Some Jewish federation leaders measure success by the numbers — dollars raised, allocations granted, etc. But Susan Stern, the immediate past chair of UJA-Federation of New York, measures success by the smiles from people whose lives she has touched through her 25 years of volunteer work with the organization.
“We need to see the faces at the end of the dollars,” said Stern, known to most people as Susie, during a recent interview. She officially stepped down from the chairmanship July 1, completing a three-year term.
Looking back over her career as a lay leader in the local Jewish community, Stern said a highlight has been “meeting with Jews from around the world and having a chance to talk to them, and to make an impact.”
Most of the experiences she recalled were from frequent visits to Israel — as well as trips to Ethiopia, Cuba and the former Soviet Union — and centered on the children she met and the personal connections she established with recipients of the federation’s social services.
Stern spoke animatedly of dancing with women at a Friday-night service in Havana and encountering a woman in St. Petersburg who had been arrested for teaching Hebrew in her apartment and now heads a Jewish community center. She recalled the quiet dignity of Ethiopian Jews landing in Israel during Operation Moses in 1991, and visiting youngsters in Kiryat Shmona last summer during the war in Lebanon.
“Things seemed normal until you looked in their eyes” and saw the fear, she noted of the visit last July.
Stern said she felt enormous pride in knowing that the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by UJA-Federation were going for a noble purpose. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years and it’s about saving Jewish lives,” she said, “literally, feeding hungry people and connecting people Jewishly.
“Morris and I were a great team,” she said of Morris Offit, the businessman who was president of UJA-Federation for the last three years. “He could do deals, and I knew the people.”
Stern, who lives in Westchester with her husband, Jeff, recalled how she became involved with UJA-Federation some 25 years ago, on first moving to the area from Chicago. She was invited to a Sukkot party where she met young women her age who told her of the important work the federation was doing. “I went to the Brighton Beach Y with them and saw firsthand the work the dollars were doing, and I was hooked.”
Over the years Stern has become a leader of national and local Jewish organizations, and serves on the boards of the United Jewish Communities, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, among others.
“Susie Stern was a model leader of our community,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation. “It is not only what Susie did. It is how she did it,” he said, noting that she “related to everyone – from largest donors to every member of our staff to clients – with dignity and respect,” as well as “a sense of humor.”
Stern has joined Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination as a volunteer, continuing a friendship that began more than a dozen years ago when Stern chaired the first Lion of Judah national UJA conference in Washington for major women contributors and Clinton was first lady.
Stern has traveled to Israel with Clinton, and recalled how, on a visit to the dramatic reopening of Sbarro’s in Jerusalem, the site of a horrendous suicide bombing during the second intifada, it was Clinton who suggested the group stay and patronize the restaurant by having lunch there. Ehud Olmert, then the mayor of Jerusalem, tried to dissuade them, saying the food was fattening. “But we ate there,” Stern recalled, “and we were glad we did.”