"I want Federation to make it possible for every Jew to claim their stake in shaping our Jewish community and our collective Jewish future, and enhance their own Jewish journey in the process," says Sherrie Savett, the new president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. "I want Federation to become a place where Jewish involvement has personal relevance and meaning for all."
Unity and inclusivity are the cornerstones upon which Savett says she will build the community during the next three years of her service. She wants every member of the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community to "find their place in Federation" and pledges to "enable and empower them to participate in our Jewish world in whatever manner they feel comfortable."
Savett describes Federation as an organization that engages in "holy work that improves and, in some cases, saves lives." As president, she said she hopes to involve more members of the community, representing a diverse tapestry of ages, interests, income levels and religious affiliations. "The only requirement to be a part of our Federation is to share a love for the Jewish people," she says.
Savett maintains that by expanding what she describes as "our Federation tent" to include greater community participation, Federation will be better able to fulfill "its most sacred mandate — to insure that our community's children receive the best Jewish education, that our elderly live in comfort and dignity, that more of our community members experience the vibrancy of our beloved Israel, and most importantly, that no Jew in our community is hungry or alone."
Although she is newly installed as Federation president, she is no newcomer to Federation and community involvement. She traces her connection to 1978 when she was invited to participate in Federation's first Zachor Leadership Mission to Israel. Despite juggling numerous career and personal demands — she was in her 20s, parenting a 1-year-old and beginning her career as a lawyer — she accepted the invitation. "That mission changed my whole life," Savett said, explaining that it marked her first trip to Israel, a land and people that has fascinated her since reading Exodus by Leon Uris when she was a teenager.
During the trip, Savett made her first significant contribution to the Federation campaign. "Although I was just starting out and the gift seemed very large, it was so easy to give once you absorbed the message and saw the sacrifices the Israelis were making," she recalls.
The trip sparked numerous return visits to Israel for Savett and her three children, Stacy Savett Borer, Scott Savett and Lauren Savett, who accompanied her on a Federation family mission 19 years ago. Two of her children also participated in teen travel programs to the Jewish homeland. She has traveled to Israel 18 times and recounts that each time, "I feel great excitement and emotion when I see the beautiful country the Israelis have built against all odds."
Federation's new president saw first-hand, through the eyes of her children, the power that Israel has in building a strong Jewish identity. "I definitely saw changes in them after their mission and travel experiences," she says, explaining that that it made her children "more passionate about Israel and concerned with Jewish causes."
Although not religiously observant, Savett and her family are all committed Jews. She opines that their "deep passion" for the Jewish homeland and their "abiding love" for the Jewish people and Jewish culture define their strong Jewish identity.
Proud History and Exciting Future
She expresses pride in following in the footsteps of her "outstanding" predecessor, the immediate past president of Federation, Leonard Barrack, and other men and women of vision, who "through their perseverance, dedication and passion helped to shape Federation throughout its 110 year proud and tumultuous history."
She is mindful of the struggles and challenges they faced throughout the years to make it possible for Jews in Greater Philadelphia and around the world "to celebrate our heritage and religion openly and to make it possible for us to be successful in every realm of American and Jewish life."
Savett refers to Federation as "a success story." She hopes to garner greater support from a broad spectrum of the community to co-author the next chapter of our history. "I want to position this dynamic organization as a building block for Jewish continuity, engagement and involvement here in Philadelphia and throughout the world."
Investing In the Next Generation
The key to crafting this new narrative is "encouraging a greater number of younger community members to engage and connect with and through Federation." She believes that it is "never too early to start children on a path to building a strong Jewish identity." She cites the success of such programs as the Federation-supported PJ Library, which sends free Jewish-themed children's books to more than 2900 Jewish children each month.
"Programs like these, with proven results, engage the parents, who are often intermarried, as well as their children, and strengthen our ability to offer them unique Jewish experiences and help to enhance Jewish continuity in our community," she says.
For older children, teens and young adults, Savett touts the great successes of Jewish day and overnight camping experiences, Jewish day schools and Birthright Israel as "effective tools in build-ing Jewish identity."
She views these initiatives as "precious gifts we can provide to our children and grandchildren so that they can build a deep connection to their heritage and, eventually, become the new generation of Jewish leaders."
She is disturbed by the fact that today the community is able to support only about 40 percent of the demand for these programs. Her goal is to enable the Federation to provide these opportunities to 100 percent of the families, children and young adults who apply.
Savett views these programs as investments in the future of our Jewish community. "Those who have come before us made investments in us, we must similarly invest in our future generations — investments that will pay dividends for years to come."
Reversing the Troubling Trends
Savett believes that current trends are ample cause for concern. Statistics from the 2009 Federation-commissioned Jewish Population Study document the rate of intermarriage at 45 percent among men and women under the age of 40.
"These couples struggle with complex issues and challenges as they raise their children, and we want them to see the Jewish community as being supportive, welcoming and caring."
Whether intermarried or not, there is a high level of disaffiliation among members of the Jewish community. A very low percentage of families send their kids to Jewish summer camp; an even lower percentage send their kids to day schools.
At any given time, fewer than 40 percent of Jewish households belong to a synagogue and many of those only because they have children of Bar or Bat Mitzvah age. A significantly high number of adults and young adults do not feel a deep connection to the land or the people of Israel.
Moreover, many young adults do not see Israel as a place that needs to be protected, Savett laments. "This is so ironic since today, Israel is more isolated, endangered and maligned than possibly any other time in its history," she adds.
"While I acknowledge that, significant number of Jews have never belonged to synagogues, sent their children to Jewish summer camps, or attended Jewish day schools, the difference now is that Jews no longer live in primarily Jewish neighborhoods, attend primarily public schools with large numbers of Jewish students, or have primarily Jewish friends or family members. Moreover, today Jews are Jews by choice not necessity." she says.
She plans to aggressively advocate investing in welcoming intermarried couples and their children into the Federation and Jewish communal fold.
"If we do not take immediate action to reverse these trends, we will be faced with a smaller community that is largely secular and a community that does not have the safety and security of Jews in need as their core Jewish value."
She envisions Federation as "the central core of a caring, compassionate and inclusive Jewish community" and plans to significantly grow the ranks of volunteers and donors who share her excitement "for this special place where those who need help and those who want to help can and do connect."
Savett welcomes the input and suggestions of community members as she begins her journey as Federation president. Please email her at [email protected]