The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life is preparing to observe its fifth birthday and salute a person who has made much of its work possible, Leslie Dannin Rosenthal.
The double celebration will happen at “Sweet Dreams,” an event to be held Monday evening, June 6, at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
Rosenthal was one of The Partnership’s founding trustees in 2006, when United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ’s “Jewish identity-building agency” was created as a successor to the Jewish Education Association of MetroWest.
The goal was to create a sharper focus on young people, from early childhood through the teenage years, while expanding the scope of Jewish education to a range of experiences beyond the classroom.
“Jewish education has always been very important for me,” Rosenthal said in a May 16 phone interview. “I believe there are always more ways to be innovative and engaging for kids and adults.”
Rosenthal, a volunteer long active in UJC MetroWest (she’s currently vice cochair of major gifts) was approached by The Partnership’s new leaders, executive director Robert Lichtman and founding president Ellen Goldner.
“I remember Leslie’s excitement at starting something new,” Lichtman told NJJN. “We talked about what her vision was, what her hopes were, and what we knew our challenges would be. She was very eager to join us, and she helped us create this organization.”
“Bob and Ellen came to me and asked if I wanted to be a part of the new enterprise, and I jumped at it,” Rosenthal recalled.
Rosenthal had served on the board of the JEA, Lichtman said, but understood the founders’ vision for change.
“We were trying for a fresh start, but we knew she was passionate about Jewish education,” he said. “We knew she was proud to speak about it, we wanted someone who would be an advocate, and we knew she was viewed with respect by a lot of her peers at the federation.”
“The JEA helped me get in touch with the people who care passionately about Jewish education in our community,” Rosenthal said. “Some things have carried over, such as the things we do for nursery school teachers that continue to serve The Partnership. But The Partnership is very different.”
In the five years since its founding, he said, “we’ve changed the conversation about ‘early childhood education’ to be more about ‘early family engagement.’ We’ve created the country’s first full-time Jewish service learning coordinator position and with that have enhanced and grown Jewish service learning opportunities to meet the increasing demand of teens to participate in such programs.”
Additionally, he said, “we have created linkages rather than silos between teen programs in The Partnership and throughout MetroWest to support teens on their Jewish journey. Together with UJC, we have developed continental models for enrolling more children in Jewish summer camps and enhancing the academic excellence and affordability of day schools.
“We are known nationally as a resource for focusing on the learner and bringing Jewish learning to life,” Lichtman said.
‘Never says no’
Rosenthal’s interest in Jewish education began during her childhood in Newport, RI, where she attended Touro Synagogue, the country’s oldest Jewish house of worship.
“My first teacher was my rabbi, Theodore Lewis. Even though he was Orthodox, there was no differentiation between what he taught the boys and the girls in terms of history and prayer. So I always had a sense that Jewish education was important,” she said.
Rosenthal, who lives in South Orange, is married to attorney David Rosenthal. Their 24-year-old son James will begin attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School next fall. His younger sister Elise is a 2011 graduate of Wesleyan University.
Rosenthal’s first major local volunteer role was as a member of the board of the Academy for Jewish Studies, the Hebrew school that served both Oheb Shalom Congregation and its sister Conservative synagogue in South Orange, Congregation Beth El.
That led her to a second post as Oheb Shalom’s director of adult education, then later as its president.
She and Goldner were among the women on a MetroWest mission to Israel in 1996.
“It was like someone hit me over the head with a two-by-four,” Rosenthal told NJJN. “I thought about how much that country meant to me in a tangible way.”
“It was a transformational experience for her,” said Goldner, a past president of the MetroWest federation who currently serves as a recruiting director for Alexander Muss High School in Israel. “I remember Leslie crying throughout the entire trip. She became more and more emotionally involved.”
That involvement led to Rosenthal becoming cochair of the UJC’s major gifts campaign and its Israel and Overseas Committee. She is a vice president of UJC’s board of trustees, a trustee of the Jewish Federations of North America, and a steering committee member of the Rachel Coalition.
“Leslie never says no,” said Goldner.
Rosenthal sees an urgency in her multiple missions.
“We are working with a new paradigm for the Jewish family. Whether both partners are Jewish or not, we are at a time when people are choosing to be Jewish,” she said. “My concern is how we create Hebrew schools, day schools, JCCs, federations, Jewish family services in a way that is compelling to people who every day have a choice to do something Jewishly or not Jewishly.”