Moving back to Motor City
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Moving back to Motor City

JFNNJ's David Gad-Harf leaves town, looks back

If it takes a David to slay a giant Goliath, what does it take to knock a David out of the ring?

It wasn’t the financial crisis of 2008 that did in David Gad-Harf, who is the chief operating officer at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the number two staffer there since 2005.

Nor did he shirk from helping the federation reinvent itself for a new century.

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David Gad-Harf and his grandson, Jonah.

No, what’s sending Gad-Harf out of northern New Jersey and out of Jewish communal service is a six month old boy named Jonah. He is Gad-Harf’s first grandchild.

When Gad-Harf met Jonah, “lightning struck.

“We didn’t want to be drop-in grandparents,” he said. “We wanted to be part of our grandchild’s life.”

Jonah’s father, Josh Gadharf, had been raised in Detroit, where Gad-Harf had been the director of the Jewish community relations council for 17 years, and he and his wife, Danielle, had just returned to the city.

Gad-Harf and his wife, Nancy, decided to follow their only child and his family.

(A word about names in the Gad-Harf family. David and Nancy decided to combine their last names when they married; their son and his wife decided to keep the name but drop the hyphen.)

He found a job in Detroit, working for the Henry Ford Health Center, a major hospital system in Detroit, helping the hospital system form partnerships with the private sector.

For the first time in over 30 years, Gad-Harf will not be working for the Jewish community.

“It was special, because I felt I was serving the Jewish community, not only in northern New Jersey, but around the world, especially in Israel,” he said.

In New Jersey, those with whom he worked at Federation will miss him.

“He will definitely be missed,” said David Goldberg, the federation’s president, who worked extensively with Gad-Harf on the federation’s strategic planning process. “We’ve had quite an adventure together.”

A lot has changed in the federation since Gad-Harf joined in 2005. There has been a name change; a move; the departure of long-time executive Howard Charish, who had brought Gad-Harf on board; and a year when Gad-Harf served as interim CEO.

And then there was the twin calamity of the financial collapse and the Bernie Madoff scandal. “It hit our federation hard, as it did many other federations,” Gad-Harf said.

“We had to reduce our budget and reduce our staff size. That was the painful part of the upheavals.

“But even the negative parts became a spur for our organization to rethink who we were, the role that we played, the value that we provided. It was a lead in to the transformation of Federation that has been going on for the last several years,” he said.

Gad-Harf led the strategic planning process that started in 2009 and was adopted by the federation in 2010.

As a result, the federation is repositioning itself “as an organization that provides real value to our Jewish community, that builds collaboration among agencies and organizations, and engages people, especially donors, in new ways,” he said.

“During the last year I’ve been fortunate to be leading the way professionally in the fundraising area, helping to introduce new strategies to raise money, to bring new people into our system, to do so in a way that attracts younger people. We’re just starting to see the fruits of those strategies.”

One change: “We’ve recommitted ourselves to the idea of fundraising missions. That was exemplified by the recent mission to Cuba. That will continue this year with a mission to Israel. There will be many more missions to Israel and elsewhere – we got away from that in the last few years.”

Gad-Harf recalls a mission to Israel early during his tenure here as “a pivotal experience.”

The trip impressed him with “the diversity coming from every corner of our community.”

Diversity is one of the strengths of the northern New Jersey Jewish community, he believes.

“The diverse ways that people express their Judaism, in the whole metropolitan New York area, has been amazing to me. I gained a much deeper sense of respect for the diversity that exists within the Jewish community. That’s something I will always carry with me,” he said.

The northern New Jersey Jewish community also has some unique challenges, he said.

“Unlike most other large city federations, our Jewish community didn’t start in an urban center. There isn’t a common memory. There aren’t the generations and generations that lived in the area that provides other communities with a sense of shared history and a shared future.

“Also, we live in the shadow of Manhattan. So many of the people who live here work in Manhattan and make their donations to the UJA-Federation of New York, because that’s where they are encouraged to do so at their places of work. That’s a problem that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

“A final characteristic, not necessarily unique to northern New Jersey, characterizes New Jersey as a whole. There is a sort of balkanization, a decentralization of communities that often gets in the way of building unity. That’s very challenging to overcome when you have people who feel a sense of identity with their little town, but not a sense of shared purpose with the town next door.

“I’m the kind of person who sees the opportunity in every challenge. It makes the federation role all the more important. You need something to serve as the glue that holds together the Jewish community. The federation is that glue. Unlike any other Jewish organizations in northern New Jersey, it has the capacity to bring people from disparate parts of the community together to discuss and act on issues and concerns of shared interest, and then to devise strategies to address those concerns.

“The federation that I came to in 2005 has really been significantly transformed. It’s a very different federation than the one that I knew in 2005. I’ve been lucky to be part of so many of the changes that have happened and that are making it a more relevant, a more potent, and a more valuable organization for now and into the future.

“I am really optimistic about Federation’s future. It has visionary leaders and highly committed volunteers and really superb staff members. That’s the recipe for success,” he said.

As for him, “I’m really appreciative of the wonderful opportunity I’ve had here and the friendships and collegial ties I’ve enjoyed and will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

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