Just as their baby boomer parents shaped the community they inherited from previous generations, millennials are helping shape how Hamilton’s Jewish community can meet the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow. Millennials, those born between 1981 and 2000, have been characterized as a purpose-driven generation that seeks to have a positive impact on its community. If so, their presence on community boards is a win-win for Jewish organizations, which have meaning and purpose at the core of their cultures and daily work. There’s nothing new about Jewish organizations going out of their way to attract younger members to their boards of directors, and the Hamilton Jewish Federation is no different. But over the last year, the community’s central fundraising organization has met with particular success – five of the organization’s 13 board members are under the age of 45. Conversations with this group of young leaders revealed their admiration for Federation CEO Gustavo Rymberg and a shared desire to see more resource sharing and community cohesiveness.
“When I see someone who really works day and night for a community that he was not born in, and had no allegiance to whatsoever, I thought … that’s the least I can do is help,” said Alice Mendelson, 43, who joined the Federation board just a few months before Rymberg was hired in 2017.
Mendelson, an experienced teacher and former principal who moved to Hamilton with her husband and their four children in 2016, teaches at Mohawk College’s Career Pathways Program.
After being recruited by Rymberg to head up Federation’s newly formed committee on Jewish education, Mendelson spearheaded a Federation-funded initiative that sent Hamilton Hebrew Academy and Kehila Heschel teachers to Atlanta to take part in a conference for Jewish educators. She also represents Federation on the City of Hamilton’s Anti-Racism Resource Centre. “I’m often asked to speak to different issues as they relate to the Jewish community and I’m building connections and hopefully helping to strengthen the other communities,” she said.
Raised in Hamilton, Friedman, 40, returned home five years ago. Along with her professional commitments that include teaching and tutoring, Friedman is a member of Federation’s Holocaust Education Committee, sits on the board of Kehila Heschel, and is a member of Beth Jacob Synagogue’s strategic planning committee. Last year, she was Kehila Heshel’s nominee for a Shem Tov Award for helping the school transition to online learning.
Friedman’s goals for the coming year include helping Federation develop programming more geared to Hamilton’s Jewish singles and to have a positive impact on Holocaust and anti-racism education on in public school boards, where she feels she can make a difference.
“I feel that there’s an opportunity to help educate teachers, and provide support and resources, in order for to help them effectively educate students,” she says.
Toronto native, Josh Rauchwerger, 42, moved to Hamilton several years ago, when his wife, a haematologist, was offered a residency at McMaster. The couple have two children. Affable and outgoing, Rauchwerger is the co-founder of a company that specializes in wind turbine design and repair. He joined the Federation board after being recruited by Rymberg a little over four years ago.
“I like to get involved and it’s nice to get young people working towards a common goal” he says.
Rauchwerger, along with fellow board member Jamie Richter, co-chairs a committee overseeing the process of bringing Temple Anshe Sholom and Beth Jacob Synagogue under one roof, something he believes will create more community cohesiveness. “It’s how do we keep (both shuls) going, and getting everybody together and make it a thriving community,” he says.
While Rauchwerger believes the traditional model of joining a synagogue or a JCC “doesn’t work” for his generation, young families are still looking to be engaged in Jewish life. That’s where he sees the Hamilton Jewish Federation playing a role.
Jason Waxman, 34, agrees. The former JCC co-president joined the Federation board two years ago, when the two organizations merged their boards.
“One of the driving forces behind JHamilton was to have as many Jewish organizations under one roof,” he says. “There’s something to be said for being able to walk to somebody’s office from a different organization versus having to set up a meeting. So I think there’s a huge possibility for synergy among the organizations that wasn’t there before. There’s a huge cost saving for all being in one building.”
Waxman says his community involvement — he also serves on the board of Shalom Village — comes from a desire to contribute and have a say in how things function. “I have four little kids and I have a vested interest in their success in the community,” he says.
Waxman says his inspiration to devote so much of his time comes from two sources: the example of his grandfather, the late Morris Waxman, who was president of the Adas Israel Congregation for many years, and the Adas community itself. “When you see your peers heavily involved in things, it’s a positive impetus to get you involved as well. There’s a huge element of taking care of one another. It’s really an amazing thing,” he says.
Waxman also says that sitting on the Federation board has opened his eyes to the growing number of young families moving to Hamilton and he’s optimistic that JHamilton programming can bring the community together. “We’re seeing things open up. We were able to successfully run Camp Kadimah which was great,” he says.
Jamie Richter, 43, had already devoted a good part of the last 12 months to discussions about the future of Hamilton’s Conservative and Reform synagogues, when Gustavo Rymberg asked him to join the Federation board last spring. What made the busy father of two who runs the Bay-King Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep dealership say yes?
“My respect for him. I think he’s done a great job in the community. He’s been hugely involved in every little piece of it. He’s willing to give his time for anything that anyone asks him for, so if he’s willing to do that, I can give back a little bit more,” said Richter.
It takes vision and courage to consider partnering with another congregation for the sake of a stronger, more unified community, and it takes strong leadership to inspire stakeholders to move in that direction. That Richter and his friend Rauchwerger are suited for the task ahead becomes clear when listening to Richter’s clear-headed thinking on the subject.
“Until now, people have been trying to keep (the two synagogues) sustained for all these years and I think we came into a fork in the road that we said either it’s one way or the other,” he said. “If you can bring the synagogues together and they can be financially a little more stable, instead of just trying to maintain what they have, it can be more of a cohesive Jewish community. I think is a win/win for everybody in the community.”
Whether the strength and unity of Jewish Hamilton of the 1950s and ‘60s can ever be recreated, only time will tell, but all of Federation’s new young leaders agree that more community cohesiveness is desperately needed in a post-COVID world. “Community cohesiveness is the new catchword,” says Richter. “Everyone wants it.”