A month after she arrived in New York City from her native Panama, then a recent high school graduate who was looking for a job in business that would use her bilingual English-Spanish skills, Dorothy Walrond heard about an opening at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
She interviewed on a Thursday for a secretarial job in the accounting department. She got the job, and started working the next day — in 1963.
At the end of this month, 50 years after she first came to the organization now known as the Union for Reform Judaism, Walrond walks out for the last time. Walrond, who is black, is a church-going Catholic who was honored earlier this month at a retirement party that included dozens of retired and current URJ employees and former campers from the Reform movement’s flagship camp where she served for 30 summers. She has received the URJ’s Annette Abramson Award for “exceptional service and dedication,” and she leaves as administrative assistant at the North American Federation of Temple Youth.
“It is time,” says Walrond, 70, to step aside for “younger people.”
She works in a cubicle that is covered with gifts from onetime campers, magnetized nametags of retired and deceased NFTY employees with whom she worked, and photographs of now-grown teen campers with their own families. She points to each photo, telling which one is a rabbi, which one has settled in Israel, which one is raising his or her own children. “I’m in touch with a lot of them.”
“My children,” says Walrond, who is single and has picked up a working knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish. Her “mishpoche [family]. They grew up with me at camp. You reap a lot of nachas [joy] from them.”
At the party, Walrond, who will also be honored at “Dorothy Day” one Shabbat next month at the URJ Kutz Camp in upstate Warwick, was saluted as the Reform youth movement’s “Mother Superior” who befriended generations of Jewish teens. As the person with the third-longest tenure in the history of the UAHC/URJ, she has become, speakers at the event said, in many cases the public face of NFTY, the institutional memory who ran the office at the Kutz Camp, greeted campers when they arrived, and attended several URJ biennial conventions around the country.
“I moved up,” she says. “I’m not the average secretary. For me, it was a learning experience. It was a neshama [soul] experience for me.”
“We count Dorothy’s presence in our lives as a wonderful blessing,” Paul Reichenbach, URJ director of camping, said at the retirement party. “She collects people and memories and friendships.”
NFTY will hold its daylong retirement event for Walrond at the Kutz Camp, Reichenbach says, “Because camp was so significant in her life and she was so significant at camp.”
But first, on the last Friday of June, Walrond will move her own magnetized nametag to her cubicle’s space for former employees.