WESTERN Mass. — Every morning Dr. Ben Falk and his wife Adina wake up at 6 a.m. and do an intense Boot Camp workout class.
Falk plans to integrate some of the energy and discipline he gets from that workout into his role as the new president of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass.
“Having discipline is part of running a board meeting,” Falk, 49, said matter-of-factly. “Board meetings need to be run with a specific agenda that isn’t just dropped on the board members the night before but really a week in advance. And board meetings will not be held only in the Federation offices. We are going to make a bolder commitment to spread out our meetings throughout the community.
“Not only will board meetings be held in different locations around the Federation’s catchment area, but they also will be held every other month instead of monthly, to make it easier for board members to attend. The executive committee will meet the other months to prioritize the agenda,”
Falk allows that volunteering on the boards of community organizations take some commitment.
“And that brings me back to my earlier comment about being involved in Boot Camp. I intend to bring that mentality — maybe not doing pushups and sit-ups,” he joked, “but certainly that focus.”
“Our goal is to start on time and finish on time. We know that volunteers are busy with their family schedules and their work schedules,” he said. “But we are looking for and we have found committed individuals – and that is one of the first steps.”
Ben’s father, Dr. George Falk, said that Ben has always shown the kind of discipline.
“His sock drawer was always very organized,” George Falk joked.
“He is very organized. He happens to be an outstanding implant dentist and he is precise about every thing; everything has to fit just right and be perfect.”
Falk, 1st Vice President Seth Goodman and Stew Bromberg handpicked 10 new board members “who will breathe new energy into the life of the Federation; bring new ideas, new enthusiasm, new perspectives. We have tried to balance it and bring in people from the upper valley as well as the lower valley and we have tried to look for new leaders that can bring innovative ideas and thinking.”
That will be important as the Federation and the entire Jewish community begin to develop a new strategic plan this spring, a culmination of the demographic study the Brandeis University Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
“As we look towards the future of our Jewish community, armed with the results of the first Community Demographic Study in over 50 years, it is time to define a new vision and direction for the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts,” said Stew Bromberg, CEO of the Federation. “Our goal is to ensure our community’s strength and vitality moving forward. With the wisdom of leaders who have served the community for over 90 years who built a strong foundation, we are looking to build a new level of engagement throughout the Pioneer Valley. Our new board chair, officers, and board of trustee members represent a cross section of both upper and lower valley members of our community.
“Ben Falk as president and chair, Seth Goodman as 1st vice president, and I all share a common vision for the future of our community. Together with the board of trustees we will not only review the results of community study, but will then work towards a comprehensive strategic plan for the Jewish community of Western Massachusetts.”
Ben Falk wouldn’t be Federation president if his parents hadn’t been avid skiers.
Originally from Hackensack, N.J., Falk’s family moved to Western Massachusetts when he was five years old.
“My parents wanted to find a Jewish community that was closer to the ski slopes, but not far from the beach, and not far from where my father grew up in Brooklyn. So they drove up 95, they drove up 91, and they landed in Ellington. Ellington has a small Jewish community and the rabbi said, ‘You look like a nice young family with three kids. You don’t want to settle here. We are dying here. But in Springfield, there is a new JCC that is being built. There is a Federation. You should go check out that area.’
“So my parents moved to Longmeadow, not knowing anybody and not having any history here, and they settled and raised a family here,” he said.
Ben and his two older sisters attended Heritage Academy. “I attended Heritage on Maple Street and then I was in the first class to enter the new building on the JCC campus.”
“I think I had a great parochial education at Heritage Academy,” he said. “I continued my studies through my bar mitzvah years at Kodimoh and I did NCSY through by bar mitzvah years, but then after that I would say I had a typical suburban upbringing where I would attend services on the High Holidays but didn’t really maintain an overly abundant life within Jewish circles, other than my home life with my family.”
Falk attended Cornell University, where he attended services at the school’s Hillel, which was brand new at the time. A fond memory is the time his grandparents came up to college to visit him.
“They were Orthodox and were able to eat at Hillel there and have kosher food. It was really special that here they were in Ithaca, New York and they could get kosher food.”
He went on to get his dental degree at New York University College of Dentistry, becoming the third generation of Falk dentists.
“I followed in the footsteps of my grandfather, who practiced in Brooklyn. My dad started the practice here… I joined the practice here in 1999…My mom was the office manager here until I joined and then we decided there were too many Falks, and she soon retired,” he laughed.
Falk and his wife, Adina, live with their two children in Longmeadow. Both kids attended Heritage and later Lander-Grinspoon Academy. Their son, Avi, is a sophomore at Williston Northampton School. Daughter Aliza is a senior at Longmeadow High School and will be attending Colgate University next year. “It’s the perfect school for my daughter who wants to be an orthodontist,” he joked.
His kids played a role in his decision to accept the position of president of the Federation. He felt an urgency to do something after his son faced anti-Semitism at a local gymnastics center, and his daughter wrote her college essay on security measures at their synagogue during the High Holidays.
“I realized this anti-Semitism isn’t just something that I read about in the paper… it’s affecting my family. And it was that sort of call to arms that made me think, I may not be the person most qualified to be president of the Federation, but I sure can be a leader at this time. And if that was what my community was asking me to do, I was more than willing to step up and take on that charge.”
Falk’s trips to Israel also played a role. Each visit was meaningful for him, each for different reasons.
“After I graduated from NYU in 1998, my wife and I decided to do a six-week trip to Europe and part of it was spending three weeks in Israel, where I volunteered for an organization called Dental Volunteers for Israel.”
That organization was founded by a Holocaust survivor named Trudy Berger.
“I was inspired by her. She was a survivor, and her teeth were kicked out by Nazi soldiers. She said if she ever survived the war she would found a place where children wouldn’t have to go through what she had with missing teeth. They attract volunteers from all over the world to work on this program.”
He says that that first trip was especially meaningful to him.
“It was really a life-altering moment to be in a country where you could be proud to be Jewish; you could wear your kippah; there was kosher food everywhere, where I could see many aunts, uncles and cousins, and just really get a sense of being in Israel.”
Their next trip was a Federation mission in 2006.
“Going with the Federation gave us such a deeper understanding of Israel, for the support for our sister community Afula, and the programming,” he said. “The first time I was really focused on the Dental Volunteers for Israel, which was amazing…but it wasn’t that global, overall view you get from the Federation trips. We were with other families that we knew, but it was just my wife and I. One of my most lasting memories was being on top of Masada where our guide had us yell out, ‘We’re still here!’ and it echoes back. It still brings emotion, because we still are here.”
Their next visit was a family trip celebrating Israel’s 65th birthday.
“We brought our kids and we also brought my wife’s elderly aunt and uncle who had never been to Israel. So it was a great experience with them…We got to see the trip through our children’s eyes and to see their love of a country they both had learned a lot about…To have the country come to life for them was an awesome moment.”
Falk’s involvement with the Jewish Federation began as president of Heritage Academy, serving as an agency president on the Federation board. (His father George also served as Heritage president for several years.)
Five years ago, before the departure of former Federation CEO Meredith Dragon, Ben and Seth Goodman became co-chairs of the Federation’s Demographic Task Force, which fizzled out after she left.
They both came back on board as leaders of the task force last year because of Stew Bromberg.
“One of the things Stew promised in his interviews [for the CEO position] is that he would ignite the process for the task force,” Falk recalled. “Pretty soon after that he was hired and he called me and said, ‘Hey, can we get this task force back on track? And I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Besides the implementation of the demographic study, Falk said he has other important goals as Federation president.
“Security is the theme for this year — security both physically and emotionally for our agencies. So it’s talking about securing grant money at the state and local level; aiding lay leaders in understanding what is involved in dealing with anti-Semitism; helping our community members recognize it, identify it and to deal with it…I think we have enjoyed a period of 50 years since World War II when anti-Semitism seemed to be, at least, under the surface but not front-page news. But we’re in a new time here.”
Besides keeping the community safe, Falk said another important goal is securing Federation dollars.
“The test of my goals is going to be measured by the security of our fundraising, and that’s what the demographic study is going to help us understand — What is our customer base? Who are our clients? What do our clients want?” he said. “So we are going to be utilizing this demographic study to really make sure we are meeting the needs of our community.”
Falk admitted that the Federation has suffered from a lack of professional leadership in the past few years.
“Not having a permanent CEO for a period of about five years, we floundered. This is too big of an organization to rely chiefly on lay leadership… It’s a full-time job. And I’m really excited that we have Stew, who has jumped in with both feet and hands, and is fully committed.”
“I’m really excited because we are starting from the ground up and what I am lacking in organizational experience I’m going to make up for with energy, enthusiasm and excitement,” Falk said. “And if anyone is not sure about that, come meet me a 6 a.m. for Boot Camp.”