From volunteer to professional, and back again
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From volunteer to professional, and back again

David Saginaw, the new president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, has seen both sides now

Meet David Saginaw, the new president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.
Meet David Saginaw, the new president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.

The farmer and the cowman should be friends,
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow,
But that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends.’

As Rogers and Hammerstein knew when they wrote song “The Farmer and the Cowman” for “Oklahoma,” there are some groups that can be friends — in fact, often they are — but they stay in their own lanes. One pushes ploughs. The other chases cows. They might get together to talk about plough pushing and cow chasing, but that’s about it.

That was true not only for the Oklahoma territories around the turn of the last century, it’s true for Jewish communal work two decades into this one.

Most of the time, Jewish communal professionals and their counterparts, Jewish lay leaders, are friends, but they don’t move back and forth between worlds. But when they do, they enrich the larger community.

David Saginaw of North Caldwell is the new president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. He came to that position this summer after many years as both a businessman and lay leader and as a professional in the Jewish nonprofit world.

His story begins — as anyone listening to his unmistakable Great Lakes accent can hear — in Detroit. The city, he says, is much like Newark, and his family’s history there sounds much like stories people tell of Weequahic.

His grandparents, all four of them, found their way to Detroit from Poland, where both his parents were born. His father, Nathan, was a dentist, and his mother, Sally, ran the office. They grew up in the city’s Jewish community, northwest Detroit; when David was a high school junior, the family — including his younger sister, Cindy — moved to suburban Southfield. That was in 1964, when racial tensions in the city, and its declining economy, convinced most Jewish families that it was time to move out. It was hard to move in the middle of high school, Mr. Saginaw said, but still he had a childhood and adolescence that he remembers with love. “Being Jewish in Detroit was very special,” he said. “You don’t know it when you’re growing up, but you realize it afterward.

And it also was Motown, and in its heyday. “Music was important,” he said. “Growing up in Motown — for a teenager, it just couldn’t get any better.”

He also learned a lot. “My high school — Mumford, in Detroit — was 50 percent black and 40 percent Jewish,” Mr. Saginaw said; the other 10 percent was everyone else, combined.

Mr. Saginaw went to college at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He was there from 1966 to 1971. “That’s when everything was happening,” he said. “We were all political. You could be as active as you wanted. Everybody was doing something.

David and Paula Saginaw

“When you look back on it, it was crazy — but we all seemed to turn out okay.”

One of his most vivid memories is of the first draft lottery, which happened on December 1, 1969. Young men could be conscripted to fight in Vietnam, which was a widely unpopular war; the lottery was instituted to overcome inequities and increase the size of the army. 

“My 21st birthday was December 1, 1969, and that was the first draft lottery.” (It was for men born between 1944 and 1950; he is in that cohort.) “All of us in that age bracket were finding out that evening what our fate was.

“It was amazing. You just sat there and saw your number come up.”

Mr. Saginaw already knew that it was unlikely that he’d be drafted. “I had two very bad knees and a very bad shoulder,” he said. That was the result of playing a lot of high school sports, and it was real, not a made-for-the-draft-board condition. But still watching this lottery was a major — and brand-new — rite of passage. It was terrifying. “For everybody in my birth cohort, it was like remembering where you were when Kennedy was shot, or where you were on 9/11. You knew where you were on December 1, 1969.”

As it turned out, his number was 129. That was the cusp between the first third of the cohort — who would be drafted — and the second third, who were at risk. It could have gone either way for them. Ms. Saginaw did have to go down to the draft board in downtown Detroit, but in fact his knees and shoulder saved him from Vietnam.

The whole experience of being at Ann Arbor when he was there, including the brush with the draft — because “as liberal as we all were, the thought of going into the army was not on our radar screens, was such a rich experience. You don’t realize that until later in life.”

Mr. Saginaw entered college thinking that he’d go to medical school. His father was a dentist, so it seemed like a logical move. The only problem was that he really didn’t like being pre-med, so, three years in, “I went into my first love, which was elementary education.

“I had grown up loving working with kids and teaching. I was always drawn to kids, to being with them, to teaching them. I was fortunate — I had something I had a passion for.”

The other world-changing experience he had was falling in love. He met Paula Fried, who grew up first in West Orange and then in Short Hills. After he graduated, they got married, at Oheb Shalom in South Orange. Their plan was to stay in Michigan. “I applied for jobs in Ann Arbor, but there was a hiring freeze,” Mr. Saginaw said. “We were in a bind. I didn’t have a job. I needed a job. What were we going to do?

Most of the family at a wedding last fall: from left, Nancy Schaubhut and her partner, Jon Saginaw; David and Paula Saginaw; Zach Saginaw and his wife, Jessica Zanan Saginaw, and Lauren Saginaw Balfour.

“And then somebody suggested that I apply to the South Orange Board of Education for a job.”

He got one, and they moved. He also grew close to Paula’s parents, Sylvia and Mickey Fried.

For two and a half years, Mr. Saginaw taught sixth grade in the South Mountain School. He loves sixth graders. They’re at the cusp of adolescence, still childlike in some ways, open and honest, and ready to explore, before the hormones hit fully. 

But eventually, “I realized that it was going to be tough to raise a family on a teacher’s salary,” he said.

Once he had this realization, Mr. Saginaw went to work for and then with his father-in-law in the family’s garment-district clothing company, Roytex Inc. That’s when he and Paula had their children. Their twins, Jonathan and Lauren, are 42, and their brother Zachary is five years younger. Paula and David also have three grandchildren, Lauren’s daughter Raya, 11, and her two sons, Ethan, 9, and Sammy, 6. Lauren’s family, the Balfours, live close by, in Montclair. “It has been great,” Mr. Saginaw said.

Mr. Fried died in 1987, and Mr. Saginaw co-ran the business. He stayed there until 2001.

During this time, Mr. Saginaw was active at the federation. “I’d been in our leadership pipeline since the early 90s,” he said. “I started realizing that I liked doing this as a volunteer, and that I had a definite interest in moving up the ladder in terms of leadership. I was the 2001 campaign chair for the 2002 campaign.”

Serendipitously, just as he became campaign chair, Mr. Saginaw had left Roytex. As he looked around to decide what to do next, he had time to devote to the campaign. “I really enjoyed raising money, strategizing, working one-on-one with people,” he said. “I enjoyed the whole experience.”

One of the experiences of that year was not enjoyable, but it was profound.

David and Paula Sagina with their grandchildren, Ethan, Sammy, and Raya Balfour.

Mr. Saginaw was on a JFNA mission to Israel in the fall of 2001. “I led a group of about 30 people from MetroWest,” he said, including Senator Frank Lautenberg. They were there on September 11. “It was very strange,” he said. “He felt the overwhelming support of Israelis. All of them, including the cleaning people in the hotels, were asking how they could help.

“We were stranded. There were no flights for a week. A lot of us didn’t know what was going on back. home. Cell service was impossible, and we didn’t even know the status of the people we worked with in New York.” The seven-hour time difference made getting information even harder. “We were at one of our partner communities — Ofakim, in the Negev — where we sat in a small room watching the Twin Towers come down.”

The emotional intensity of his experiences made Mr. Saginaw understand what he wanted to do even more clearly.

“After that year, I went to Max Kleinman, the CEO of the MetroWest federation, and I told him that I might really enjoy this as a profession.” Soon, using the connections he’d made through his volunteer work, he got a job on the development team at United Jewish Communities, the umbrella agency that oversees the continent’s federation system. (That organization has renamed itself as the Jewish Federations of North America.)

For the next 10 years, Mr. Saginaw traveled the country. “My job was to consult with federations of all sizes on how they could raise money more efficiently and effectively,” he said. “Our job was to help them. To come in to do analytics, to do training, to speak with their professional staff and their volunteer lay leaders, to help with their annual campaign endowments, planned giving, and special campaigns.

“There also were two emergency Israel campaigns during that time. We were their boots on the ground. We gave them consulting work paid for by their dues.

“For me, it was heaven. It was back to teaching. They weren’t sixth graders, but it was the joy of teaching and learning and listening and talking and everything that goes into all of it.”

But what about his volunteer work back at home in greater MetroWest?

“I was one of the few people on the team” — the professional JFNA team, that is — “who had a volunteer position in a federation,” Mr. Saginaw said. “That was a bonus. It gave me credibility when I was talking to volunteers. The reason I couldn’t have a leadership position as a volunteer in MetroWest at the same time is more nuanced. It wasn’t a conflict, but my primary responsibility was to the professional staff in the local federations. If I were to say to the chief development office, ‘I’ve got your back,’ but I also said, “I am the current campaign chair in MetroWest,’ there might be some hesitancy on their part to trust me.

The family in Michigan in 2010 ‑ from left, it’s Zach, Paula, David, Jon, and Lauren.

“It would be one thing for me to say that I am on the campaign team. I could say that I was drawing from my experience. But it would be different for me to say that I was the president.

“So I had to forego the leadership track in MetroWest because of my professional aspirations. But I still was on the campaign cabinet, and I still had my fundraising assignments, along with a seat on the board, until 2015, when I rolled off to give way to the next generation.”

In 2011, Mr. Saginaw left JFNA for Birthright Israel; after that he became the North American executive director of Tikvah Children’s Home, “which was and still is the largest Jewish children’s day school in the former Soviet Union,” he said. He stayed with that Odessa-based group until 2014, when “I decided that I wanted to go back to the things that I originally had done at JFNA. So I went out on my own to do just that, and that’s what I’ve been doing since then.”

That consulting firm, called Philanthropic Strategies LLC, is now sunsetting, but through it Mr. Saginaw has helped Jewish nonprofits grow.

Meanwhile, as Mr. Saginaw decided to slow down his professional life, Scott Krieger, then the president of MetroWest, asked him if he’d be interested in the presidency. “I said yes,” Mr. Saginaw said.

Why does he care so much about the federation? What, exactly, does it do?

To begin with, it allocates funds reasonably, based on real information about the organizations it supports and the needs those groups meet.

“There are probably about 30 agencies that we allocate funds to,” Mr. Saginaw said. “As a donor, there is no way in the world that I could sit down each year, even if I had a list of all these organizations, and decide how much money I should give to each one. But with a Federation UJA gift, I can make one philanthropic gift that reaches all of those organizations and touches thousands of people.

“That lets me feel good about my philanthropy. And also there are so many people involved in this entity, both volunteers and staff, so that your world expands.

“It expands your universe.”

Looking back at the way the two parts of his life have come together, “I have been fortunate with the way things have aligned over the years,” Mr. Saginaw said. “I have been on parallel tracks for the last 20 years, and now they have come together.

“I don’t really have a unique perspective, but it is a different perspective on how things get done, not only with the federation but also with its partner agencies.”

He appreciates the professional staff. “Their emails are never off,” he said. “Their phones are never off. They work 25/6. To be a Jewish communal professional is to have a passion that drives you to have chosen it.”

To be a volunteer is similarly to be driven by a passion for the Jewish people, Mr. Saginaw said.

He’s learned a great deal about people during the surprisingly logical progression of his career, Mr. Saginaw said. One of the many things he’s figured out is how to break the ice at a meeting. He’ll ask people to go around the table and each one to answer four questions. After the obvious — what’s your name? — each is asked to answer, Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? And Do you have pets? Each question tends to elicit heartfelt answers, he said, but by far the most emotionally engaging is the question about pets.

And sometimes surprising.

He and Paula are longtime ferret owners, Mr. Saginaw said. They’re still sad about the death of their beloved cat. And it’s through asking that question that he’s learned about animal rescues; he’s moved by the passion of the people who work for that cause.

And then he talks again about the federation. In his long path from the Jewish diaspora from Detroit to the Jewish diaspora of Newark, from Jewish volunteer to professional and back again to volunteer, in his decades in MetroWest and his love for this place, Mr. Saginaw models what a federation supporter can be. 

Yes, not only can a farmer and a cowman be friends, one person can be both a cowman and a farmer. You just need the passion.

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