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‘A Hard Act to Follow’

Howard Borer leaving JFCM for new position in Canada

By Laura Porter

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Howard Borer carrying the Torah on the Federation’s Family Mission to Israel.

WORCESTER – After 15 years in Worcester as executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, Howard Borer is leaving for Toronto in July.  He will be assuming a newly created position as major gifts officer for the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. In that capacity, he will work with senior staff and major donors on a campaign that reaches $55 million annually.

“I will be using the experience and expertise I have gained in the federation world to help create more opportunities to contribute to the well-being of the Jewish community of Greater Toronto,” he said.

Born in Montreal, Borer is in effect returning home, completing a journey through the world of Jewish organizations that began with his involvement in Young Judea as a teenager and took him across Canada and south to Louisville and Tampa before he arrived in Worcester in 2001.

“We have always talked about going back to Canada, especially in the past couple of years,” he says, referring also to his wife, Esther, who was born in Newfoundland and grew up in Halifax. Their two sons, Matt and Zack, were born in Edmonton and London, Ontario. Altogether, they have lived in virtually every Canadian province, “stretching from east to west.”

The Greater Toronto Jewish community is one of the largest in North America. “It’s a very well-established community, very tightly knit,” he says. He discovered connections with all four of the senior staff members with whom he has met, each of them tied in some way to his own professional past or his family.

The catalyst to Howard’s Federation career was the year he spent in Israel at 18 with the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad. Under the aegis of the Jewish Agency, the program trained Zionist youth leaders to assume leadership positions in their home communities.

After graduating from McGill University and receiving a Master’s degree in Education, he went to the Edmonton JCC as its first youth director and, from there, moved to London, Ontario as executive director of a small Federation.

“I realized I was not properly equipped to be an executive director in any significantly sized community,” he says.  “It was time to look for an associate directorship or campaign director position to gain more and varied experience.”

He found that experience in Louisville, where, for eight years, he learned a great deal within a very active Jewish community.

“[Esther and I] look back on Louisville as one of our best experiences because of where we were in our lives, the lifestyle, the community.”

After six years as executive director of Federation in Tampa, he relocated to JFCM in Worcester in 2001.

Robert Adler, who was president of the Federation board when Howard Borer was named executive director, notes that “we as a community have benefitted greatly from his commitment to the Central Massachusetts Jewish community and to its connection to Israel these past 15 years.”

As he reflects upon his tenure here, Borer extols the “wonderful success” of the Young Emissary Program that began in his second year, as well as the many connections he and JFCM have cultivated between Central Massachusetts and the Afula/Gilboa region in Israel through Partnership 2Gether.

Rob Adler stresses the difficult context of this work. The past fifteen years have brought significant challenges for Israel, including five wars, four presidents and “the emergence of a stateless Radical Islamist movement on all of its borders,” he says.

It is against that backdrop that Borer “has had to deal with rallying the local Jewish community and educating it as to security and maintaining support for Israel.”

Moreover, the older generations of American Jews who were “utterly committed … to the miracle that is formation of the state of Israel,” are largely gone.  In their place, the millennials are largely secular and have “a questionable allegiance to those established Jewish institutions that assured that the state of Israel would survive and flourish,” Adler notes.

In order to reach out to them, the Federation system “has refocused and devoted resources on people-to-people exchanges.”

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Howard Borer and his wife Esther with Kareem Abdul Jabar, who delivered the Cotton Leadership Program community lecture in 2010 at the Hanover Theatre.

Recently, JFCM has been involved with the Community Impact Partnership, created under the aegis of the Israel Action Network.  In several workshops this spring, CIP representatives have trained individuals as pro-Israel advocates who are continuing to work within the Central Mass. area.

Mission trips to Israel have been a key part of Borer’s professional life, and he estimates that he has made one or two trips a year since 2001.

In the summer of 2014, Toby Richmond, currently president of the JFCM board, traveled with him on a JFNA trip to Israel as well as Greece in the midst of the Israel-Gaza conflict. They came home to help raise $30,000 in a single night at a JFCM-organized rally for Israel in Worcester.

“I hardly knew Howard then,” she says. “We had a wonderful time. He is very easy to travel with, he’s fun, he’s knowledgeable about everything.”

Now, at the end of her second year of working directly with him at JFCM, she says, “he is the best person I’ve ever worked with.” She emphasizes his ability to dig in and get things done, working behind the scenes so effectively that “I wish that more people could have seen what he can do the way I’ve seen it.”

Educator Karen Kaufman says that she chose to take her first trip to Israel at the age of 61 because Borer, whom she admired and knew well, was to be the group leader.

“He did not disappoint!” she says. “The trip was one of the best in my life partly because of Howard’s warmth and relaxed leadership.”

Also from Montreal, Kaufman and Borer “were in the same psychology class at McGill University,” even though they never formally met, she says. They also share a love of Montreal bagels, “the best in the world!”

They worked together for several years on the development of Pardes, the community religious school in Central Massachusetts.  From the start, she says, “Howard inspired me by always focusing on the ‘big picture’ – what was best for our greater Jewish community.”

Part of that focus has included the PJ Library, quite successful in the Central Mass area, as well as the six-year-old Young Adult Division (YAD) within Federation.  Both offer important opportunities to “reach out to new people who are not necessarily affiliated,” Borer notes.

In addition, the consolidation of Worcester’s Jewish Family Service with JF & CS of Boston has worked out well and led to a number of “strategic plans that will hopefully pay off.”

Although “internally managing the Jewish community and helping it to sustain itself” has been vital during his directorship, so has strengthening connections to the larger community.

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Borer, right, with Mark Shear at the JFCM Annual Meeting in 2008.

The Latino Jewish Dialogue, now in its third year, has become increasingly active, with more and more people from both populations involved.

Such coalitions are vital as “our community grows smaller and others get bigger,” Borer says. “We need to understand their issues and they understand ours so we can work together when we need to.”

The City Manager’s Coalition Against Bias and Hate fosters a similar purpose, and Borer was reappointed to the group last year. According to the City of Worcester website, the Coalition is “committed to fostering a community of justice, where acts of prejudice and hate will not be tolerated.”

There is no question that, in contrast to Toronto, the Greater Worcester Jewish community has significantly contracted. The congregations have aged; the memberships of the synagogues have grown smaller and some have merged.  Many of the past major donors, instrumental in building and supporting the community for decades, are gone.

Younger Jews, here as elsewhere, tend to seek alternative connections rather than synagogue affiliation.

“They’re not rooted to one community; their community is wherever they choose it to be,” says Borer.

Rob Adler believes that “Howard has made admirable efforts at focusing on community cohesion and resource sharing as the campaign shrunk organically.”

Borer believes that development and encouragement of the involvement of the younger generations is crucial for the retention of a healthy Greater Worcester Jewish community and others like it. That nurturing, he maintains, must include allowing them to take on major leadership roles.

Moreover, “the need to consolidate, to cooperate and to collaborate [within the community] is even more important today than it ever was,” he says.  “Although it has happened in certain areas, there have been missed opportunities to reenergize and excite the community.”

Two of those opportunities were the failure to create a community campus that would have housed Congregation Beth Israel, Temple Sinai and Temple Emanuel as well as the recent decision to close Pardes, the four-year-old community religious school.

“We all know people don’t like change,” he says.  “You can understand why groups didn’t want to take the next step; nonetheless both opportunities would have brought us much closer together and provided us with the ability to understand one another in a much more deliberate way.”

Over the course of his career in Federation work, Borer has experienced the full range of North American Jewish life, from growth to decline.

“Louisville was stable.  Tampa was growing by leaps and bounds.  Now we’re living in Worcester, a community whose population is shrinking.  It has been interesting to work in three very different intermediate-sized communities,” he says.

Adler surmises that Borer was “ready to seek a new challenge in a larger community like Toronto where the critical mass is there to overcome substantially those challenges faced by the North American Jewish communities.”

Certainly, as Worcester itself moves on, he says, “our new executive director will have his work cut out for him in wearing the many hats that Howard wore as community organizer, fundraiser, planner, cheerleader and advocate.”

Toby Richmond concurs. “I’m so sad to see him leave,” she says. “I feel that he’s a gem. He’s going to be a hard act to follow.”

Borer will begin his new life in Toronto in mid-July.  Esther Borer will slowly transition out of her job at UMass Memorial Medical Center, where she is the injury prevention coordinator.

With one son, daughter-in-law and their grandson in Jacksonville, Fla., and the other moving with his wife to California, Toronto will give the Borers equal access to both coasts.

He says he has very much enjoyed his years in Worcester.

“I’ve worked with some wonderful people, and I care deeply about the community and its future,” he says.  During his tenure, JFCM has “worked very hard to ensure that the community provides the necessary programs and services that a good community needs.”

Among the most important things he will take with him from his Massachusetts experience will be his deep attachment to the New England Patriots.

What about the Bruins and the Red Sox?

Like any good Canadian, he arrived hating the Bruins. And he likes the Red Sox, though “that allegiance can change.”

“But I need to make sure I can watch the Patriots every Sunday.”

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