Responsibility for the community

Responsibility for the community

Meet Ari Rosenblum, new CEO of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County

Ari Rosenblum
Ari Rosenblum

Ari Rosenblum, who took the helm of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County as its chief executive officer earlier this month, is from a different country.

Okay, Canada is not all that exotic. But there are differences, he said, between the American and Canadian Jewish communities.

“I find in my own experience that Jewish Canadians in the Ashkenazi community are perhaps one or more generations closer to Europe,” he said. “It has its own implications for the way the culture in the community is and for how close the children stay, and often for the politics of the communities. In the U.S. the Jewish community has been a presence for longer, and the community I think is somewhat more diverse and spread out.”

Mr. Rosenblum, 52, grew up in Toronto. His father was born in Krakow; he came to Canada in “1951, shortly before his bar mitzvah,” he said. “His immediate family was able to get to Soviet-occupied Poland and eventually to Kazakhstan, where they spent the war in a refugee camp. The rest of his extended family, almost every other relative he had, was killed in the Holocaust.”

On his mother’s side, Mr. Rosenblum’s roots go back to Israel — and passed through New Jersey.

“My grandfather was brought in by the Londoner shul in downtown Toronto as a chazzan. The family was from Jerusalem, and had moved to Elizabeth.”

Ari grew up in a modern Orthodox household. He went to Jewish day schools for elementary and high school. “The high school I went to was at the time — and perhaps still — the only Bnei Akiva high school outside of Israel,” he said.

“When I graduated from high school, it became important to me to look at the breadth of the Jewish community. My identity has grown in that respect. We’re one people. We each have something to contribute. My relationships across the Jewish world are quite diverse, and I cherish that.”

After studying at the University of Toronto, Mr. Rosenblum worked for seven years on “Bay Street, the Canadian equivalent of Wall Street.”

But he found that the work lacked “passion and meaning. There was nothing about it that was driving me.”

By contrast, “I’d always been passionately involved with the Jewish community. I’ve been an activist since I was a high school student and met Avital Sharansky” — the wife of imprisoned Soviet Jewish activist Natan Sharansky, who spent years traveling the world advocating for his freedom — “and was involved as a student activist in college.

“Something that was strongly instilled in me by my family is that your Jewish community is what is most important,” he said. “If you can marry or combine what you’re passionate about with your professional life, that’s something to aspire to.

So in 2001, he started working for B’nai B’rith Canada. By 2017, he was director of development for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.”

And his career as a Canadian Jewish nonprofit professional probably would have continued apace, had he not met Fort Lee native, and New York resident, Michelle Zigelman at a wedding in British Columbia in 2013.

“That’s what brought me to the U.S. — love,” he said.

“We each started our immigration paperwork and mine came through first,” he said. He immigrated in 2017.

The couple lives in Riverdale; they have a 3 1/2-year-old daughter. He has two sons and two daughters, ranging in age from 15 to 24, in Toronto from his first marriage. Ms. Zigelman has a background in interior design and manages a New York showroom for Arteriors, a furnishing and lighting company.

In New York, he worked as vice president for development and operations for Chabad House Bowery, and then as executive director for Hasbara Fellowships, which brings students to Israel and trains them to be pro-Israel activists on campus. He started at the Rockland federation at the beginning of November.

Besides his Jewish organizational work, Mr. Rosenblum has followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, serving as spiritual leader for Beth Ezekiel, a small 100-year-old synagogue in Owen Sound, 120 miles northwest of Toronto on high holidays and a few other times a year until he moved to the United States. “It’s a community that is non-denominational and very diverse,” he said.

He doesn’t see himself as a chazzan, with its connotations of performance for an audience, but rather as a baal tefilah, a prayer leader, and a shaliach tzibur, representing the congregation in prayer to God.

“It means you’re taking on the responsibility for the community, and I take that seriously,” he said.

He said that his synagogue leadership — as well as other Jewish teaching experiences — reflect his sense that “as a Jew with the blessing my parents gave me of a Jewish education, I’m to share it.”

As for his plans in Rockland: “Nobody should have the presumption after two weeks to be prescriptive,” he said. “I’m learning every day what the environment looks like.

“Thank God, I’ve got two decades of experience, much of that in a federation environment. There are some best practices I’ve learned and some ideas I’ve had the opportunity to be part of and some great mentors — both lay and professional — that I’ve learned from whose ideas and inspirations I will definitely bring to this role in the near future.

“I have some more learning about how things work. The most important thing is you have to know the people. You really need to know your stakeholders and listen to your stakeholders. Anything I do will come as a result of interaction with those people, who make up the heart and soul here. I have some more learning to do about how things work here.”

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