You know how some stories are about love at first sight, and others are about the way that the protagonist gradually realizes the other person’s charms, and gently, gradually, but irrevocably the two come together?
Who says that the love story has to be between two people? What if it’s between a person and an organization? Because that seems to be the story of the relationship between Daniel Shlufman of Tenafly and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, whose new president he has just become.
Dan Shlufman was born in 1964 and grew up in Plainview, on Long Island; like most of Nassau County, it was basically half Jewish, half Italian, although there were a few Irish families scattered throughout as well. So he was comfortably Jewish; he and his family were members of the Plainview Jewish Center, where he celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1977. Before becoming bar mitzvah, he went to junior congregation there regularly; he remembers being drawn, at first, by the after-shul opportunity to have either some Chuckles or a Hershey bar. (He was a Hershey bar kid, he said.)
The Plainview Jewish Center is Conservative and offered an active USY group; Dan was an involved member of it, and often went to the kinnusim and Shabbatonim — the meetings and Shabbat gathers — that the region offered. All in all, being Jewish was an active part of his life, and it was the social aspect that appealed most to him.
After high school, Mr. Shlufman went to the school then called SUNY Binghamton. (It’s known as Binghamton University now, although it continues to be part of the State University of New York.) “I didn’t do a lot of Jewish stuff there, although I always went to holiday services there if I couldn’t get home for them,” he said. “But just being at Binghamton was like being in Hillel.” Then as now, it had a huge Jewish presence. “I lived at College in the Woods, the most Jewish of the residential halls. I have eight friends from college, and seven of them are Jewish, and the other is Italian, so he might as well be.”
Mr. Shlufman majored in political science. “I always knew I wanted to go to law school,” he said. He spent a semester in Washington working for Chuck Schumer (D-NY), now the Senate majority leader but then “a very junior congressman.” He also grew close to Rom Mazzoli, a Democratic House member from Kentucky, who was one of the backers of the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was supposed to “help cure illegal immigration,” Mr. Shlufman said. It didn’t, but he sees it as a valiant attempt; it also introduced him to a world — the no-longer-extant world of old-time Southern Democrats — that was entirely different from his own.
Mr. Shlufman also spent a semester abroad, although back then “everyone wasn’t doing it. Now it’s just a thing that people do, but back then it was a big deal.” He went to London, “which didn’t do much for me Jewishly, except for one big thing. That’s when I went to Israel for the first time.” The flights were cheap, he said, so he and a friend went. “When we were on the plane, some woman invited us to the seder with her family.” He was introduced to the way Israelis take care of each other, with kindness, informality, and intuition.
Mr. Shlufman went on to law school at NYU; he’s now a real estate lawyer. After he graduated, he lived in Manhattan and worked at some big law firms.
His life changed in 1994 when he married Sari Schnipper of Teaneck.
First, although it often is difficult for Long Islanders to move west of the Hudson — and Mr. Shlufman definitely was in that group — Dan moved to New Jersey. He and Sari first lived in Fort Lee, “because I didn’t want to admit that I was moving to New Jersey,” he said, and Fort Lee, right at the bridge, was just one step in.
Later, he overcame that feeling; he, Sari, and their two children are deeply rooted in Tenafly now. But that was then.
“We were young, newly married, looking for friends, and I was looking to make some business connections,” Mr. Shlufman said. He was working both as a lawyer — he has his own law firm, the Law Office of Daniel M. Shlufman — and as a mortgage broker. Those are fields in which the more people you know, the more word of mouth you get, the happier you are. And then, there’s the obvious fact that Mr. Shlufman is a deeply people-oriented person. So when a friend of his wife’s invited the Shlufmans, along with other young couples, to her apartment, that was a very good thing.
Some of those couples were involved with the Federation. That’s where it started.
“At that point, the Federation had a young leadership group, and I figured that I should go to some meetings, maybe I’d meet some people. At that point it was more for social and business reasons than for Jewish connections. My wife and I went to some couples events. I found that they had a group for commerce and professionals, and that seemed to be a good place for me to meet more people.
“So I went, and I became involved.” Soon, in fact, “I became the chair.”
But there was one other event that cemented the relationship between Dan Shlufman and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey; it is fair to say that in strengthening the bond, it was fulfilling its function.
The event was a men’s mission to Israel. “It was in January 2006, and it was the first men’s mission the Federation had done in a long time. My daughter was only six months old then. I signed up for it not knowing anybody else going on it, but I thought that this was a good thing. I’d get more involved. I’d meet more people.”
It worked. The trip was led by Alan Scharfstein of Woodcliff Lake, who always was a major force in the Federation and went on to become its president a few years later.
“It was a good time to be in Israel, and to bond with each other,” Mr. Shlufman said. “This was my third time in Israel”; he’d been once with Sari, as well as his first trip, from London. “There were somewhere around 30 people on that trip,” he remembered. “I liked it. They took us to a lot of sites, and we found out a lot more about Federation. When I got back, Alan Scharfstein put me on the board. Then when he became president,” in 2008, “he revamped the leadership. He created an officers’ corps, kind of like a kitchen cabinet.” Mr. Shlufman was one of those officers.
“I’ve been an officer for all except two years since then,” he said. “And even during that time, I was doing a lot of stuff.” He’s chaired many committees; he’s been the Federation’s treasurer, and then, for the last few years, he’s headed the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, like most members of the Jewish Federations of Northern New Jersey, its umbrella group, includes a JCRC among its agencies; the JCRCs are affiliates of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. It sounds like alphabet soup, but in practice JCRCs are groups that can work well with other, similar bodies from other faith groups or ethnic organizations, can work toward general tolerance and understanding in good times, and provide support and guidance when those times grow darker.
“The JCRC always was an effective committee, but it used to be fun,” Mr. Shlufman said. Times were good; it could afford to be fun. “You’d meet with politicians, and with members of other groups. But it took a serious turn with the rise of antisemitism and BDS and violence, and it became a major part of the federation.
“It was always important,” he clarified. “But it became a real focus for us.” And as the organization became more important, so did he, in his role as its chair. He found himself on more and more email chains from more and more outside groups. “I was in on everything,” he said.
He chaired the committee when the most devastating act of antisemitism to happen locally in generations exploded in Jersey City, on December 10, 2019, when a pair of shooters who’d already killed a police officer murdered three more people in a kosher supermarket there.
The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey was heavily involved in the work of healing the neighborhood; although he was not a Federation officer at the time, Mr. Shlufman was involved in that effort. He has come to see the importance of the JCRC. Until now, the group’s chair has not been a JFNNJ officer, but Mr. Shlufman hopes to consider the holder of that position a de-facto officer until the Federation’s bylaws can be amended to make that position de jure.
Being chair of the JCRC “is nonstop now,” he said. “We could spend all our day just commenting on antisemitism.”
He was engaged in his work as JCRC chair, as well as in his work as a lawyer and a mortgage broker, and always in his role as a husband and father, feeling fulfilled, “and then, in August of 2020, Jason spoke with me, and asked me to be the next president.
“I was surprised,” Mr. Shlufman said. He had not expected it; he felt honored but more than a little intimidated by it. He has taken on the challenge with a strong awareness of the responsibilities it entails. “I have to be more aware of what I am doing all the time,” he said. For example, “I can’t be curt,” not even in routine emails. “I have to be aware of how people are perceiving it.
“I think of the president as a representative, and I want to make sure that people are heard.”
To that end, “In August, I had a breakfast with the entire staff,” he said. “It was the first time any president had done that. We had bagels and lox, I gave them a brief bio, told them about some of the things I want to do, and then we went around the room. I had every person introduce themselves, tell their job titles and explain what they do. I asked how we could make things better, and they told me what they thought. And we’re implementing some of it.”
So why is this new Federation president drawn to the organization?
“For me, it comes down to three things,” Mr. Shlufman said. “It’s about safety, it’s about meeting such needs as housing and food, and it’s about Jewish survival, continuity, and connection. That’s what the Federation does, and I believe that it is in the best position to deliver that. There are many organizations that do one any one of these things better than we do, but there isn’t another one that does all that we do.
“We are the place that the community and politicians turn to when things happen. When that tragedy happened in Jersey City, it was Jason Shames,” the Federation’s CEO, “who got the call. When Ukrainian Jews needed support urgently, it was the federation system that raised a lot of money very quickly. We here at this federation alone donated $900,000.”
Why should anyone else become involved in the Federation?
“It’s because we have the resources and the connection to Jewish life to help people find their place and their role in the Jewish community. If they have children and want to find out about day schools or afterschool programs, or if they want programs for young families, we can help. We have connections to JCCs. We help with programs for people with special needs. We donate and help out with the JFCS,” Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey. We help Holocaust survivors, we do kosher meals on wheels.
“We have the entry into the Jewish community. If you are affiliated with Federation, you will be able to be involved with anything you want to be involved with.”
The Federation is about to release a new strategic plan, he said; it’s likely to be out by the end of the year. As for right now, Mr. Shlufman believes deeply in something that he’s said before, and that’s quoted on the Federation’s website, jfnnj.org.
“Federation strives to meet the challenges of the current world as they actually exist, not necessarily as we’d like them to exist,” he said. Reality matters.
One piece of reality that is very important to Mr. Shlufman is his own family. He and Sari, a public-school teacher who retired after 13 years in the Englewood school system to be a full-time parent, have two children. “One of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing at Federation is to set an example for my kids, and for other kids,” he said.
The Shlufmans’ older child is their son, Noah. The 23-year-old recent college graduate lives in Boston, where he is a consultant with IBM.
Noah’s own engagement with Judaism — that is, the engagement he developed on his own, not through his parents — began just before his freshman year of college. The Hillel at his school, Northeastern, offered Fresh Fest, an orientation program for Jewish first-year students. “It was three or four days before school started, and Sari said, ‘Why not go?’” Mr. Shlufman reported. “It was touch and go for Noah — but he goes. And he has the greatest time, and he meets the friends he has now.
“He starts school, and a vast number of those friends pledge AEPi” — that’s Alpha Epsilon Pi, the group generally known as the Jewish fraternity — “and although Noah isn’t a fraternity kid, or at least we thought he wasn’t a fraternity kid, he pledges it too.” He gets in.
“He also goes to Hillel.”
Noah Shlufman also became involved with Tamid, a group for Jewish college students who are interested in both entrepreneurial opportunities and in Israel, his father said. “He’s a board member at Tamid now. So now he’s on his Jewish path.”
The Shlufmans’ younger child, their daughter, Dina, is a senior at Tenafly High School. During the pandemic, when she, like all her friends and classmates, were stuck at home, and had the whole world closed to them in person but open to them online, Dina “got involved with BBYO,” the group that used to be called B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.
“BBYO had amazing programs online,” Mr. Shlufman said. “She made friends in Argentina, in Israel, around the world. She got to spend time online with all these people.
“And now, in real life, she has started going to BBYO events. She’s editor in chief of the international BBYO newspaper — and she’s also managing editor of her school newspaper.
“She went to Israel last year on BBYO’s 21-day leadership trip. She’s now president of her local BBYO chapter.”
So father and daughter are presidents of the local Jewish organizations they love at the same time. “My being federation president is one of the few things about me she thinks is cool,” Mr. Shlufman said. (To be dispassionate and accurate, it is necessary to point out that it is extremely unusual for a teenager to think that her father is cool ever. Not even once.)
“You never really know with your kids,” Mr. Shlufman said. “You throw it all in, and you hope that the mix works.”
Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, said he’s thrilled about working with Dan Shlufman.
“Dan is a native metropolitan area guy, so he really understands how things work here,” he said. “He is extremely smart, he’s high on the common-sense and EQ scale, and he’s funny.
“He can play to a full range of diverse audiences; he can be just common Dan, into the Jets and the Mets” — that’s a place where his Long Island background comes in; there is no nonsense about Yankees or Giants, much to Mr. Shames’s chagrin. “And he can also talk in a very sophisticated way, with nuance, about geopolitics and modern society.
“We’ve been really lucky with all our presidents,” Mr. Shames continues. He’s really liked all of them, “and there’s always been a seamless transition between them.” He and Mr. Shlufman have been both colleagues and friends for years now. “Whatever we’ve asked him to do, he has taken on. He relates really well to the staff, and he runs a pretty tight meeting. He knows how to let people have their input, and how to adapt.
“We think alike about a lot of things; when we don’t, it’s like we’re just deviating at the margins. That’s good for the organization. We’re not closeminded. We care about what other people think and feel. Because we’re coming from a position of strength, Dan is very open to what other people have to say.”
Still, despite all Mr. Shlufman’s organizational and intuitive skills, the thing that most impresses Mr. Shames is that “Dan has a really great, really close relationship with his wife and kids. It’s great to watch it, particularly the way he is with his son and his daughter.
“Maybe it’s because my kids are little younger,” Mr. Shames mused. “It’s really great to see.
“Watching him with his family, especially with his kids, gives you the best insight into Dan. He has a really nice rapport. He cares an awful lot.”
That care is not only for his own family, Mr. Shames continued. “Dan is all about the Jewish people. He sees beyond religious practice to identity.”