Rising to the challenge of crisis leadership

June 2024
Wendy Schneider

There is nothing quite like a crisis to test one’s leadership. Leading through times of uncertainty and volatility demands that leaders harness their intelligence and resourcefulness to guide others effectively, while also digging deep inside themselves to find the courage to keep going forward.

This August will mark the seventh anniversary of Gustavo Rymberg’s tenure as CEO of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, a period bookended by the organization’s move to JHamilton and the establishment at that location of the Margaret’s Legacy Holocaust Learning and Jewish Advocacy Centre, achievements that speak to his effectiveness as a leader. But the crises of the last four years, beginning with the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Russia’s launching a war against Ukraine in February 2022, and the seismic events of Oct. 7, 2023, have challenged him in ways he never could have imagined.

Federation president’s perspective
When Jason Waxman took on the Hamilton Jewish Federation presidency in May 2023, he knew the volunteer position would make great demands on his time, but the myriad of issues that have arisen since Oct. 7 have required him to step up in ways he never anticipated. 

“It’s been an incredibly challenging time,” Waxman told the HJN, “but the silver lining in this is that it’s also been in many ways a rewarding experience in that we’ve seen the community come together. The board has really stepped up and we all try to support each other. Obviously, the frequency and duration of our meetings has increased considerably, but nobody has complained. Everybody has stepped up where they need to.”

Asked about the personal impact of taking on a leadership position during such a challenging time, Waxman acknowledged that the demands have taken their toll. “I have a very busy job, I have four little kids who I love spending time with. It’s been very difficult ... balancing family, work, and the Federation which has become an overwhelming part of my day and my time but I sort of wear it as a badge of honour.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks, Waxman said he agreed to his wife’s request that he wear a hat rather than a kipah during his 40-minute walk to synagogue on Shabbat mornings. “It really bothered me and after the first two weeks I stopped doing it,” he said adding that he now feels “an immense sense of pride walking down the street wearing a kipah.”

“It’s strengthened my identity as a Jew and as a Zionist. Before this, I probably would have shied away from the word Zionist, but it’s also a badge I wear proudly.”

Waxman had nothing but praise for Gustavo Rymberg, who, he says, has gone “above and beyond” in his role as CEO. “This is not my profession ... Gustavo’s been fantastic. The hours that he works, it’s just phenomenal.”

Gustavo Rymberg:  A changed Jewish world
“Nothing is going to be the same. Neither in Israel, neither in our community.” Gustavo Rymberg’s words on a Shpiel on Hamilton podcast episode recorded two weeks after the events of Oct. 7 would prove prescient, although he couldn’t have foreseen the exact nature of the challenges the community would face in the coming days. 

In the immediate aftermath, Rymberg, haunted by memories of the dual terrorist attacks on the Israeli embassy and the Jewish Community Centre in his native Buenos Aires in the 1990s, spent hours on the phone with Hamilton Police Services (HPS) to arrange for security measures that would safeguard the city’s Jewish institutions. But the HPS, he was shocked to discover, had neither the budget nor the personnel to provide these services free of charge, requiring Federation to divert funds from its budget at the cost of $1,200 a day (a number that would ultimately balloon to $300,000), an unsustainable solution that challenged the financial well-being of the Jewish community. 

Adding to the stress was the Playhouse Cinema’s informing Federation in mid-March that it was reneging on its commitment to host the Hamilton Jewish Film Festival, which was just three weeks away. Against the backdrop of unrelenting demonization campaigns against Israel on social media and the streets of Canadian cities, and a terrifying surge in anti-Jewish hatred on a scale not seen since the Second World War, the announcement came as a huge blow, leaving festival organizers shocked, disappointed, and wondering if the city was no longer a hospitable place for a Jewish cultural event. 

Rymberg remembers that moment as a particularly low point. “I was thinking so many times I can’t do this anymore, but every time I was thinking along those lines, something good happened.”

Rymberg said that since Oct. 7, he would receive daily phone calls “from many people” checking in to see how he was doing. These simple gestures went a long way. “That was very important in order to continue. Hamilton I will say, is a very special community, a very warm and welcoming one.”

Then there was the outpouring of support that followed in the wake of international media’s covering news of the festival cancellation, and Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath’s pulling out all the stops to find an alternate location, which resulted in the festival’s move to the Ancaster Memorial Arts Centre, breaking all previous attendance records.  Most remarkable of all, said Rymberg, was the unprecedented community response to the needs of the day.

A banner fundraising year
The response of Hamilton’s Jewish community to the Hamas attacks in Israel helped Federation achieve a milestone in its fundraising history. Its Annual Campaign surpassed its goal of $2.4 million, its Israel Emergency Campaign raised nearly $1.2 million, and donors contributed just over half a million dollars toward a new security fund, which will be matched by the Jewish Federations of North America. That’s a whopping $4.2 million in a community that, for decades, struggled to surpass the one-million-dollar mark. While some of those funds came from foundations, international organizations, and government grants, the majority of the funds was community money. 

Those fundraising totals do not tell the whole story, however. With the increase in designated gifts and grant funding specific to a particular area, funding available for Federation’s beneficiary agencies this year remained more or less the same.   

“The truth is we never have enough money to give for everything our beneficiary agencies ask for,” Rymberg said. “It would be great if we could raise this amount of money without the extra crisis to make sure the community stays economically healthy.”

Some more positives
Despite the war and ongoing political tensions in Israel, and what Canadian author Noah Richler is calling the end of North America’s Jewish moment, Rymberg said there have been a number of positive developments due to the current situation. These include stronger relationships with the Mayor’s Office, Hamilton Police Services, and the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. “We’re having conversations now that we were never able to have before. I’m not saying that they are solving everything, but it’s important to have these relationships,” he said. 

Rymberg is also encouraged by the renewed sense of Jewish identity he’s observed among younger Jews. 
“I see parents of kids in public schools getting more active in expressing their feelings. They are not silent about how bad the situation is for their kids. If we continue like this, we really have the potential to be more united and stronger.”