Zach and Taina Benjamin

Getting to Know Federation Director Zach Benjamin

Story and photos by Diane Joy Schmidt

Getting up close and personal, a little, with Zach Benjamin as he presented himself to about 60 people at the Congregation Albert Brotherhood Sunday breakfast on October 19, Zach, age 32, came across as personable, thoughtful, and able – as yet unscarred by the challenges of leading the Jewish Federation of New Mexico.

He is eager to get things right and to get a message out there that reaches the Jewish community and the larger community. So far, he’s doing well. He presented fresh ideas about re-branding the Federation to the community – heck, just hearing the words re-branding and Federation in the same sentence sounded fresh.

Federation Director Zach Benjamin and wife
Zach and Taina Benjamin

Best of all, he brought his young wife, Taina, also 32, who was in fact his high school sweetheart, to meet the folks, that is, the brotherhood breakfast group. Zach explained that he was born in Chicago into a Reform Jewish household, moved to Los Angeles and then to Florida, and then back to Chicago to go to Northwestern. After attending graduate school in New York, he returned to Chicago to begin his career working for large trade organizations. He explained that “Judaism was always central to my identity, but it was only when Taina got serious about converting to Judaism that I began to realize that my calling was to serve Judaism – both professionally and personally.” Zach said that he began commuting from Chicago to Tampa once a month “to attend minyan with my now-wife, who at the time lived there with her family.”

He started making annual trips to Israel, and to think about how his extensive background in non-profit work could be put to good use in a meaningful way in the Jewish community.  And voilà, here he is. He thanked the community for giving them such an overwhelmingly warm welcome, and says he now has about twelve Jewish mothers here, and can assure his actual mother he is getting enough to eat.

I didn’t give Zach the third-degree about his mastery of Hebrew – we’ll give him a few years.  Taina has a degree in math, worked for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and looks forward to working here and earning an advanced degree. And, Zach in his introduction mentioned that she has just joined Hadassah as a life-member.

Zach has a conciliatory manner but is no pushover. His position is clearly defined regarding the Federation’s position here on Israel. The Federation “will not give safe harbor to the BDS movement,” meaning Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, which is “both anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.” He has no problem with J Street, while acknowledging there are the occasional “little land-mines” that can turn up.

He’s met quite a bit with Rabbi Brin of Nahalat Shalom, and at the breakfast announced a joint Jewish Federation-Nahalat Shalom fund-raising campaign for Syrian refugees. He says yes, he’s old friends by now with Rabbi Rosenfeld, and that he has met a couple of times with Sam Sokolove.

Quoting JFNM Community Outreach Director Sara Koplik that we have to improve “how we tell our story,” he has been learning about Jewish communities throughout the state. He pointed to Taos and Los Alamos as examples of smaller communities which have well-defined Jewish life. He was also impressed by the concerns of the close-knit but small Jewish communities in places like Roswell and Las Vegas, New Mexico, and how Federation can be a life-line for these outlying communities.

He stressed that he wants Federation to be a partner to the community, and “re-set the narrative,” by actively engaging with the community and letting people know about the programs JFNM supports. Benjamin outlined a bit of the new campaign they will be rolling out at the first of the year. He talked about how Federation will be empowering AbqTribe – a young adult program first started at B’nai Israel, with a professional development, financial and mentoring support. Federation president Sabra Minkus added that JFNM supports the Jewish Care Program for seniors, which also includes special funding for the Holocaust survivors here.

Comments from the audience were primarily of the take-a-hint variety. Sisterhood member Evie Zlotkin was pleased to announce that the food bank is back up and running; another suggested Federation might want to play a role in the annual Maimouna women’s Seder; and a third asked why the Jewish community doesn’t do anything for disabled members of the community who are not seniors.

George Skadron asked rhetorically, “To what extent should Federation be a spokesperson to the outside community?” Anita Miller, Anti-Defamation League board member, mentioned how terrific it was that Suki Halevi, ADL regional director, is located within the office space of JFNM and is a great resource for them. Harvey and Rachel Sternheim are recent arrivals from Los Angeles and Rachel’s mother Beverly White is a long-time involved member here, so Harvey introduced himself and asked if we have a genocide walk here like they do in LA, and also mentioned that in LA they regularly did a “Big Sunday” of community work out in the community.

This reporter remarked that the Jewish community here recently lost its school, its printed newspaper, and the Jewish Family Service (JFS), and that now Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, who spearheaded so much outreach and chaplaincy work, has just retired, leaving a big vacuum. Zach responded that, while he’s not making any promises, there is talk of bringing back a quarterly printed New Mexico Jewish Link, to which the room broke out in spontaneous applause, and that they are looking at “how to replace the irreplaceable Rabbi Min.”

Beverly White, Zach and Taina Benjamin, Harvey and Rachel Sternheim and Jenny Moran
Beverly White, Zach and Taina Benjamin, Harvey and Rachel Sternheim and Jenny Moran

Meryl Manning Segel, a past president of the Federation and Jewish Family Service (JFS) and a busy realtor, added in an aside to this reporter afterwards that the reason JFS closed was, in her view, because they were overextended – they were doing too much. They got federal grants to do programs, she explained, but because these were federal grants they couldn’t just be for the Jewish community, and that as these grants dried up, the board would not cut the programs, which, she said, was irresponsible. Now, she said, the Jewish Care Program is focused on the Jewish community. However, she agreed that Rabbi Kantrowitz’s retirement is leaving a big vacuum, and said that she practically cried at the announcement.

Rabbi Kantrowitz, who since JFS closed in January 2013, was left with only a 5-hour-a-week paid position, said in a separate interview that, when JFS, and her position with them as rabbi to the Jewish community at large were funded, she used to visit many homebound elderly Jewish people throughout the state, and that they are not being served now.

Our new New Mexico Jewish Federation Executive Director Zach Benjamin concluded by stressing that he wants Federation to be a big tent, and by saying that his door is open, that people should come and see him, and that he wants to hear from the community. Everyone clapped loudly and long.

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