When he was at that age when you’re old enough to want the world to make sense, but not old enough to realize that often it doesn’t, one of Roberta Abrams’ two sons asked her about her job.
Other people get paid for their work, she remembers him saying. But you — the more work you do, the bigger the title you get, the more you have to pay the people you’re working for. It’s sort of like a reverse paycheck, he said. What’s that about?
Ms. Abrams remembers that story because her son got it absolutely right — and she’s exactly where she wants to be, doing the work she most believes in, putting both her money and her brains where her mouth is. And where her heart and soul are as well.
Ms. Abrams, who lives in Montvale, is the new president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. She’s made her way to that position as she moved logically through small, more local groups to the umbrella organization that has a central role in Jewish philanthropy in the area — and that she fervently believes in as the center that will and does hold. As she’s done so, she’s carried on the work that her parents began — and still uphold — and that her grandparents positioned her to do.
Ms. Abrams’ four grandparents all were born in the United States, and they lived the dream version of the immigrant story, where all the hard work and sweat equity and risk-taking allows you, your children, and even your grandchildren not only to live in comfort, but also with an understanding of how they got there and their obligations to others.
She also comes from a line of strong women, she said.
Her mother’s side was highly educated; her father’s side wasn’t. “Graduate degrees on one side, just middle school on the other,” Ms. Abrams said. “But the money is on the uneducated side.” And of course both sides have stories.
First, the strength of women.
Her mother’s grandmother, Rose Kagno, was married to Jascha, who was a bookbinder in Europe and then in the United States. “Their son, Isidor, contracted polio from a public pool when he was a toddler,” Ms. Abrams said. This was just a decade or so into the 20th century. “Their daughter, Florence — I called her Grandma Shaina because she always called me mamashaina” — a term of endearment for a beloved little girl — “had a cleft palate. So Rose took the kids to a Catholic hospital in Chicago to have surgery for it. She earned money for the trip by doing mending for the nuns.”
The surgery was successful. Isidor, Florence’s brother, became a mathematician and taught at Columbia; “he has a theorem named after him,” Ms. Abrams said. Florence earned a degree in architecture; her husband, Ms. Abrams’ grandfather, Mortimer Kent, was a lawyer. Their daughter, Elaine, grew up on Long Island; that’s where she met Allan Abrams. Elaine was 13 and Allan was 15 when they met. They’ve been together ever since.
While the Kent family was going to school, becoming professionals, and living happy upper-middle-class lives, Ms. Abram’s grandfather, Morris, was developing into a brilliant entrepreneur.
Where did his fortune come from?
Staples. (Not the store Staples, but the object, the fastener, that simple little object that offices need if they are to function.)
Morris Abrams worked as a salesman for a staple manufacturer, and he decided that “the way to go into business would be to make your own excellent staples — and then make proprietary machines for those staples.” So he did. He tinkered, worked with other people who had more of a background, and “designed a staple that looked like an arrow.”
That was the start of the Arrow Fastener Company.
“My grandfather came from peasant stock,” Ms. Abrams said. “He had nothing. His parents had twins, and the younger one wore hand-me-downs from the older one.
“He started by making staples in his basement at night and selling them during the day, and expanded to a huge factory in Saddle Brook.” Eventually her father took over the business; “he employed hundreds of people. He took it international.
“I’m really grateful to my grandfather and my father, who made it possible for me to live a life of philanthropy and allow me to devote my life to working for others,” she said.
Ms. Abrams believes in the philosophy handed down by her grandfather to her father, and then on to her. “Arrow always stood for quality,” she said. “We would not sacrifice quality for price.”
Eventually, the business changed; Arrow was “priced out of the stationery business by cheap imports, but it maintained a strong presence in the DIY and contractor markets for stapling machines, glue guns, and rivet tools.” The company’s no longer in the family, but the original building, with the name still on it, is visible from Route 80.
When Elaine and Allan Abrams married, they moved first to Bayside, Queens, where Roberta was born. The Arrow factory was in Brooklyn then, but Mr. Abrams soon moved it to Saddle Brook. He commuted from Queens to Bergen County for a year, but it was hard on the family. So, when Roberta was 18 months, they moved to Woodcliff Lake. Except for college and then a few years in Texas, she’s been in New Jersey — in northern Bergen County — ever since.
(She also has two brothers, David and Josh; David and his wife, Sandra, live in Upper Saddle River with their three children. Josh has three kids.)
“Woodcliff Lake was very rural then,” she said. “Mostly it was farms — the Tice family, the Van Ripers family, the Demarest family.” (Those are names familiar from the farm stands the families ran until fairly recently.)
There weren’t many Jews in that part of the county then, Ms. Abrams said. She went to nursery school at the Y, which was in transit between its old home in Hackensack and its new one in Washington Township. The entire institution was called the “Y Without Walls” then — ironically enough, when the YJCC in Washington Township closed in 2015, it re-adopted that name as it redefined its future — and the nursery school met “at the back of a strip mall in Westwood.” Next it moved close to Paramus, where it stayed for many years. “My dad was president of the YM-YWHA of Bergen County.
“I am really proud that my family has a history of building community.”
The Abrams family belongs to Temple Beth Or; there hasn’t been a time since the 1970s, when they first joined, that there hasn’t been an Abrams at Beth Or, Ms. Abrams said.
The year that she was to become bat mitzvah, the shul’s rabbi, Philip Berkowitz, decided that all bar and bat mitzvah candidates had to have a full four years of Hebrew school first. That meant that everyone in her year marked the milestone in May and June, 1979. “The boys all had Shabbat morning services, and the girls all had Havdalah services,” she said.
That raised a practical issue. All the parties were within two months — “my theme was butterflies,” she said — and all the families would find themselves renting tables and chairs. That would be expensive for everyone. So Elaine Abrams had a brilliant idea. “We should buy them together, share them, and then donate them to the temple when we all were done,” Ms. Abrams said. “We’d all spend a fraction of what we’d spend if we had to rent them, and then at the end we’d have something to donate.
“That’s my mother,” she added. “It’s her seichel,” her wisdom. “It’s practicality with charity.
“I’m so very proud of her — and the temple still is using the tables.”
She has another story of how practical tzedakah works. “My sons were at nursery school at the facility that my dad helped to build, and my parents donated the pool. It was named after my grandfather, Morris Abrams.
“My son Max loved to swim, and he’s swimming in the pool named after my grandfather Morris, who he was named after,” Ms. Abrams said. Similarly, “when I graduated from nursery school, my parents gave the school a water and sand table,” she said. “And my son and I are taking a Mommy and Me class, and there is a water and sand table, and we turn it over and there is a plaque saying that this was a gift to the Y from the Abrams family in my honor. And their grandchildren end up among the beneficiaries.”
Roberta grew up learning not only about giving but also about leadership. Not only was her father the president of the Y, her mother was president of the mid-Bergen section of the National Council of Jewish Women. (When you look at a map, you see that Woodcliff Lake is nowhere near the middle of Bergen County; the names of NCSW’s sections, as historic artifacts, trace the Jewish community’s moves through the county over time.) When she was in third grade, the family moved to Saddle River, and she went to public school. Although by the time she hit ninth grade there were Jews in Woodcliff Lake, there still were far fewer in her alma mater, Ramsey High School. “There were three Jews in my class, out of 200,” she said. But she still had her Jewish community, both at Beth Or and in BBG — B’nai B’rith Girls. She became president of BBG’s Pascack Valley chapter.
After she graduated from Ramsey, Ms. Abrams went to Emory University in Atlanta, where she majored in business administration; it also was there that she met the father of her two sons; they married the year after she graduated and divorced about 13 years ago. In 1988 the young couple moved to Dallas, where she worked for Netherland Sewell and Associates, the oil and gas consulting firm; in 1992 they moved back to northern Bergen County, and they both started working for Arrow.
In 1994 Max was born, in 1998 Isaac was born, and during that time Roberta’s career as a volunteer nonprofit professional was born as well.
Her path was heavily influenced by her mother’s; when she was pregnant with Isaac, Roberta was nominated to be president of her NCJW chapter, and she was elected just before he was born. “We had to delay the installation ceremony for 20 minutes because I had to finish nursing him first,” she said.
When her sons went to the Y nursery school, Ms. Abrams started volunteering there and quickly became deeply involved. Soon she was on the board, and then on the executive board. And soon she stopped what had become a part-time job at Arrow to work full time as a volunteer.
When Max began to go to Hebrew school at Beth Or, “I became involved there,” Ms. Abrams said. “First I was the religious school co-chair, then the vice president of education, and eventually president of the synagogue.”
She was president of Beth Or during the financial crisis that hit in 2008. Its longtime, beloved rabbi had just retired, and it had started a capital campaign. “It was a rough time to be president,” she said; of course, rough times are educational times, if you survive them. She had to face a lot of raw pain. “A tremendous number of people were in need who never had been in need before, and never thought they would be,” she said. “You just do what you have to do.
“And then, after my presidency at Beth Or, I became more involved with Federation.”
She sees her progression in volunteerism and philanthropy as logical and symbolic. “I went from my temple, which I think of as my home, to the Y, which I think of as my town, to the federation, which is like the world that I live in.”
Once again, she was following her mother, who had been a planning and allocations chair for the federation.
“I live a blessed life.”
She was also a Berrie fellow, she added, a member of its first cohort; the Berrie Fellowship, according to its website, is an 18-month program, now co-sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, for “visionary lay leaders from Northern New Jersey, representing a range of religious denominations and political philosophies.” Lessons she learned there have influenced much of her work since, Ms. Abrams said.
“Part of being a Berrie fellow is going to Israel, and being in Israel and looking at myself and others helped me realize many things about myself,” she said. “And it was being in Israel that also made me realize that being in Israel grounds me.”
Ms. Abrams also is a Lion of Judah. That means that she’s a member of a philanthropic sisterhood of givers, part of an organization that’s run by the Jewish Federations of North America. She’s also a member of the board of JFNA, the sort of super-umbrella group to which local federations, themselves umbrella groups, belong.
At the local level, at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Ms. Abrams chaired a number of committees, including planning and allocations. “In 2011, the federation underwent a strategic planning process, and I chaired the collaboration committee. That’s right in my wheelhouse, because I am all about collaborating.”
The work that the planning and allocations committee did restructured the way the federation distributes funds, helping align causes with donors’ passions, and at the same time weeding out duplicative expenses and “collaborating with our partner agencies to invest in them,” she said. Originally the plan had been to allocate funds only for programming, but “we realized that 100 percent program-based funding is not possible.” That’s because some money has to go “to fund lights and building maintenance and staff and administration and even toilet paper,” the exceedingly unglamorous overhead that any organization needs if it is to function. They had that covered.
It’s about “investing in excellence with impact,” Ms. Abrams continued. “Excellence and impact are Roberta words.”
She is passionate about the importance of Jewish federations. Because of the work local federations do, and because of the network they form, “We were able to be in Pittsburgh on Saturday,” she said. That was the Saturday of the massacre in which 11 Jews died at the Tree of Life synagogue. There were other federations, all connected through the JFNA, in place there. “And you can give to federation and 100 percent of the donation can go to emergency funds,” she said. “It can go to the emergency immediately. We don’t have to create an infrastructure.
“We could be in Pittsburgh on Saturday because we existed there on Friday.
“It was federation that was on the ground after Parkland. And the Israelis were on the ground 24 hours later in Pittsburgh, with psychological support for trauma. We were in Houston after the hurricane. We went to help after an avalanche in Nepal. And that’s all because we support these agencies day in, day out, that they are ready to ramp up when something happens that makes it necessary.
“We also worked with Muslim and Christian communities, because we are in real and deep relationships with each other. And that’s because we take care of our own, and we take care of the world.”
She loves the federation system, and donates both her money and her time, energy, intellect, and attention to it, locally, nationally, and internationally, because “I have found my people. It hits all my hot buttons. Federation checks off all of who I am. It gives locally. It gives overseas. It is concerned about the safety net, and about feeding Holocaust survivors, and about the continuity of the Jewish people.
“I know that when I make an investment in the federation, it is an investment in the Jewish people. And I can say that because I am personally involved in it. I know that dollars go where they are supposed to go, that they are invested wisely, and there is not a lot of waste. We are not investing in duplicative programs. If a partner agency is not performing well, we try to help it perform to our standards, and if it cannot, we stop funding it. We hold our agencies accountable, and we believe that the program-based funding model that we use helped our agencies understand their own strengths and weaknesses.”
As to her own vision for the federation, “I know that each president brings something different to the table. What I bring is that I am a very strategic thinker. I can look at things at both the micro and macro level.” She knows that as president it’s now her job to look at the macro level, but her history, as a member and then a leader of so many organizations, means that she knows what the micro level looks like too. She also knows how those levels are both connected and at times disconnected from each other.
“I consider myself a federation donor, but for me, physical and financial philanthropy go hand in hand,” Ms. Abrams said. “I feel that if you can do both, you should do both. They say you should put your money where your mouth is. I put my money where my heart is. I give to many organizations, but I give the bulk of my philanthropy to where my heart and soul belong.
“As you fall harder and harder in love with an organization, and with what they do, and how they are remaking the world, you just want to give more,” she said. And she does.
She also has another, perhaps more surprising passion. Ms. Abrams knits. She started knitting when she was 19; in fact, she loves knitting so much that she has taken on a part-time job at a knitting store, just to be able to be part of a community of knitters.
She finds it therapeutic, she said. “It’s when you’re sitting at a meeting, and you’re kind of bored, and you can doodle or knit instead of day-dreaming. If you day dream, you’re gone, you’re off in the islands somewhere. When you are doodling, or knitting, you’re keeping part of your mind busy but another part of your mind is listening. You are still present. I find that if I knit, I can pay better attention, be more productive — and at the end of two hours I’d have a scarf or a glove. So it is a two-fold benefit.”
Of course, complicated knitting doesn’t work at meetings. “There are three kinds of knitting,” Ms. Abrams said. “There is knitting in public, there is knitting while watching TV, and then there is Knitting. With a capital K. That’s when you’re doing color work, or increasing or decreasing, or shaping, or lacework, or following a chart.” That kind of knitting demands undiluted focus.
Men tend to doodle, she said; women are freer to knit, although often it is politically imprudent. “But when you doodle, you just end up with scrap paper that you throw away. And for me, knitting is a way of dialing in.”
Looking back at her deep connection to the philanthropies for which she works, and at the path she took to get there — the path marked by her parents and their parents — she repeats something she says often. “I am very blessed,” she said.
Jason Shames is the federation’s CEO and executive vice president. “I think Roberta brings a lot of smarts and intellect to the job,” he said. “She is a very cognitive person, who likes to reason and likes to build consensus. She is very thoughtful in terms of the delivery of services and building community. And I do think she is passionate about the unity of the Jewish people.
“She has worked very hard, because it matters to her,” Mr. Shames continued. “Being involved is very meaningful for her. She wants to be engaged in the work not at all for ego, but for commitment and identity.
“I think that Roberta wants to see a Jewish community in northern New Jersey that is very pluralistic, very relationship-based, and very welcoming. She has been devoting herself to that for her entire life.
“She once told me that she knew that her parents were out of the house a lot, but that was because they were helping the Jewish community. She didn’t resent it — she respected it. It was a noble cause, she said, and if you have the ability to do it you should do it.
“She adores and respects her parents, Elaine and Allan,” he concluded. “They have been role models for her. They have shown her the way.”
Lisa Harris Glass is the federation’s chief planning officer; she and Ms. Abrams have worked together closely for years.
“Roberta is such a great thought partner,” Ms. Glass said. “She is brilliant, and she has not only intelligence but also imagination. And that is critical.
“Roberta takes her leadership role seriously. She sees it as her job. She is so dedicated. She cares so much. And what is really neat is that she got it from her parents.
“Our community is lucky that Roberta understands that the federation is the greatest forum to have the most impact on the community in a broad way.
“She has a memory that is insane. She remembers details. And she thinks about how she wants to articulate the things she cares about in the world. She is purposeful. She is directed.
“It is a pleasure to work with her,” Ms. Glass said.