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Sitting in the Front Row: A Conversation with Peter Weidhorn

Peter WeidhornPeter J. Weidhorn was installed as chairman of the board of the Union for Reform Judaism at the San Diego Biennial last December. Previously he held a great many positions within the Reform Movement, including chairman of the Budget and the NAC (North American Camping) committees, treasurer, and chairman of the Union Relocation Task Force (responsible for the sale of 838 Fifth Avenue and the acquisition of 633 Third Avenue, New York City). A CPA by profession, he is currently the chairman of the board of the Community Development Trust, a privately owned real estate investment trust to promote affordable housing; former president/CEO of WNY Group, Inc., an equity real estate investment trust; and former chairman of the board of CentraState Health Care System. He and his wife Joan have two grown children, Ira and Elyse, and four grandchildren. He was interviewed by the RJ editors.

 

You’ve written, “Our movement needs forward-looking leaders who will peer determinedly through windshield, rather than the rearview mirror, and not be paralyzed by the status quo.” Why is it so important for leaders not to look back?

Throughout my life I’ve watched people place impediments onto goals. Obstacles are what you see when you take your eye off the goal—and one of the greatest obstacles is talking about how we did it yesterday rather than thinking about how we’re going to do it tomorrow. Everything around us—our children, our religion, our communications—is constantly changing. If we Reform Jews resist change, we jeopardize our relevancy.

Another major obstacle is the excuse: “We don’t have the money.” If you’re going to succeed, you have to overcome this hurdle. So even though my background is finance, as chairman I focus first on the strategic objective and then on finding the dollars to accomplish it. If my chairmanship becomes only the continuity of what we’ve done in the past, then I won’t have succeeded.

Describe your leadership style.

I’ve been called a maverick. The first time I went to the Union’s New Leadership Group, for example, I sported a cowboy hat and cowboy boots.

I’m also not a quiet guy; I’m always asking the questions and I take an active role in each committee I serve on. You’ll always find me sitting in the front row. I lead by example.

I am also goal oriented. While I understand and respect process, I also understand and ask that a responsible decision first be reached.

What are your goals as chairman?

First is the implementation of the Task Force report on delivery of Union services in the 21st century: upgrading the training of Reform leaders; restructuring our governance; improving our technology and communication capabilities; and strengthening our partnerships with congregations, affiliates, and world Jewry. Then, together, we can identify the services we should be delivering to our congregations and the most meaningful, skillful ways to deliver them. To give our member congregations the expertise they require, we need to shore up our own expertise.

How can we shore up our expertise?

I think our accomplishment within the camping system is a model. Every one of our camp directors is a generalist, and you can’t imagine the range of problems a camp director has to deal with on a daily basis. So we asked each of them to also become a specialist in one field. One became the medical protocol specialist and learned about medical procedures, the pharmaceuticals that should be available in each camp, etc.; another became expert in maintenance and repair; and others, of course, built on various aspects of their Jewish programming expertise. Applying this camp model to serve the 900 congregations of our Movement, we can continue to cultivate partnerships to share ideas and expertise. We’ve got large congregations, mid-sized congregations, smaller congregations, and newly formed congregations. Larger congregations, for example, could twin with smaller or newly formed congregations; or communities could adopt one another, working and growing together.

To achieve the major goal—congregational growth—we also have to ask the right questions.

Such as?

How do we change the fee-for-service model by which Jews join a temple, pay us to educate their children for eight to nine years, and leave when that’s done? How do we make congregations a lasting institution for our families? How do we create Jewish community when Jews also define themselves as belonging to other communities, such as the soccer community or the Internet community? How do we bring our congregations beyond their four walls and into the broader community—whether that’s someone’s home or a daycare center or a senior village? How do we bring the wonderful Jewish programs we have to those who really want it but haven’t ventured from home to temple? And how do we strengthen Jewish identity among our youth—the key to continuity—when the majority do not participate in our youth groups or camps and quit religious school after their bar or bat mitzvah? These are but a few of the questions I will encourage the Board to address in the months ahead.

Talking about strengthening Jewish identity among our youth, were you active in your synagogue as a child?

Actually, I had very little Jewish education or commitment growing up. My mom died at age thirty-six, the same year I was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah at Temple Avodah in Oceanside, New York. Memorizing the Hebrew was a struggle for me, even with the help of tutors; I’m just not good at learning foreign languages. My father, a hard-working millinery salesman, raised my brother and me. He was not committed to Judaism but was insistent on my becoming a bar mitzvah. Interestingly, my father’s father was a founder, pillar, and president of Temple Emanu-El in Lynbrook, New York. My Jewish commitment didn’t really kick in until my wife Joan and I brought our newborn daughter to Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, New Jersey to be named. The rabbi and congregation were gracious, and receptive to us. We knew right away that Shaari Emeth was the temple for us. We decided we would join in two years when our son Ira would be in kindergarten. Less than a year later we learned that Shaari Emeth was closing its doors to new members due to a lack of available bar/bat mitzvah dates (imagine that happening today!). Needless to say, we joined immediately. And before I knew it, I was calling Bingo, joining committees, serving as an officer. Eventually I became president. We got things done—purchased land adjacent to the temple, increased and repaved the parking lot, expanded our cemetery, and undertook a substantial renovation of the social hall and sanctuary. Even back then, I was told it “cannot be done,” that the temple could not raise the required money. But I was not discouraged. With the help of the then regional director Rabbi Daniel Freelander, we held a retreat and kick-started the program.

So your kids grew up at the temple.

Yes. What they loved the most, though, was Jewish camping. Ira went for ten years to URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania. Every year, after we dropped him off and drove out the gate with the alligator tears, we’d laugh and say, “365 days to go!”—meaning that’s when we’d be back to drop him off again. He’d come home singing Shabbat songs. And to this day his dearest friends are his camp friends.

Elyse, too—I’m driving her home from camp and the Cabbage Patch doll that’s strapped in the car is singing Jewish songs through my daughter the ventriloquist.

There’s a certain freedom in our camps. Shabbat services are exciting to kids because the children design them, write them, and lead the services. And having experienced camp, both of our kids understood what we were doing as a family on Shabbat, why we would bless them every Friday night. Sometimes they’d ask, “How come we’re not singing this song we learned at camp?”

Jewish camping made a big difference in their lives. Today Ira and his wife Robin are active members of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, where their children Max and Marley attend the preschool and summer camp program; and Elyse is assistant director of the preschool and director of the summer camp program at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, where her husband Scott and their daughter Hannah participate. Though Scott isn’t Jewish, they’re raising Hannah as a Jew.

How do you feel about intermarriage?

As Reform Jews, we teach our children liberal values—not to discriminate on the basis of religion or race—and we send them to liberal colleges: what can we expect? Many are going to be marry non-Jews. Let’s figure out how to move forward: to respect the intermarrieds within our congregations and bring up our grandchildren as Jews while honoring non-Jewish spouses who play active roles in our congregations.

So you see a high rate of intermarriage both as inevitable and as an opportunity.

It’s more opportunity than anything else. As the non-Jewish spouse begins to enjoy Jewish holidays and rituals, it opens up many possibilities, including conversion to Judaism.

You’ve also pointed to Jewish camping as our Movement’s great opportunity, calling it “the best insurance for the continuance of Judaism in North America.”

Yes. Joan and I have spearheaded the funding of a scholarship program to enable Reform families to give their children a great time with their peers while the Jewish learning happens naturally. It’s my dream that there will come a time when no Jewish child who wants to go to a Reform summer camp will be left behind. Why not initiate a “Taste of Camping” program to give every child in our religious schools an opportunity to experience two weeks at one of our camps at no charge, just as the URJ College Taglit: birthright israel program is sending hundreds of our young people to Israel?

You and Joan also take a strong interest in social action.

Yes. Joan and I never miss the opportunity to learn at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience in Washington, D.C. Studying the issues and Jewish values on the death penalty, for example, I’ve changed my position from pro- to anti-death penalty. I’m proud of the Union’s resolution against the war in Iraq—we’re a religious organization with social values, and we need to represent those values and speak up. On the issue of church-state separation, do you realize how fragile that wall is, how easily it can be pierced by the forces working to do just that? On women’s issues, I believe strongly in equal rights and that women have the right to choose. On gay and lesbian issues, I think we’re all God’s children and each of us should be able to live our life with the same rights as anyone else. It’s the same for anyone with special needs. All human beings deserve to be treated with dignity.

I also got involved at the Religious Action Center on the administrative level, helping to renovate the RAC. And it was then that I realized that everything had come full circle. RAC Director Rabbi David Saperstein’s father, Harold, served as rabbi for thirty-five years at Temple Emanu-El in Lynbrook, New York. Now here I was, a serious Reform Jew like the grandfather I’d never met. While Reform Judaism essentially had skipped a generation, it’s now back in my family, going from strength to strength.

Still, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best educated or the most knowledgeable Jew. I’d like to be more Jewishly literate, but retaining what I learn is a challenge for me. What does come easily, instinctively, to me is understanding people. I tend to wrap my arms around people. I could be working with you for a day or two and I’ll know your soft points, your interests, your personal history. And throughout my life I’ve used that to help others.

What are your interests and hobbies?

Number one—and the thing I’m really good at—is flying. I pilot a six-seated twin-engine Beechcraft Baron plane. It’s nothing fancy, a rather simple airplane, but I love it. I’ve flown all over the country, sometimes to Biennial conventions.

I also like skiing, hiking, and biking, which makes me sound more athletic than I am. As a kid I was the last guy chosen to play basketball or baseball because whenever a ball was coming toward me, I invariably turned away.

You’re very comfortable talking about your deficiencies.

I’m comfortable with myself. I’m not embarrassed by what I can’t do. I just recognize what I can’t do and make sure I understand what I am good at. That’s what helped me become chairman of the board. Remember, I didn’t join this organization as an insider. And it shows you that anyone can move up. Anyone can find his/her Reform Jewish commitment, be a responsive citizen, act on social values, and succeed.

One of your strengths is business. And you’ve channeled your success in real estate to affordable housing.

Yes. We have a social obligation in this country of ours to help those who are less fortunate, whether they’re Jewish or not. I’m now chairman of the Community Development Trust, a private entity owned by financial institutions dedicated to the ownership and financing of affordable housing throughout the United States.

You’ve sold the WNY business.

Yes, six years ago, when I was 55. I wanted to do other things—a lifestyle change. Life’s too short. I wanted both to play a little bit and to give back—to my community and temple, and of course to the Union. Now as chair, I have the pleasure of working with extraordinary lay and professional leaders. It’s important to be happy, make your dreams come true—and not forget your social obligations.

 




 


Union for Reform Judaism.