By Stacey Dresner
WORCESTER – There is no doubt that Steven Schimmel, the incoming executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, will bring youthful exuberance to his new post when he begins his new job on July 18.
Schimmel, who will turn 33 next month, is the youngest executive director in the North American Jewish Federation system.
But don’t let his youth fool you.
Schimmel has served as executive director at the Jewish Federation of Cumberland, Gloucester & Salem Counties in New Jersey for the past six years, and as assistant executive director for two years before that. Add that to his love of Israel and the Jewish people, and he is the perfect fit as the JFCM’s new leader.
“In some ways I think [my age] is really good because one of the main concerns of the Jewish community is finding the next generation of leaders, finding the next generation who wants to be involved in Jewish life,” he said. “And there is a hope that seeing a young director inspires people and in some ways it does. But also there is wisdom that comes with age. I have to compensate for that. I need to take the advice of people who have been here a lot longer than me. I like to surround myself with those who have done it before me, and get their advice. That is how I have been effective.”
Schimmel succeeds Howard Borer, who served as executive director of JFCM for 15 years.
“Howard and I had crossed paths at some of the Federation conferences,” Schimmel said. “One of the really nice things about the JFNA conferences is that they bring together not only the executives but also volunteers and members from all of the 152 communities that make up JFNA. So no matter where you go it feels like home.”
Toby Richmond, president of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, said that the community already loves Schimmel.
“I think Steven is going to be great. We had him come to a brunch and he met some of our larger donors and some of the people who have been in the community for a long time, and they loved him,” she said. “Everybody loves him — the millenials and our older donors. He is young, energetic and very personable. He comes into a room and lights it up. He hasn’t even arrived yet, but he is already involved.”
Richmond said that Schimmel’s youth should certainly help to bring in support from the Millennial crowd – the population demographers use to describe those born around the early 1980s.
“I think that the community is getting older and we need to let the Millennials know how important and rewarding it is to be a part of and to support the Jewish community. I think Steven will address that very well.”
An eclectic mix
Schimmel was born in Texas to his father, a native New Yorker and his mother, who hailed from New Jersey. The family returned to the East Coast when Steven was a child, where they lived on Long Island for a time before moving to the southern New Jersey town of Vineland.
“I had a pretty eclectic mix of influence when it came to Jewish life. We belonged to both Reform and Conservative synagogues at different times growing up,” he said. “I was bar mitzvahed through a really dynamic Chabad rabbi in town. But generally speaking I had a regular Conservative / Reform upbringing. We were very interested in Israel. That was always a topic in the household.”
Schimmel attended Manhattanville College in New York.
“I was definitely involved in Jewish life there; I took Hebrew classes, did a lot of programs related to Jewish life, always attended the Shabbat dinners, got involved with the Jewish student association.”
His first visit to Israel was post-college on the Federation young leadership program Kefiada. On the trip he and eight others toured the country and then worked with children in to Arad, the sister city of his town in New Jersey.
After college he went to Los Angeles and worked in the entertainment industry at a talent agency for a short time. He later moved to New York and worked in marketing.
But in between those two jobs, he took a position at his hometown Jewish Federation as program director, “just helping out with events, doing some fundraising. It was enjoyable work, but I never thought to myself, ‘This is what I will be involved in.’”
But after moving to New York City and working there for a while, he got a call from the Federation of Cumberland, Gloucester & Salem Counties saying that they were looking for an assistant executive director and asked him to come in to talk about taking the position.
“I said, ‘Sure that sounds like a very interesting opportunity, and its something that I have to explore,” he recalled. “And it turned out to be great. It was a nice merger of my interest in history, politics, Judaism, peoplehood and also gave me a chance to talk to people, to be on stage, give speeches and presentations about Israel and the Jewish community and Jewish life. And I liked that we had an impact. The Federation around here really was and is the one place you go for anything related to Judaism.”
The Jewish community that is encompassed by the Jewish Federation of Cumberland, Gloucester & Salem Counties has fewer than 3,000 people.
“A lot of what I did was insuring that things didn’t collapse, because at the time, we were facing an unprecedented financial situation with the ‘08 economic decline,” Schimmel explained. “We were able to consolidate the Jewish community. We kind of created a Jewish campus. We moved the Federation into space at the Conservative synagogue, which ended up being a grand slam in the community because then it was a one-stop shop, where you could visit the synagogue, visit the rabbi, visit the Federation. And we also created a senior center and then implemented monthly young leadership Shabbat meals at my home. It ended up being something that everyone really appreciated.”
He also led a successful mission to Israel a year ago and worked closely with the area’s younger Jews.
“We did a lot to insure that the young people had a Jewish identity,” he said. “We worked very closely with the community Hebrew school, and sent a lot of children to Jewish summer camp and to Israel. We made sure that those programs were well-funded through scholarships.”
Schimmel was excited when he heard about the open position at the Federation in Central Mass.
“I had been here for eight years and I think that I accomplished most of what I wanted to accomplish here and I was looking for new opportunities,” he said. “What I like about Central Massachusetts is that it has a really nice foundation, people who are committed , who have been there decades, who love the community, and then you have growth taking place and capturing that growth is something that I am excited about.”
Schimmel has a busy summer ahead. Not only he is moving to Massachusetts and starting a new job, but he is also to be married to Alissa Chikeles, a teacher, this coming Labor Day weekend. He said he is excited about the future.
“I am excited to be part of such a unique community, filled with rich history and a caring, passionate group of people,” he said. “I think there are great things in store for this area. The Jewish community is well-positioned to grow and to become stronger, I look forward to building on past successes and working to create an ever better future.”