Passaic-born Howard Charish has been involved in Jewish communal service since 1969, when he served as a teen worker at a JCC in northeast Philadelphia. The longtime federation leader, who lives in Englewood, told The Jewish Standard that not only is he convinced he chose the right career, but he feels "blessed to be in this field."
Charish, winner of the ‘007 Saul Schwarz Award, presented by the New Jersey Association of Jewish Communal Service, also said he is "gratified" to have his contributions recognized by his peers.
The award, created in 1984, recognizes "an outstanding member who has demonstrated a consistent history of professional and personal commitment to the field and to the quality of Jewish life," according to NJAJCS president Amy Cooper, who pointed out that the organization was founded in 1970 as a "forum for the interchange of ideas and the ‘how-to’ of their implementation." Recipients of the award are chosen by Jewish professionals throughout the state from all fields of communal service.
Over the past 38 years, Charish has been at the helm of several large federations. Executive vice president of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey since ’00’, he headed United Jewish Communities of MetroWest from 198′ to 1994 and was president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia from 1995 to ‘000. In addition, Charish has an annual stint teaching at Brandeis University’s Kaplan Seminar for Emerging Professionals and at the Wexner Graduate Fellows Program.
While at MetroWest, he had an opportunity to work with the late Saul Schwarz, the first recipient of the award that now bears his name. Charish said that several "myths" have developed around Schwarz and his accomplishments. For example, he joked, "Schwarz was so highly organized that some people said he wrote the minutes of meetings before they happened and he was usually right."
Reflecting on his tenure at UJA-NNJ, Charish said one of the challenges he has faced is heading a federation in a totally suburban environment, noting that it lacks a "central city and common history," factors that traditionally have helped "forge relationships and loyalty to the community." Nevertheless, he said, the northern New Jersey has thrived.
"I’m proud of our excellent volunteer corps," he said, pointing to what he called an effective succession structure for the offices of president and campaign chair. "That wasn’t here before," he noted. He said he is also proud of UJA-NNJ’s record of "raising funds to heal and rescue" in the face of emergencies throughout the world.
"We sent two missions to the Gulf coast [in the aftermath of Katrina] and we’re planning a third," he said. "We have always risen to the occasion. There’s little that the community has asked that we haven’t been able to provide."
Charish said he is also pleased that UJA-NNJ has achieved a strong relationship with member agencies and has built "an incredible bridge to Israel" through the federation’s partnership program.
Looking back at earlier achievements, Charish said he took special pleasure in having led a delegation bringing former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and her husband to Israel before she took office. "It was transformative for her, and we stayed close after that," he recalled.
Charish, who received a doctor of Jewish Communal Service degree, honoris causa, from Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in ‘000, said he is also honored to be among the half dozen or so people named honorary citizens of Netivot. "When I was an executive in Philadelphia, I played a role in connecting Philadelphia to Netivot, its partner city," he said. "It was a productive relationship that grew."
The federation head is clearly proud of the organization he leads. "I’ve gotten to see the invisible arm of UJA, how it takes care of Jews in need," he said. "I’ve seen a demonstration of the collective power of the organization in the community," he added, pointing out that UJA helps people from "their earliest life to life’s end." And often, he said, "it works very quietly. I’ve been privileged to witness its outcomes."
Charish pointed out that he is not the first UJA-NNJ leader to receive the Saul Schwarz Award. Past winners include Judy Beck, director of the federation’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative; Joy Kurland, who heads its Jewish Community Relations Council; and Abe Davis, executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Services in North Jersey.