Picture this: Thousands of Jewish children attending supplemental religious schools at synagogues and community centers who are excited — yes, excited — about learning. They are inspired, stimulated, engaged … actually eager to continue their Jewish education beyond b'nai mitzvah through confirmation and into adulthood.
Sound unlikely? Not to Susanna Lachs Adler.
As chair of the Task Force on Children, Family and Youth for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Jewish Life and Learning, Lachs Adler can envision such a scenario in full color. She's actually seen it come to life over the past few years in her own synagogue, Adath Israel, and five others with the success of Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools — the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education pilot program that's being replicated locally with a second group of supplemental schools and examined by others across the country.
For Lachs Adler, that success represents the hard-earned result of years of effort put forth by many people in the local Jewish community — one she feels is rebounding and renewing its ability to meet continually changing needs.
"I'm proud to be a member of the Philadelphia Jewish community," she said. "I've met wonderful friends, both personal and professional, in my work and travels and have had great leadership role models from Federation, the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and other organizations. Federation in particular has done well in instilling community pride."
For this daughter of a Conservative Rabbi, involvement in the Jewish community has been as natural as breathing. She attended Gratz College's Jewish Community High School, spent summers at Camp Ramah and was an active USYer. After graduating from Temple University School of Law and starting as an associate at the law firm of Cohen, Shapiro & Polisher, she quickly found kindred spirits from top to bottom.
"Our most senior partner, Sylvan Cohen, who was head of Federation at the time, encouraged all lawyers in the firm to get involved with Federation and the agencies — especially those whose primary focus was local social services and Jewish education," said Lachs Adler. "It was just part of the culture of our firm."
But it was her participation in a mission to Israel in 1985 that changed her life in more ways than one. In addition to reconnecting with the land she had not visited since her teens, she met her future husband, Dean Adler, on the trip.
Over the years, the Gladwyne couple has made individual and communal philanthropy and volunteerism — for both Jewish and non-Jewish causes — a priority. She has been involved with Federation's Women's Philanthropy division and its Lion of Judah group, Federation Early Learning Services, the National Museum of American Jewish History and Adath Israel, where she's served as a member of its board of directors and as co-chair of its capital campaign and President's Cabinet. He has served on numerous community boards, including the UJA National Young Leadership Cabinet, and he was the honoree of this year's Israel Bonds Real Estate and Financial Services Division.
Confidence in Leadership
"My husband and I feel very lucky to be able to give of our time, leadership and finances," she said. "It's important to be good role models in the community, because if no one steps up, our community won't survive."
She noted that the recent changes at Federation have only served to heighten her family's trust in its leaders to steer the organization toward a new course that will benefit the people it serves. "We have a high degree of confidence in the new leadership at Federation," she claimed. "Ira Schwartz has instituted fiscal oversight and is instilling confidence in the donor pool. The programming certainly informs our own giving decisions."
But it has been her interest in educational issues that has inspired Lachs Adler — the mother of Anna, 18, and Sara, 14 — the most. "Every child should have the opportunity to have a strong Jewish education; it's the key to continuity," she said.
As an ACAJE board member, she credits the organization and everyone involved with the NESS program for helping improve supplementary schools in just a few short years by setting concrete goals, putting contemporary pedagogical methods and mentor teachers into action, and measuring the actual impact in an objective fashion.
"The work that's been done has become a national model, and the quality of teaching and the degree of students' excitement has improved dramatically," she said. "I believe NESS will have a great impact on retention. We're even considering adapting the methodology for broader applications and starting early to improve the quality of education for a wider age range."
Despite her significant commitment to NESS, she has also found time to serve as a member of Federation's Mitzvah Projects Task Force under the auspices of the Center for Social Responsibility. In that capa- city she has been instrumental in helping to conceive and organize "Mitzvah Mania," planned for October 2007 and billed as the largest day of Jewish social action in the region.
As a project co-chair along with Marjorie and Jeffrey Honickman, Sheri and Ken Resnik and her husband, she is helping mobilize up to 10,000 volunteers on October 21 to provide much-needed services to both Jewish and non-Jewish community members. Nearly five dozen social action projects have been proposed, including Fairmount Park clean-ups, home winterization projects, Mural Arts Program activities, a "Rock the House" dance-a-thon, an American Red Cross blood drive, food sorting and delivery through Federation's Mitzvah Food Pantry and the Jewish Relief Agency, knitting blankets for donation to area children's hospitals, and much more.
Lachs Adler points to "Mitzvah Mania" as another indication that the regional Jewish community is coalescing at a time when Federation is becoming more strategic to meet the changing face of its constituents.
"I'm familiar with many agencies, but we can't be everywhere in the world or begin to know all of the needs out there — whether it's immigrants, the elderly, early childhood education or Israel," she stressed. "We rely on the expertise of Federation professionals for so many things. We were pleased to take our family to our sister community in Israel; that's something we would not have had the connection to do otherwise."
While she appreciates that many people give of their time to activities within their own synagogues, she says she wishes more would stretch outside of those boundaries and jump head-first into activities sponsored by and affecting the regional, national and international Jewish community.
"If I had not been a Lion of Judah, I would not have had the opportunity to learn about so many things, like the Ethiopian Jews airlifted through Operation Moses," she pointed out. "It's wonderful to be involved at synagogues, but synagogues have to be part of the community for survival, for continuity; they're all inter-related. I would like to see more affiliated people get involved in the broader community."