Jews are responsible for one another
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Jews are responsible for one another

New federation CEO reflects on past and plans for future

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New federation leader gets to work. Executive vice president Jason Shames (seated) surrounded by (from left) Lawrence A. Cohen, assistant executive vice president for financial resource development; David Gad-Harf, associate executive vice president and chief operating officer; and Robin Greenfield, chief financial officer. Jerry Szubin

Jason Shames, who this week assumed the position of chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, was raised in the federation world.

“I used to march in the Israeli day parade put on by UJA,” recalled Shames, who pronounces his name “shah-miss,” like the candle that lights the other candles on Chanukah. He grew up in Van Cortland Park, in the Bronx. “We always had the pushka box in my house. There was always an understanding in my household that Jews are responsible for one another and the federation is the place” where that responsibility happens.

That sense of responsibility came from immediate family experience: Shames’ mother was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the Holocaust. Her family was among the 100,000 Holocaust survivors resettled in America with help from the United Jewish Appeal and federation campaigns.

Shames delved deeply into another corner of the federation system, the Jewish Agency for Israel, when it came time to write a thesis for his master’s degree in public administration and policy at the University of Arizona.

He had recently returned from a year on kibbutz in Israel. While most of his colleagues in his master’s program were honing their skills as Arizona civil servants and taking classes in zoning, Shames was studying foreign policy. His heart was still in Israel. He was thinking of working for a non-profit, perhaps one focusing on Israel, though dreaming occasionally of ending up as a State Department analyst.

“I was always a Zionist at the core and wasn’t going to write about the Puma County Parks and Recreation Department where I had worked,” he said.

His choice of thesis topics proved pivotal in his life: When he handed it in, one of his three faculty advisers told him that the Council of Jewish Federations had sent out a call for young people interested in a career in the federation system.

With a background in business and budgeting, he was hired by the Miami Jewish federation as a planning associate.

In the 14 years since that time, he has worked his way up the organizational chart and up I-95. After four years in Miami, he was in Boca Raton for seven years and, most recently, served three years in Washington, D.C., as chief development officer – “development” being charity jargon for raising money.

While he speaks of the sense of responsibility and obligation that underlies the federation’s work, Shames insists that the enterprise of raising money for the good cause should not be leaden.

“It can be fun,” he says. “We’re going to have a good, positive time doing it. People should want to answer the call. People should want to be involved. It’s a great value to pass on to generations. And it’s rewarding at the end of the day as well.”

One notably rewarding federation experience Shames had was a mission to Israel back in 1998. That’s when he met his future wife Amy.

“It was her first trip to Israel, and I was sort of a camp counselor,” he said. “We were living about five blocks apart from each other but would not have met if not for that trip. On a bus of 40, we had three couples get married. That’s not a bad percentage.”

The couple, who are renting a house in Englewood, have two children, Josh, 8, and Sarah, 5, who will attend the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford.

“I believe very strongly in people identifying as Jews and feeling proud of it. I’m passionate about Jewish life, however people self-define it, about people being involved in Jewish communal life.

“What’s unique about federation is that it’s a welcoming place for Jews of all backgrounds, affiliations, and connections, a place where everyone in the Jewish community can come together and be the largest family,” he said.

It is a family that includes the local institutions – day schools, synagogues, Jewish family services, Jewish community centers – and Jews in Israel and around the world.

His most memorable Jewish trip, he said, was to Ethiopia.

“Ethiopia is as bad as advertised. It’s not glamorous in any stretch. When you find people who live in villages in the middle of nowhere, who are still living a hunter-and-gathering lifestyle, who are battling harshest conditions, and they can maintain a Jewish identity, when you walk up a hill and see a Star of David on a synagogue, you say, if these people could stay connected to a faith when it’s so difficult, it’s something worth keeping. It blows you away that they maintained these synagogues and traditions for thousands of years that are similar to ours,” he said.

Here in northern New Jersey, Shames wants to double the number of federation donors.

“You know how we measure success – it’s not only dollars, it’s the people who contribute and become involved. We have to raise as much funds as humanly possible, and as many donors as humanly possible.

“The potential for greatness exists here. The infrastructure exists, the population density exists, all the variables you want exist in northern New Jersey. It’s a credit to the professionals who came before me that the community has an opportunity to do bigger and better things,” he said.

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