‘The right person at the right time’
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‘The right person at the right time’

Dr. Zvi Marans takes over as president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey

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Dr. Zvi Marans

What does it take to operate on a newborn infant’s heart?

A layperson would have to guess that it demands a complex mix of steel-covered nerves, brains, knowledge, education, manual and intellectual dexterity, and, well, heart.

Those skills probably aren’t as necessary in the president of a Jewish federation, but they wouldn’t hurt, either.

So – meet Dr. Zvi Marans of Teaneck, the 57-year-old pediatric cardiologist who took over last week as the president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Marans was born into the organized Jewish community, and he has serious if complex yichus.

He was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Cedarhurst, one of Long Island’s Five Towns, the third of five children (and third of four boys) born to Rabbi Arnold and Zipporah Mann Marans.

His father, educated at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, was – and still is, 60 years later – the rabbi of the Sephardic Temple of Cedarhurst. His mother was born into a family that had been in Jerusalem for six generations. But “we are Ashkenazi; pure misnagid” – in other words, not chasidic, Marans said. His father’s parents are from Bialystock, and his mother’s ancestor, a student of the Vilna Gaon, made his way to Israel at the turn of the 19th century. “Pure Litvish” – Lithuanian – “culture on both sides,” Marans said. “Not even an ounce of chasidish blood in the family.”

Given this background – eastern European, Ashkenazi, rationalist, perhaps a bit dour, and then, in this country, Conservative, although admittedly at a time when the seminary was still considered a somewhat acceptable alternative for Orthodox students – how did the Marans family end up in a Sephardi shul?

The community “was unusual,” Marans said. “They were very modern. They came from Turkey and Greece, they came to the United States before World War II, and they wanted to be really American. They wanted an English-speaking rabbi,” and there were no such Sephardi rabbis at the time.

The Marans children went to the Hillel School in the Five Towns – “It was similar to the way Yavneh” – the modern Orthodox elementary and middle school in Paramus – “was 20 years ago,” Marans said. “Very Zionist, very inclusive.”

Next, he commuted by Long Island Railroad to the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, spending first one semester and then the following year in Israel – “a very formative experience.” Columbia College followed; he majored in political science there. As a Columbia senior, he went a few blocks north on Broadway, taking all his courses at JTS. “It was five courses each semester with some of the best professors – Robert Gordis, H. L. Ginsberg, Raymond Scheindlin, Yochanan Muff – really fantastic teachers.”

Marans was accepted to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, but deferred so he could return to Israel, this time to study at the Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion. “It was a yeshivah of the highest caliber,” he said. “I wasn’t in a rush. I loved school, and to their credit, my parents were happy about it.”

After medical school, a residency at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, and a fellowship in pediatric cardiology at Columbia, Marans moved to Bergen County and worked with three partners to establish a Columbia-affiliated practice in Paramus.

“It is an exciting field,” Marans said. “A beautiful field. It is emotionally taxing, but we are in an era where we can repair or fix almost everything that comes our way. We can take very sick babies and make them better.

“I look forward to working every day. I feel like I’m helping people – and what better way to be able to spend your life doing that than to talk and work with children? Children, remember, don’t have the baggage adults do.”

Keep in mind what Marans actually does. In general, he said, people’s hearts are about the size of their clenched fists; that means that most babies’ hearts are the size of walnuts. He can operate on them. He can fix them. “The field has gotten better and better,” he said. “More is being done now without surgery, through catheters.” Because a fetus’s heart problems can be tracked, any necessary work can be done immediately after the baby is born.

Marans is now at the point in his practice where the first babies whose lives he saved are getting married and at least thinking about having children of their own.

“We are now invited to their weddings,” he said.

He is an integral part of his patients’ lives.

“Once, when I sat down with a patient I had for 15 years and tried to give her a card with my number on it, her mother looked at me with incredulity. ‘Your number is on our refrigerator, and has been since she was born,’ she said.”

Before he finished medical school, Marans married Nina Kampler, who is a lawyer. They have four children – Gabriel, 27; Judah, 25; Dara, 22; and Benjamin, 17. Gabriel will be married next month, and his grandfather, Arnold Marans, will perform the ceremony in Cedarhurst.

The family belongs to three Orthodox shuls in Teaneck – Keter Torah, Bnai Jeshurun, and Rinat Israel.

Marans’ younger brother, Noam Marans, the Conservative rabbi who spent nearly two decades heading Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, is now the director of interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee.

This range of experience and of deep connections to various parts of the Jewish world makes Zvi Marans a natural as head of the federation.

His entry into the system, in around 1990, was gradual, made through the Physicians and Dentists Cabinet rather than the more standard connection with an individual agency. “Many of our leaders have a very strong affiliation with one of the big agencies, and I just don’t,” he said. Still, about 10 years ago he found himself on the board, and then on the executive committee, and then a vice president. “I had no master plan, no ambition to be president,” he said.

The big job that propelled him into the presidency was campaign chair, a role he filled from 2007 to 2009. “Those were some of the greatest years for campaigning in the history of the Jewish people,” he said, with more than a trace of irony. The market crashed in 2008, and the Bernard Madoff scandal and its accompanying damages hit the next year.

“During those years, when the campaign was at a decline, at the beginning we all took it personally,” Marans said. “And then we started realizing that if we weren’t doing what we were doing, it would have been worse.”

The job of campaign chair is a hard one, he said, “maybe even more difficult than being president. It’s a grinding responsibility, and takes constant pushing, plugging away toward a goal.” When he stepped down from that task, he went on a short hiatus – “I was still on the board, I was even a vice president, but I wasn’t running anything” – but then, when the presidency was offered to him, after much deliberation he accepted it. “I talked to my wife, and Nina said ‘You must do this,'” he reported.

In many ways, given his background, it is logical that Marans has been drawn to the federation. “It’s trite but it’s true that what draws me to this work is that all types of Jews are sitting around the table,” he said.

“The universal Jewish nature of the cause is very appealing to me. I am ignited and charged when I sit around a table with other leaders in the Jewish community, who are Reform, Conservative, sometimes only mildly affiliated, or Orthodox. Each one comes to the table with a passion that is admirable, exciting, and inspiring.

“It drives me, because I am concerned about denominationalism and sectarianism. I am concerned about the purportedly fractured nature of our Jewish community, and I see the federation as a vehicle to bring different parts of the community together under one roof.”

Why did he use the word “purported” in what otherwise would have been a standard jeremiad?

“Because I think the sectarianism is overblown in the public’s perception,” he said. “I think that because I see what we do here every day in federation, I don’t see that split.

“Everybody comes to the table with their own background, their own Jewish biases, but the people I work with don’t permit those biases to impact significantly on making the right decisions for klal Yisrael.”

Because the federation has changed so much of its structure and governance, this is the first time that the presidency has been decided in advance. Marans had 15 months to prepare for the job. “That did so many things for me, both obvious and not so obvious,” he said.

“The obvious thing is that it gave me a chance to slowly immerse myself in it and gradually ramp up so we could hit the ground running. There is always a learning curve, but the initial one is done. And it sends a message to the community, and to the lay and professional organization, that we have a plan, we have a goal, we have a strategy.

“What it did for me, and I didn’t realize that it would do, was give me a chance to cultivate some of the lay leaders I wanted to have involved. I met with some of our seasoned lay leaders, one at a time, and I cultivated relationships with people.

“We succeeded in bringing in new faces, and bringing back some people who once were involved and then left.

“I had the luxury of being able to put together a leadership group that I’m very proud of,” he said.

The federation’s structure has been changed dramatically in the last two years.

The leadership group now consists of the CEO, Jason Shames; the immediate past president, David Goodman, and five officers – the treasurer, the chairs of the campaign and allocations committees, and two without portfolios. It will grow slightly with the addition of an incoming president once one is nominated.

The board has been downsized radically; “it is now a working board of approximately 36 people,” Marans said. “Its responsibilities are to establish strategy, directions, concepts; to work hard not just hearing reports but delving into issues that are important to the communities.”

At the same time, committees have taken on new importance, and former board members and new recruits are urged to join the committee that works with the agency for which they feel the most passion. “We are empowering the committees and their chairs to become independent,” he said.

“There is also tremendous new emphasis on engaging younger philanthropists,” Marans said. The federation is targeting emerging philanthropists with “a funded program to develop a coterie of young, usually married couples of potential means, who get together in a social environment under the federation’s aegis for social/learning gatherings. We want to cultivate them for future leadership – in fact, one of our new board members is a member of this group.

“The days of regular megagifts are slowly fading. What we’re doing now is filling in the ranks with a larger group of more solid regular donors.

“There is no question that the culture of Jewish giving here has evolved over the last few decades,” he continued. “The old federation model of Jews contributing to a communal pot, a community chest, and relying entirely on the community to disperse the money – that model worked for generations, but it is not the perfect model any more.

“It still is important. It still needs to be the primary method for funding the Jewish community, but we need and have begun to evolve in the ways in which we approach fundraising and the distribution of money. In addition to the annual campaign, we are encouraging donors who want to increase their giving to consider supplemental gifts to specific programs that excite them.”

His goals for his term include working with Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO. “I think Jason is very talented and very driven,” Marans said. “I see my role as being his partner in the pursuit of Jewish excellence in our community.

“One of my goals is to create a culture of lay leadership that will be the envy of every other Jewish organization.”

Shames, for his part, is as impressed with Marans as Marans is with him. “Zvi has all the attributes you want in a federation president,” he said. “He’s got the brains, the passion, the understanding, the desire to build community, to reach out, to make it stronger.

“I think of a baseball term – a five-tool player. That’s somebody who can do all the fundamental things you need – hit, run, throw, field, and catch.

“I knew Zvi from my interview process – he was on the search committee – and I always knew that he would become president. Early in his term, David Goodman” – the immediate past president – “and I both recognized that he was the one, the consensus heir apparent to the presidency.

“David brought a particular acumen and understanding to the job that was perfect, and set the table up for Zvi perfectly. That’s what makes it beautiful.

“Being able to go from David to Zvi was a blessing. David was phenomenal, so to be able to start my career here with these two guys – it’s a blessing.”

Just as Zvi Marans is beginning his presidency with the changes newly in place, David Goodman began his as the new roadmap for those changes began to take shape.

“What’s changed is tremendous,” Goodman said. “We had the change in professional leadership – Jason came in mid-July 2011 – and the change in presidents at the same time.” It was then that the implementation began on the strategic plan, “which was a living, breathing document that allowed us to implement change not only based on what it said but as things changed around us.”

The strategic plan had been devised under Alan Scharfstein’s presidency, in the pre-crash, pre-Madoff world, barely five years ago, but already misting into history. “In its infancy it was a dynamic operating model, a way for the federation to engage donors possibly into looking at funding specific projects as well as the annual campaign. But with the economic crisis, the downturn in the markets, with the home market crashing, and with Madoff, Alan felt the model was not right for now. It had to change,” Goodman said.

“We had seen a drop of about 30 percent – from $11 million to $8 million in one year, 2007-2008, so we came up with a plan that established priorities for the federation,” Goodman said. “We realized that we could no longer be everything to everybody. We had to have more of an impact with our dollars, because the decrease in our campaign left us not really relevant to many smaller agencies because the funds we were giving them in relation to their budgets became smaller.

“They became almost nothing,” he said ruefully.

“So then we had to decide what to do. We had to prioritize our giving.”

The new allocations model, which is being phased in slowly, is now in its second year. It is this brave new world that Marans has inherited.

“I am so excited that Zvi has agreed to become president of the federation,” Scharfstein said. “He really is a great person, and he is the perfect person for the position at this point in time.

“Federation right now is at a crossroads, pointing in the right direction.

“We have brought in new professional leadership, and it is teamed with new volunteer leadership that really is terrific. Better professionals encourage better volunteers, and better volunteers attract better professionals.

“Federation is the one group that can bring together many of the organizations and entities within our community. Zvi has a great understanding of our community, and a real passion for improving it. He is one of those great people who balances his professional life, where he is enormously successful; his personal life – he has an outstanding family, who are very supportive of him; and his volunteer life, where he has continued to show extraordinary leadership, both in federation and elsewhere.

“He is a great guy. He is an extraordinary individual. He is the right person at the right time.”

Zvi Marans’ brother Noam, who was on vacation out of the country at press time, battled poor reception to write an e-mail of praise and pride.

“Zvi is a natural and beloved Jewish leader,” he wrote. “He was raised in a home characterized by ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, Torah, and the Land and State of Israel, and he has committed himself to the same as a professional volunteer. He is uniquely able to build bridges within the Jewish community, celebrating and embracing different perspectives.

“But above all, his temperament, gregariousness, and easygoing personality enable him to get things done. I couldn’t be prouder of Zvi, Nina, and their children, and am thrilled for him and for the Jewish community we share.”

Noam Marans was part of a Jewish delegation that met Pope Francis two weeks ago. At the same time, Zvi Marans was part of a delegation of Jewish lay and professional leaders that spent a memorable day at Babi Yar, the killing field near Kiev, Ukraine, where almost 34,000 Jews were killed in two days of unimaginable terror and brutality. The effect of Babi Yar was powerful, Marans said; no matter how much he had known about the slaughter, being there made it different and, of course, far worse. But things have changed. Natan Sharansky, a former Prisoner of Zion, was there, representing Israel in general as well as the Jewish Agency, which he heads, in particular. An Israeli choir sang; an impassioned Israeli speaker inspired the group.

Zvi Marans thought about the symbolism of the day – certainly a proud one for his entire family; “my father had a naches week,” he said.

Beyond that, “it was an interesting interplay,” he said. “This pope is unlike Pope Pius, who could not have stopped the entire Shoah, but did not try to stop anything; the relationship between Catholics and Jews has changed in ways that would have seemed impossible half a century ago. “It was very dramatic,” he said. “To stand there, hearing this Israel guy say ‘lo od'” – never again – “and to Sharansky, and to the choir, standing here on this hallowed ground.

“We all know that it couldn’t happen again now, and won’t happen again if Israel is strong. If Jews are strong.”

With his work for federation, Zvi Marans is contributing to that strength.

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