For Adam Kessler, the new director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, filling the shoes of his predecessor, Burt Siegel, who retired in November after 35 years at the helm, won't be an easy task.
But Kessler, 49, who assumed the post on Nov. 10, said that he's "really honored to follow in his footsteps" and serve the needs of the Jewish community, both locally and overseas, and to build on the interfaith and interracial relations Siegel strived to advance.
Though he's a native of Pittsburgh, Kessler is no stranger to Philadelphia — or, for that matter, to the Jewish Community Services Building. Beginning in January 1998, he served for several years as director of the Bux-Mont regional office of Federation, then became director of all the suburban regions, and spent time as director of Jewish life and learning. After spending eight years in these capacities, he left to do fundraising for nonprofits in the private sector for the last two years.
But now, as director of JCRC, Kessler said that he's "happy to be back" and working with many of the familiar faces he's known for years.
Kessler, who lives in Lafayette Hill and is working on a part-time basis until mid-January, said that it feels like he's come full-circle, returning to the type of communal position he began his career with more than 15 years ago in Baltimore, where he worked for the Jewish council, served as director of its JCRC on two occasions, and worked on that Federation's fundraising campaign for several years.
"I was really intrigued by the thought of coming back to Jewish community relations work," he said.
Attracting the Young
The challenge for him here in Philly, he elaborated, will be to figure out how to make JCRC "attractive to younger generations."
This is needed, he added, to help define Jewish issues, especially regarding the Holocaust, Israel and anti-Semitism, for younger people born in the decades after the founding of the Jewish state.
"As a watchdog organization, we need to pursue these issues, but in different ways from the past," explained the married father of two.
"We have got to bring in new people" to focus on the multiple issues of the organization, which, he said, functions like a Jewish congress — like an umbrella group serving the interests of other entities.
He added that it is essential to have people with differing viewpoints working together to come to a consensus on public policy issues, but to then "speak with one voice, not multiple voices."
However, he stressed that while JCRC "can't do everything," it will continue to work on a very broad range of issues from the "A to Z of Judaism" — from abortion to Zionism, including poverty, environmental change, gun control (an issue, Kessler noted, that is especially important here in Philadelphia), and raising awareness about the situation in Darfur.
Additionally, "Israel advocacy is always going to be key for JCRC," said Kessler, as will be reaching out to non-Jewish community leaders to strengthen both race and faith relations, and educate them about issues pertaining to Israel and the Middle East. One of the critical ways to raise the level of awareness, he continued, is to sponsor interfaith missions to the Jewish state, since "once you take people there, they become friends [of Israel] for life."
While the Jewish community is small, "we cannot live in isolation," he said and, as such, "we have to relate to other communities and work together to get things done," especially when it comes to tikkun olam.
"We have to be out in the community, and communicating with the rest of the world," stressed the director. "We cannot do it alone."