"Be the change you wish to see in the world." — Mahatma Ghandi
Joseph Smukler has seen a lot of change throughout his lifetime. And over the past five decades, he's been one of the leaders helping organizations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia ride out changing tides to make a meaningful difference in the Jewish community — here and throughout the world.
"The only way you survive is by changing," says Smukler, a former chair of Federation's Board of Trustees. "The agencies and the federations that have stayed the same have dwindled. I feel very strongly that our federation is one of those that is continuing to meet the changing needs of the world."
His active involvement with Jewish organizations began in 1956 — a time that represents, for him, a return home in more ways than one. Born to Russian immigrants right before the Great Depression, Smukler grew up in the Strawberry Mansion section of the city, completely immersed in a Jewish life. He went to Central High School where he later was inducted into its Hall of Fame.
"I was brought up in a totally Jewish environment. Yiddishkeit, holidays, shul — it was part of the neshamah of everybody around me," he reminisces. "Everything was involved with the synagogue, because that was the central rallying point of all the activities in the neighborhood."
But for 11 years, Smukler says, he lost touch somewhat with his Jewish roots. Throughout his studies at Kenyon College, Harvard Law School, University of Oxford, England, and then his travels as a First Lieutenant with the U.S. Air Force, his Jewish connections weakened as his universe expanded and he became absorbed in other cultures. When it came time to settle down for a career in law, he chose Philadelphia. And just as quickly as he found his way back to the city of his childhood, he found a path back to his community by volunteering for Jewish causes.
"When I came back, I was told in no uncertain terms by my mentors I had to be involved in the Jewish community," he recalls. "It was the best advice a young man could have."
His involvement began locally when he joined the Young Men's Service Committee, going door-to-door collecting money for the organization that was the precursor to today's Federation. He also became involved with Hillel and the Association for Jewish Children, eventually serving as president of each organization.
But it was the plight of Soviet Jewry that especially lit a fire for Smukler and his wife, Constance, both of whom were deeply involved with the Jewish Community Relations Council, now a part of Federation, in the 1960s.
As co-chair of the first Soviet Jewry Council of Philadelphia and vice-chair of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, Smukler helped merge the Philadelphia Union of Councils into Philadelphia's Soviet Jewry Council, which became an important element in the national movement seeking freedom for Soviet Jews.
"Federation played a key role by giving money to the Jewish Community Relations Council to help house the Soviet Jewry Council and its activities — all of which culminated in 1987 as 12,000 Philadelphians marched in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Soviet Jewry," he said.
Smukler and his family are also ardent supporters of Israel. He and his wife were co-chairs of "Israel 50," the watershed 1998 event that drew 18,000 people and brought together the Philadelphia Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic for one unforgettable night to celebrate Israel's 50th birthday.
As if that weren't enough for one lifetime, he has also served as vice president of the National Museum of American Jewish History, as chair of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, chair of Family Services of the Main Line, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council, chair of the Anti-Defamation League's International Affairs Committee (ADL), and as a board member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia. Over the years he has been recognized with numerous awards, including Federation's Community Service Award — its highest honor — along with the Mellon bank Good Neighbor Award, Soviet Jewry Council's Human Rights Award and the State of Israel Bonds' Humanitarian Award, together with his wife. He has also received a Doctor of Hebrew Laws (HON) from Gratz College.
Equally as important to Smukler as being involved in the community is spending time with his family. He and his wife relish the fact that their children hold fast to their heritage through volunteering, and three of their nine grandchildren are being educated at Jewish day schools. Their daughter, Cindy Smukler Dorani, has clearly followed in their footsteps, holding leadership positions with several local Jewish organizations and serving as co-chair of Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas. Their son, Ken Smukler, served on the executive committee of ADL. Their daughter-in-law Lisa Smukler is the Campaign Chair Designate at the Princeton/Mercer/Bucks Jewish Federation.
"We're a very close family that's together a lot; we travel together often," he said. "We all went to Israel last summer for my grandson's Bar Mitzvah and read from the Torah together. That moment was very special."
Today, although he certainly deserves to sit back and enjoy retirement after devoting his life to these causes and spending more than five decades in personal injury litigation, presently at the Philadelphia law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP, Smukler is as busy as ever. He is the current chair of the Yizkor Trust Fund Committee, and is a member of the board of directors of the Holocaust Remembrance Foundation which has been working to help enhance Philadelphia's Holocaust memorial — the nation's first, which was developed and installed by Federation and the Association of Jewish New Americans — to make sure the local community helps future generations remember and learn from the past.
"It's important in these days when people are denying the Holocaust and the right of Israel to exist that we work together on meeting those challenges," he said. "It's really up to everyone to play a role in that. The fact that an individual can make some impact together with other individuals who care about the same issues makes this community a strong one."
Looking ahead, he says he is excited about plans for next year's "Israel 60" celebration and predicts more successes as Federation metamorphoses to address community needs.
"A man's reach should exceed his grasp, For what's a heaven for?" he quoted and said, "We're reaching for more than we can achieve. We're reaching for the safety and security of Jews around the world, from Israel to Russia to Ethiopia. We're reaching to educate our children Jewishly so that they may be able to continue our 3,500-year tradition."
Smukler says he feels Federation is successfully adapting itself to an evolving community landscape. "Right now, the challenges of keeping a community together when there are so many disparate forces pulling it apart require change," he added. "We're making the tough decisions on what activities we should be involved in. We're no longer solely a fundraising and fund distributing organization; we're a convener that brings people and causes together."
He also notes that the new leadership is committed to finding innovative ways to reach volunteers and donors. "We're taking very seriously the issue of accountability," he said. "By letting donors see that they have left their footprint on an activity, we're enabling them to contribute in a way that excites them and brings them satisfaction in their giving."