For nearly eight years, Ilana Krop Wilensik served as the executive director of the Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey chapter of the American Jewish Committee. AJC is a 105 year-old organization focused on influencing policy and advocacy on Jewish issues. Last week, the Blue Bell resident stepped down from the post to become the new director of the Barn at Spring Brook Farm, a Chester County non-profit that serves children with disabilities.
Local AJC lay leaders credit Wilensik, 53, with helping to rejuvenate the chapter, which had been led for 43 years by the late Murray Friedman, recruit younger board members and broaden the group's efforts to build relationships with leaders of other ethnic and religious communities. She sat down to speak with the Jewish Exponent about her experience running a communal organization. Here are excerpts.
You haven't spent your whole career as a Jewish communal professional. How did you wind up at AJC?
I was a disk jockey for 25 years. Ten of them at the country station here in Philadelphia, 92.5 WXTU. And before that I was a classical musician — violin and piano — so I was always a performer. I had no Jewish communal experience when I first started. I wanted something that had more meaning than announcing the next Garth Brooks song. I saw an ad in the Jewish Exponent for assistant director at AJC. I had no idea what AJC was. They listed all these qualifications and I didn't have one. When I was told that one of my jobs was going to be getting chairs for events, I thought they meant the things that you sit on. I thought to myself, 'What are people going to do, are they going to stand the whole time?'
What are some of the biggest challenges in running a Jewish organization or, in your case, the local branch of an international organization?
One of the biggest things with AJC, is it's really hard to put into succinct words what AJC does. We're not a social-service organization, we don't build houses, we don't feed the poor or hungry. I think the challenge here is trying to explain to someone why to give locally to an organization that is clearly global. That's very difficult and, frankly, I'm not sure if we've found the right words yet.
What are some of your biggest accomplishments?
One of my most proud legacies is a yearly seminar called Friends in Faith: A Jewish-Catholic high school dialogue. We had our first one in April. It took a year to put together, we partnered with the Archdiocese, we partnered with the Association of Catholic Teachers, we partnered with St. Joseph's University, the Barrack Hebrew Academy and the Pope John Paul II High School. We got 11th graders and had a four- or five-hour seminar. For many of them, it was the first time they had ever sat in the room with a Jew or a Catholic. It was really phenomenal. It's going to continue.
We have developed a really strong relationship with the Mexican Consulate and we are starting work with them on immigration issues. I can also say that, for the for the first time, we are starting a Chinese-Jewish initiative. There are a lot of misunderstandings between the Chinese and the Jews. They view Jews as very smart and leaders but they don't really know us. And they know nothing about Israel. So we had [Israeli Consul General] Daniel Kutner put on a power-point presentation about Israel for them [leaders of the local Chinese community.]
The very fact that we build bridges with other communities, anticipating that there are going to be issues down the line, where we come to depend on them and they can depend on us — that's totally proactive.
Did you ever feel like there were just too many Jewish organizations?
The way that I saw it, if there is a Jewish organization that is doing something similar to you, partner with them, do it together. I'm a big one for collaboration. Yes JCRC does a lot of intergroup and interreligious work. So let's do it together. Israel advocacy is one of the big things. Who isn't doing Israel advocacy? We have to. So let's join together. I don't think there can be too many committed people.
Why are you leaving?
I was starting to get a little burned out and I needed something different. I'm ready to use my passion to do other things. I've always been a believer that if you don't want to do something with 200 percent of your heart and mind and a burning desire to do something, step aside … I have a burning desire to do what I'm doing next. Working with children with disabilities, I can see changes in front of me. I can see the real difference that the barn makes, one person at a time.