‘Dream big’

‘Dream big’

Cheryl Rosenberg, former BPY president, runs for Englewood City Council

(Cover photo by Stefanie Diamond Photography)
(Cover photo by Stefanie Diamond Photography)

Choosing to run for public office is a big step.

You open yourself up to scrutiny and to rejection; you have to get used to seeing your name in big letters on people’s lawns. You have to learn about issues, some of which interest you, some of which don’t, and you have to figure out where you stand on them. You have to develop a thick skin. And despite all the commonly believed truths about local politicians, it helps if you have a big heart.

It also helps if you have the skills that come from training, experience, and focused education.

Cheryl Rosenberg is running for the Englewood city council; she hopes to represent the First Ward, the city’s northeastern quadrant, where she lives. It is a logical culmination of the 36-year-old’s interests, history, passion, and clear-eyed training.

Given the way Englewood politics works, her position on the Democratic party ballot gives her a good chance of winning.

So who is she?

Ms. Rosenberg comes from York, Pennsylvania, where her father, Fredric Weiner, was a general practitioner, and her mother, Nancy Weiner, was an active parent and community member. The Weiners belonged to the only synagogue in town, Temple Beth Sholom. It’s Reform, and like many Reform congregations, it stressed social justice. “I grew up feeling very deeply Jewish,” Ms. Rosenberg said, and she absorbed Beth Sholom’s values.

As president of Ben Porat Yosef, Ms. Rosenberg is at the podium at Bergen County Plaza as the Israeli flag is raised on Yom Haatzmaut.
As president of Ben Porat Yosef, Ms. Rosenberg is at the podium at Bergen County Plaza as the Israeli flag is raised on Yom Haatzmaut.

Given that background, Ms. Rosenberg became very political very quickly. She became student body president. Why? “It was about community organizing,” she said. “Not about particular issues, back then, but about bringing people together and talking about the values that unite us. It was about making relationships.”

She also was involved in the model United Nations, and in fundraising for her class. “It really was community organizing from the bottom up,” she said.

As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Rosenberg worked on issues that she cared about. “I started working with two different reproductive health groups,” she said. During her senior year, she worked for an endocrinologist who treated adolescents, particularly the victims of sexual assault, teaching them about their reproductive rights. “I taught teens about their bodies and their rights,” she said. She also did similar work for the American Civil Liberties Union.

She also was a leader for a group that helped students “understand body image, diet, and healthy eating,” she continued. “Most of what I did involved women’s issues, and all of it touched me, and had personal meaning for me in some way.”

Ms. Rosenberg majored in communications, but “I am very numbers oriented,” she said. “That’s where my skill set is.” It’s a potent mixture of talent and education for a politician, being able to talk about budgets and finance not only with conviction but with actual understanding.

Although she graduated college in the standard four years, in 2003, Ms. Rosenberg finished her coursework in three. She spent the last year working on the Clara Belle Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project, where the Pennsylvania state chapter of the ACLU focused its efforts on women’s reproductive health. Its director, Carol Petraitis, became a mentor. “She taught me to be an activist,” Ms. Rosenberg said.

The project she helped organize was the huge rally, the “March for Women’s Rights,” that the national ACLU held on the mall in Washington in the summer of 2004. It attracted hundreds of thousands of people — the organizers said it drew 1.5 million, and more dispassionate observers said perhaps 800,000, and they agreed that it was the biggest gathering on the mall to date.

“It was amazing — and remember, it was before cell phones,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “That day, it felt hopeful. And that’s why I went into politics. To have hundreds of thousands of people on your side, and to feel that people hear you, that you can make a difference — that is so very powerful.

“And it was powerful for me also because I was able to bring my passion and my skills in execution together.”

She was 23 years old then.

That year, she also got married, to Mordy Rosenberg. (The two now are about to divorce amicably, she added.) So when the ACLU’s project ended with the march’s success, she went to work for her new husband’s family foundation, the Murray and Sydell Rosenberg Foundation, which “funds impoverished communities and individuals around the world.” As the foundation’s only dedicated full-time employee, she “developed managerial skills, and even more than that, I developed an understanding of the legal aspects of foundations and nonprofits,” she said. “I did a lot of accounting for them. It helped me transfer my skills.

“Also, I was working with some families in very hard situations, one-on-one, so there a little bit of a social work component to what I was doing too.”

Although she had grown up strongly connected to the Jewish community, she’d grown a bit away from it during college, Ms. Rosenberg said, but her courtship and marriage drew her back, in a new way. When she met her future husband, “I started to explore Orthodox Judaism,” she said. “I didn’t think at first that it was for me, but even then I fell in love with some parts of it — with the community aspect, the meals, the friendships, and the concept of Shabbat. I loved that from the very beginning, the idea of a day of relaxation and community and connection.”

After the first two of their four children were born, the Rosenbergs, like so many other new families, decided that they needed more space. They moved to Englewood in 2007, drawn by the town’s beauty and its proximity to Manhattan, but also to Kesher, the Orthodox community just taking root there. “I grew up in a small Jewish community, and I really wanted that,” Ms. Rosenberg said. Although Englewood’s Jewish community is not at all small, Kesher was then.

She also was attracted to Englewood because “I wanted a diverse multicultural experience for my kids,” she said. Although there is a limit to the diversity a suburban Jewish day school can offer, “I wanted their experiences out of school to be diverse,” she said.

The family quickly became active in Kesher, and soon Mordy Rosenberg became its president. “I wanted to be more involved too,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “I wanted to have an impact in the community.” She thought about the possibilities open to her. “I hadn’t gotten involved in activism in Englewood then, and I was much more connected to my kids’ school.”

Their children — Asher, 11, Caleb, 10, Siona, 8 1/2, and Shai, 5 — all are students at Ben Porat Yosef, a pre-K through eighth-grade day school in Paramus that is different from other local day schools in that it teaches Sephardi traditions alongside the Ashkenazi worldview, instead of as exotic outliers.

As BPY officially went green, PSE&G’s Joe Prusik, Cheryl Rosenberg, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Senator Robert Gordon, PSE&G’s Susanna Chiu, and BPY’s treasurer Asher Toporovsky marked the occasion.
As BPY officially went green, PSE&G’s Joe Prusik, Cheryl Rosenberg, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Senator Robert Gordon, PSE&G’s Susanna Chiu, and BPY’s treasurer Asher Toporovsky marked the occasion.

The Rosenbergs chose the school because “It is warm and small and educationally progressive. It wants kids to be happy and confident and engaged.” They understood that its approach to learning was a natural outgrowth of its Sephardi background and culture.

So, Ms. Rosenberg said, when she was looking around for a way to fulfill her drive for relationships, leadership, and community outreach, “I became president of Ben Porat Yosef.”

It was not, of course, that easy. “I was the first woman and the first Ashkenazi to be elected by the full board to a full term,” she said. But it was that fulfilling. “It was amazing and eye-opening in a million ways,” she said.

There was the cultural aspect. “I always had been intrigued by the uniqueness of the Sephardi traditions and culture, but I actually learned so much more about it,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “The ideology is that it is a big tent. We are all part of the same people. We all pray together. No matter what you look like, or where you are from, or how you practice, it doesn’t matter. We are all the same people.

“I found it so beautiful to lead from this place, by being inspired by what we were trying to accomplish.”

And then there was what she learned about herself, and about herself as a leader. “I had never been in a leadership position this big, so I got myself a personal coach,” she said. “I enmeshed myself in leadership training and evaluation. I really wanted to learn about myself and to be sure that I could be successful.”

Her gender was an extra challenge. Whenever she met with other school leaders, “I would walk into a room full of men,” she said. “There were almost no women.”

At the same time, Ms. Rosenberg was one of the fourth cohort of the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, funded by the Russell Berrie Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. That program is specifically focused on taking up-and-coming local leaders and training them to focus and refine their skills, understand and direct their passion, and become bigger, better versions of themselves as leaders.

The Berrie fellows grin after finishing a “break the box” exercise. Ms. Rosenberg holds the box; she is surrounded by Christine O’Donnell, Eileen Pleva, Clive Lipshitz, Greg Haber, and Sarah Nanus.
The Berrie fellows grin after finishing a “break the box” exercise. Ms. Rosenberg holds the box; she is surrounded by Christine O’Donnell, Eileen Pleva, Clive Lipshitz, Greg Haber, and Sarah Nanus.

Ms. Rosenberg was the president of BPY for three years, and “I spent the last year and a half of my presidency deeply involved with the Berrie program,” she said.

“Angelica Berrie,” the foundation’s president, “really touched me in a major way, because she kept saying ‘Dream big. Dream big,’” Ms. Rosenberg said.

Laura Freeman, who is the federation’s interim marketing and communications director, is a former Berrie fellow and the program’s liaison to the federation. The Berrie fellowship program “doesn’t speak to specific passions,” Ms. Freeman said. “It speaks to listening to your heart. It gives individuals the tools to really build upon what is simmering inside them.

“The program focuses on three areas — personal leadership development, organizational leadership development, and understanding the issues facing Jews today. We feel that by intersecting these three areas, we give the fellows the tools to be competent in doing whatever speaks to them.”

So there was Cheryl Rosenberg, at the end of her BPY presidency, with the experience that a so-far-still-short but active life had given her, and with the leadership skills that a great deal of training had given her, faced with a decision: What should she do next?

“When I was talking about it to a close friend, I said, ‘Do you think I would be okay in politics?’” Ms. Rosenberg said. “And she said, ‘I think you’d be great at politics. And there just so happens to be an open seat in our ward.’”

So she went for it.

Ms. Rosenberg started out with the understanding that she would represent not only the Jewish community but her entire ward — which stretches west of the wealthy East Hill, west of the railroad tracks, to far more diverse middle-class neighborhoods. That fit well with her worldview; she had moved to Englewood, remember, to look for both Jewish community and diversity. She found it in her own ward.

The Rosenberg children — from left, Asher, Caleb, Siona, and Shai — are on vacation in Hilton Head; at right, Siona helps with a lawn sign.
The Rosenberg children — from left, Asher, Caleb, Siona, and Shai — are on vacation in Hilton Head; at right, Siona helps with a lawn sign.

Like many towns and small cities, Englewood’s politics are complicated. A candidate for city council tries to win the party line — that party is Democratic — and to do that they have to make a presentation to the municipal committee. That’s 32 elected officials, eight from each of the city’s four wards; a man and a woman from each ward’s four districts.

At the end of that process, Ms. Rosenberg got the party line.

How did she do it?

“I started by just getting to know the people on the committee,” Ms. Rosenberg said. ‘It was the most incredibly fascinating experience.” She got to know — and to be awed by — Sandy Greenberg, the 88-year-old woman who had been mayor in the mid 1970s, and whose encyclopedic memory provided Ms. Rosenberg with huge swathes of local history. She got to know Gene Skurnick, who is just about to leave the city council after many years, and who also has a vast and idiosyncratic understanding of local politics. She learned from many local officials and activists. As is true in most places, there are racial tensions in Englewood; often they are masked but frequently they become visible. “I think Englewood was never a fully integrated town, and we still struggle with that,” Ms. Rosenberg said. That inconvenient truth was the subject of many of her conversations with local leaders.

“They started out as a way to get committee votes, but ended up completely different,” she said. “It ended up as just wow. I started thinking, ‘Okay, I have something to give back.’ And I end up with ‘Wow. I am so inspired.’

“These leaders were so committed and engaged, and when I think of what they went through…

“It has really changed me. It gave me more of a sense of what the town needs, and how we got in the position we’re in now.”

She is running, she said, because “I feel that I am the right person to represent the community because I understand the needs of the Jewish community, and the Jewish community’s values, and I am also deeply committed to the broader democratic values of the general Englewood community. I feel that I can bridge the two, instead of favoring one to the exclusion of the other.

“I think that Englewood needs a long-term financial plan, and a strategic vision,” she continued. “There have been attempts in the past, but nothing has taken hold for long enough or deeply enough for us to make progress. I know that doesn’t sound exciting, but that is what we need. That is what will enable us to work toward those ideas that we’re passionate about. It’s when the city is on stable ground and we have the resources we need for everyone and we can make sure that our schools are as good as they can be, that we can do that.”

On Election Day, November 7, Cheryl Rosenberg will find out if she will represent her ward on Englewood’s city council. “My kids are pretty sure that this is just one step down from being president of the United States,” she said. She doesn’t know what will come next for her — she’s pretty sure that in fact it’s not the U.S. presidency — but “I am on a journey, and every time so far I have figured out my next step through pure inspiration. I hope that will continue.”

read more: