By Stacey Dresner
Ronda Parish’s first trip to Israel in the early 1990s was not your run of the mill visit to the Jewish State.
A young attorney at the time, she was among 20 young Jewish leaders from the Northeast who went as part of “L’vnot Hatid,” a program of the Jewish Federation of North America and funded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
“It was an intense trip,” Parish recalled. “We got on a bullet-proof bus and went to Bethlehem to negotiate with three members of the Palestinian Authority over the water rights between that portion of the West Bank and Israel. At least five of us were lawyers and were used to negotiating deals.”
The young Jewish leaders spent an entire afternoon negotiating, the most radicalized of the three Palestinians just would not agree to a deal. While the negotiations were unsuccessful, Parish thinks she and the other young leaders still benefitted from it.
“It just completely opened up a whole new way of thinking and a new understanding of what the issues were,” she said. “I do enough deals to know that there are always two perspectives, but usually you can meet in the middle as long as both sides’ needs are met…but if somebody just puts a line in the sand and moves it farther and farther back when it gets closer to an agreement, that is not somebody that wants to negotiate in good faith… And that’s been the same problem over and over…You can’t negotiate with a terrorist and unfortunately now you’ve got another generation where there’s no reasonable judgment.”
That trip to Israel also opened her eyes to the work of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass., and the many programs that it supports locally and in Israel. For the past three years she has served as president of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass. As she nears the end of her term, she explained her passionate involvement.
“Federation to me kind of embodies everything it is to be Jewish – because it includes every type of Jew. Nobody is excluded in terms of religion. Its supports social causes through Jewish Family Service; it supports tikkun olam, it supports Israel, it supports Jews that could be your relatives in other countries, or who have been left behind because of political or financial circumstances or changes in government,” she said. “And so Federation is what pulls it all together.”
A solid Jewish identity
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y, Parish’s family
moved to the Springfield area when she was in the 5th grade. Her family, which
eventually moved to Longmeadow joined Temple Beth El.
“I was one of the first girls to be bat mitvahed, and they had bat mitzvahs with three girls, not individually. It was the new trend of allowing bat mitzvahs in the late ‘60s,” she recalled.
She also attended Camp Ramah.
“At Camp Ramah there was so much Jewish learning and discussion and all those values that you learn as a Jew,” she says.
Parish attended Ithaca College, starting as a political science major, then switching to Far East history. “I was just fascinated by it. Something I had never learned about before.”
One thing she had learned plenty about was Israel.
“My grandparents on my mother’s side, were Orthodox, diehard Zionists who talked about Israel all the time. My sister lived on a kibbutz in the early ‘70s. I was not going to go because I was not going to follow the path of my older sister,” she laughs.
And her love of Judaism remained strong.
“I’ve always had a very core, solid Jewish identity. It’s been critical to me,” she says.
After college Parish worked as a pension consultant with Mass Mutual before deciding to go to law school. She had received a lot of training working in pensions “so it was kind of natural for me to get into retirement law, estate planning and tax and corporate law.”
Parish has lived in Hampden since the mid-80s. She is married to Herb Wood, a social worker working in hospice. She has three daughters — two biological and one stepdaughter. When not working, she spends her time on their 26 acres of land where she keeps two of her three horses.
“I’ve been an equestrian since I was 12,” she said. “There’s a big equestrian community in Hampden… It’s not a particularly Jewish population, and one of the reasons I ended up joining Sinai Temple is that there was a core group of Jews in the community and we all went to Sinai and carpooled. All of our kids went to Hebrew school all of them were b’nai mitzvah or confirmed and all of them still very Jewish.”
Over the years Parish became more involved in the organized Jewish community. Besides that first trip to Israel, she also considers her friendship with Richard and Betsey Gaberman as a turning point in her Jewish involvement.
“I used to practice law with Richard Gaberman. So between Dick and Betsey, they were the ones who turned me on to Federation, which I didn’t know anything about when I was growing up,” she explained. “And over the years I just became more and more involved.”
She joined the board of the Jewish Federation 20 years ago; soon after she was on the board of the Jewish Endowment Foundation, serving as its president six years ago. She also served as chair of Partnership2Gether, the Southern New England Consortium’s partnership with the Afula-Gilboa region in Israel. “I’m still involved in because it is such a great connection,” she said.
Parish became president of the Federation three years ago.
“I don’t think of myself as a Jewish leader. It’s more about being involved. It’s a commitment, an obligation and a duty to do whatever I can for this community and for Jews throughout the world.”
As of Dec. 11 when the Federation holds its annual meeting, Parish will end her presidency, during which she and the Federation have dealt with a few changes.
A month and a half after she became president, Interim Federation Director Bob Marmor gave his notice. Sydney Perry, former CEO of the Jewish Federation of New Haven stepped in part-time and a search for a new CEO began. When Stewart Bromberg was hired as CEO, he asked Parish to stay on as president for another year as they embarked on a community demographic study.
“There’s a large Jewish population in Hampshire County and we don’t know the numbers in Hampden, in Franklin, or in all the bedroom communities like my own,” Parish said.
Brandeis University’s Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies is working on that study.
“Brandeis will do analysis to determine the number of young families in the community, the number of elderly, what are the needs in the community, what programs need to be expanded, what programs should shrink,” Parish explained.
One of Parish’s goals as president, she says, was to try to change the perception that the Federation was just concerned with the Springfield and Longmeadow Jewish communities.
“Some viewed it as a very parochial type of organization, and it’s not. Its huge and we are funding organizations throughout our geographic area. So the issue was ‘opening the tent’ to allow open dialogue and to find out what the Federation can do to bring people together and provide more support. That’s what Stewart has been concentrating on and he has been very successful.”
“Working together with Ronda has been a wonderful experience,” Bromberg said. “The ability to discuss and plan for the future of our community together as a team has helped me view the Greater Springfield Jewish community through the lens of history and experience. I have learned about the strength of those who built the foundations, and together we have explored the possibilities for the future. Having Ronda as my partner has been an experience of a lifetime, and one I will always treasure.” Another issue has been how some individuals in the community view the Federation’s mission.
“There are people in the Jewish community that view Federation as almost a right-wing political organization, which it absolutely is not. I have wanted to be very clear – Federation is not a political organization. It does not give any money nor does it support any political organizations in the United States, Israel or any other country. No money is given to AIPAC or JStreet or any other political arm of an organization. And I think its critical for all individuals in the community to understand that about the Federation,” she stated.
Today, she says, the Jewish community needs to come together in the face of hatred that is growing around the world.
“Anti-Semtisim is back and strong.
I just saw that in Sweden, it’s up 50 percent. My granddaughter goes to school in Voorhees, N.J. There are swastikas in the high school, a community outside of Cherry Hill. There are incidents in Crown Heights, and here at Smith College. Take a walk in Westfield – there are swastikas painted on stones,” she said. “These are the issues we need to unite over as a Jewish people, and as people of all religions and all nationalities. We need to fight hate and to fight terrorism in every form.”