned otherwise, she said.
“I saw that a lot of the anti-Israel sentiment unfortunately borderlines on, or is, antisemitism. That’s where my being a granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors kicked in. I want to make sure that as long as I choose to live here as a Jewish minority, I speak up.” In her case, speaking up meant co-founding the Zionist student group, which offered “celebrations of Israel’s history and culture,” guest speakers, and even an Israel trip for campus student leaders in conjunction with the Maccabee Task Force.
“When they see the reality on the ground, they see it’s not a simple yes-or-no BDS question,” she said. “We tried to choose the best student leaders, who didn’t come with a preconceived idea of Israel. We brought 15 of them to Israel for 10 very intense days.”
The itinerary ranged “from seeing Jerusalem and the holy places, and also seeing Ramallah and Bethlehem and speaking to Palestinians, and also seeing Beersheba and the communities near Gaza, where we spoke to a mother who had her children in shelters every day.
“We tried to make sure got all the possible perspectives, left-wing Israelis and right-wing Israelis and Palestinians,” she continued.
“The truth is on our side, and the truth can be that it’s complicated.”
At the federation, she’s reaching out “to the diverse communities around us, to try and build relationships,” she said. “We cannot stand on our own and we shouldn’t want to. To fight antisemitism we have to make sure that people know who we are. That starts with building bridges.
“The long-germ goal is to have allies in different communities around us, actual friends where we can reach out and have a true relationship. Everybody needs a friend at the end of the day.”
Ms. Burman came to the federation’s JCRC post after a year and a half at the Anti-Defamation League’s New York and New Jersey office. She’s “a Jersey girl through and through,” she said; she grew up in Hillsborough in Somerset County. After graduating from Rutgers, she began work as a middle and high school art and English teacher and earned a masters in educational psychology.
Then she pivoted to political work — a field where the teaching skills come in very handy. “My patience is endless,” she said.
That included professional work for the Mercer County administration and New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, and volunteer work that led to the presidency of the New Jersey Federation of Democratic Women.
At the JCRC, last week she oversaw to Yom Ha’Atzmaut-themed Israeli flag raisings at Jersey City’s city hall and the Bergen County administration building in Hackensack. And she took a busload of the JCRC committee members to Trenton to speak with legislators.
So why should North Jersey’s Jews get involved with the committee?
“By getting involved in the JCRC as a lay leader, you’ll gain information, access, and skills that many people have to spend years or lots of money or go to school for,” she said. “Instead, through your voluntary engagement you can get this exposure and information and skills, and get your chance to be empowered on the topics you’re most engaged with,” such as “advocating for Israel, campaigning against antisemitism, and advocating for more resources for community safety and security.
“The sky’s the limit on how you decide to use these skills outside the JCRC.”
Tracy Zur is a Bergen County commissioner and a member of the board of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
“These two positions are vital right now, as we’re seeing rates of antisemitism climbing,” she said.
“It really is a concrete need for our community to forge partnerships, both with our elected officials and also with different ethnicities. We’re seeing rising levels of hate — rising levels of antisemitism, of anti-Asian hate, increasing harassment against the African American community and the LGBT community. We need to make sure we have each other’s backs, to make sure we’re sup-porting each other.
“To build real understanding in our community is not only going to make our community secure, it will make the county as a whole a much more compassionate place to live and work and raise a family.
“We have so much that binds us together. We are all concerned about how we care for our aging parents and how we educate our children, about medical issues and mental health issues that impact our family,” she said.