It doesn’t seem like false modesty when Elliot Forchheimer reluctantly agrees to an interview prior to his star turn as the honoree this weekend at the upcoming Westchester Jewish Council.
Characteristically, he’d far rather talk about the organization than about himself.
“What’s great about Elliot is that it’s all about enhancing the Westchester Jewish community,” said Paul B.Warhit, president of the council. “Organizations never feel threatened by Elliot. He’s rarely council-focused. He’s always Jewish community-focused. The focus is on what unites us, not what divides us.”
Under Forchheimer’s leadership, what started modestly 10 years ago as an umbrella organization with 90 members now has 157 members, making Westchester the nation’s eighth largest Jewish community; in the last decade he has significantly expanded its offerings and reach.
For example, there are regular roundtables for synagogue clergy, executive directors and lay leaders, and committees focused on social action and Israel. There have been community-wide nights of Jewish learning, as well as cantorial concerts. The existence of Westchester Jewish Council enables synagogues and groups that wouldn’t be able to send enough members to the Israel Day Parade to march under the council’s banner that day.
“When an Orthodox president sits next to a Reform president, they discover the bonds they have in common,” said Forchheimer. “We put our differences aside to work together. That’s why I love this work.”
The WJC also helped bring an Israeli shaliach, Yoav Cohen, to the community for the past two years; according to Forchheimer, he “has been a great success and has humanized Israel.”
Another important council mission is developing, maintaining and sustaining relationships in the larger Westchester world, including local politicians and other faith traditions.
“Elliot serves as the contact person and bridge for the entire Jewish community of Westchester and the wider community,” said William H. Schrag, a co-chair of the council’s gala and associate treasurer of the group.
Forchheimer’s commitment to the Jewish communal world started early, as an 8-year-old camper. Forchheimer, who earned a BA from Columbia University, an MA from the Jewish Theological Seminary and an MBA from Pace University, held posts at UJA-Federation of New York, Young Israel of Scarsdale, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Camp Ramah and Synagogue 2000 before taking over at the WJC.
One of his mentors, and key role models, was the late Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, of Young Israel of Scarsdale, where Forchheimer worked as the youth director.
“He taught me so much,” said Forchheimer, who is a member of Mamaroneck’s Westchester Jewish Center. “It was indicative of the kind of community we have here. He was respectful and loving of all Jews.”
Similarly, Forchheimer’s experience with Synagogue 2000, where “22 synagogues worked together for four years,” helped provide the impetus for making the Westchester Jewish Council a wide tent for the community.
And during the economic downturn he has urged collaboration between organizations as a way to stay lean. “In 2008, there was an urgency to working together.” That good will, he said, has lasted, with members seeing the benefit of participating together on shared projects.
Still, Forchheimer is mindful of the challenges ahead. “The biggest story is that we’re aging,” said Forchheimer. “We’re not getting as many young families. We need to figure out how to engage single adults and empty nesters.” He anticipates that there will be “more work with other ethnic and faith-based neighbors,” as Westchester’s Jews become a “shrinking minority” in the county
The Westchester Jewish Council 39th Anniversary Gala takes place Saturday, Jan. 24, at 7:15 p.m., at Beth El Synagogue Center, 1324 North Ave., New Rochelle. For more information, please call (914) 328-7001 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.