Marilyn Chandler was twenty-three, married, and working in the Catskill Mountains when she received a call (out of the clear blue, as she recalls it) to interview for the leadership position at the Jewish Federation of Newburgh-Middletown New York. Originally from Long Island, she had never heard of a Jewish Federation, much less considered directing one. In any event, she accepted the role and became the youngest Jewish Federation director in the country.
Several years later, Marilyn attended a national meeting at the Battery Park City Hotel below the World Trade Center. It was there that she met Mike Berkelhammer, a sitting past president of the Greensboro Jewish Federation in North Carolina.
He asked Marilyn if she would consider interviewing for the open director role in his community. “I said, ‘I have no idea where Greensboro, North Carolina is,’” Marilyn remembers. Mike took out a small paper napkin and drew her a map. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Marilyn and the Jewish community of Greensboro.
“I wasn’t actually looking for a job when I met Mike,” Marilyn explains, remarking that she’d only just given birth to her first daughter. “In any event, I went [to Greensboro] for an interview and loved it.” But shortly before the Federation made their hiring decision, Marilyn’s father fell ill. She wrote the Jewish community a letter to apologize and withdrew her candidacy for the position. The community’s response was priceless.
“It still chokes me up,” Marilyn says. “My father ended up dying a month later, and the community wrote letters, they sent donations in his memory – they just could not have been nicer. They waited 30 days until the sheloshim period was over. And then, they called again and said we would really love for you [and your husband] to come.”
Marilyn remembers waiting for their plane in New York on a snowy winter’s day and dreaming of mild temperatures and sunny skies in North Carolina. Little did she know, Greensboro was getting battered by a snowstorm.
“This was before Internet and cellphones,” she says. “We arrived and found eight inches of snow on the ground, with just one lane to the airport and one lane back. They sent someone with a four-wheel-drive car to pick us up.”
But what touched Marilyn the most was the neighborliness of a congregation she’d never properly met. “I was saying Kaddish for my father, and they made sure there was a minyan at services each day I was here so I could still say Kaddish.
Greensboro imprinted itself on Marilyn’s heart, and she dedicated the next three decades to guiding its Jewish people with discernment, compassion, and resolve. Now, she is preparing to pass the mantle of leadership to someone new. Come early December, she will retire.
Marilyn’s takeaways from her tenure are wise, poignant, and hopeful – much like Marilyn herself. She has seen extraordinary change and compelling growth. For instance, when the Greensboro Jewish Federation opened in 1940 (then known as the United Jewish Charities), its focus was to help resettle Jews in America following the Holocaust.
Since then, the Federation has become a pillar of Greensboro’s Jewish community and launched numerous programs to cultivate Jewish life in the area.
When Marilyn considers the purpose of Jewish Federations today, she says, “I have really seen a change in focus from our Federation solely working to resettle the Jews following the Holocaust, to building the state of Israel, to resettling Jews from the former Soviet Union, to today: building a thriving Jewish community in Greensboro and supporting Jewish life in Israel as well as in diaspora Jewish communities.”
Marilyn notes that Jewish life is alive and well on campuses across North Carolina with the expansion of Hillel and Jewish studies programs throughout the state. She adds:
But great change can come at a great cost. After more than thirty years of leadership, Marilyn has learned a thing or two about avoiding burnout. “I take Shabbat off every week and I’m usually in synagogue. I learned right from the very beginning that if someone came up to me and wanted to discuss anything work-related, I’d ask them to please call me in the office on Monday. And I have to say, people have really respected that.”
Marilyn also highlights the importance of getting outside. Unless it’s pouring, she and her husband wake up at 6 a.m. to go walking. “It gives us time to think about the week to come, what happened yesterday…Having a little meditative time is important for our bodies and family life. And Greensboro is so beautiful.”
She also recognizes that no (wo)man is an island.
When pushed to name her most impactful mentor, Marilyn smiles and responds, “It’s impossible to name just one person. I’ve really been so lucky in that way.”
As for her advice for the next generation of Jewish leaders, Marilyn observes: “I think they definitely have to make time for themselves. They also need to get out of their comfort zone – and always find a way to get to ‘yes.’ When you hear something new, the answer is not ‘no.’ The answer should be: ‘Let me see how I can make that happen.’
“Be flexible, keep learning. Leaders and young Jewish professionals should travel to lots of Jewish diaspora communities. Find at least one great mentor, but hopefully multiple. A former Federation president taught me to ask two questions before I take on any new project: 1) Will it be worth my time? And 2) Will I be able to make a difference? I abide by that. When I was first starting out, a campaign chair once told me to ‘Befriend major donors. Don’t be afraid of them.’”
Marilyn believes that Federation leaders, specifically, bear the weight of shaping organizational culture. “How seriously we take our work responsibilities and how we spend our personal time both impact the organization.
It is evident that Marilyn’s successor has big shoes to fill, and yet it’s also clear that Marilyn will be a steadfast encourager cheering them on from the sidelines. Until it’s time to pick up those pompoms, Marilyn is reveling in the achievements she’s celebrated with her team.
For instance, when Marilyn arrived in Greensboro, there was no Jewish Family Services agency. Today, this community lifeline is thriving. Additionally, under Marilyn’s guidance, the Federation’s annual campaign has been one of the highest per capita campaigns in the country.
Marilyn was instrumental in facilitating a local Civil Rights educational trip around the South, resettling refugees (from the FSU, Cambodia, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast), and serving on the board of the Jewish Community Legacy Project, which helps preserve Jewish life and legacy in smaller Jewish communities.
She is especially proud of serving on the Women of the Shoah Board, an initiative that honors the lives of the women who died during the Holocaust. A local Jewish artist has sculpted North Carolina’s first monument to these women, and it will be unveiled in downtown Greensboro come April.
With such a rich season of leadership behind her, Marilyn is gratefully anticipating the quiet of the future. She’s most looking forward to the freedom of time. She intends to visit her grandchildren, travel, write, and practice photography. She’ll also be working with her husband on a long-term project of family genealogy. She hints at an interest in consulting – but it’s still early days.
“The colleagues, professionals, and volunteers working alongside me have made all the difference in creating and sustaining a thriving Jewish community. I also need to thank my husband, Robert, our daughters – Dori, Hallie, and Shira – the donors who have believed in what the Federation does in our community, and families who have been my constant supportive partners in ‘all things Federation.’”
For now, Marilyn is content to savor her last year in the city she first met on a paper napkin.
To date, TLLF has awarded $1.06M to the Greensboro Jewish Federation.