One weekday morning long ago, Leslie Dannin Rosenthal of South Orange accidentally drove her daughter to synagogue rather than to school.
“I was on auto pilot,” she said with a laugh. “My kids grew up knowing this is just what Mom does” – that is, devote her time and talents to the Jewish community. “I grew up that way, too.”
Ms. Rosenthal is a past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, a member of the Jewish Federations of North America’s board of trustees, a member of the executive committee of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, and a board member of the Mack Ness Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest, which helps develop Israel’s Negev region.
On top of all that, she is the new board chairperson of the Jewish Community Legacy Project, an independent charitable organization focused exclusively on empowering small Jewish congregations in the United States and Canada to secure their futures.
She first joined the JCLP board as a representative of the advisory council of JFNA’s Network of Independent Communities. As chair of the network, she had visited many small communities and witnessed two phenomena: small-town shuls were getting smaller, and the national synagogue movements of the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist branches were increasingly unable to serve them, the result of their own shrinking budgets.
“The work of the JCLP appeals to me because I grew up in a small community and Conservative shul in Rhode Island, so I have a unique combination of that small-town background and being a lay leader of one of the largest Jewish federations in the country,” Ms. Rosenthal said.
“I understand in granular detail that small congregations are the lifeblood of whatever is happening in these communities. The recent Pew study bears out that the Orthodox movement is growing, and the other streams are not — and yet you have congregations that form the center of Jewish communities, like my small Conservative congregation in Middletown, Rhode Island, that is still flourishing. People who belong to these congregations are generous to the JFNA and our partner agencies, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“I’ve seen the whole ecosystem and I know that nobody else does what the JCLP does.”
The JCLP offers two free services: Congregation Continuity, which provides individualized solutions for maintaining growth, reversing decline, or navigating imminent closure; and Congregation Connections, a facilitated collaborative peer congregation network with monthly cohort meetings to share information and planning on best practices.
Some of the JCLP’s key areas of expertise include membership growth and engagement, leadership succession, fundraising, clergy support, and historic preservation cemetery support.
“We help congregations transition,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “We meet congregations where they are and assure them that as congregants pass away and move away, creating a legacy plan very often reinvigorates the congregation. If you start planning for closing, people often come out of the woodwork. We have some congregations we’ve been working with for 10 years.
“When a congregation does close and there are assets, its legacy can still serve the Jewish community. Often an endowment is created at the nearest federation to serve the congregation’s stated interests.”
Ms. Rosenthal follows Michael Z. Kay of Atlanta as chair of the JCLP.
“I have big shoes to fill,” she said. “My primary responsibility will be to work with our professionals and board to successfully move the JCLP to a new role of looking beyond congregations that are not inside federation areas to small congregations wherever we find them. We have experienced professionals who know federations and congregations and know how to work with lay leaders. That’s the secret sauce.”
The JCLP recently started a relationship with UJA Federation of New York, the largest Jewish federation in the country. “Federations have synagogue councils but do not help synagogues create legacy plans,” she explained. “The need is growing, and my job is to guide us through the growth process.”
South Orange’s Congregation Oheb Shalom, of which Ms. Rosenthal is a past president, was one of the founding congregations of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. This is the shul to which she drove her daughter on that distant school morning; her son and daughter now are adults and part of their own Jewish communities in Los Angeles and Dallas, respectively.
“Oheb Shalom is facing all the challenges that liberal congregations face, but we have a brand-new clergy team of two amazing women — Rabbi Abigail Treu and Cantor Eliana Kissner — who are inspiring and engaging,” she said. “We’ve been members for 30 years and it is wonderful to see new traditions being born, new ways of encountering Judaism.”
Ms. Rosenthal credits her children and her husband, David S. Rosenthal, for supporting her choice to devote herself to Jewish communal volunteerism.
This choice was modeled by her own parents, who “did whatever the Jewish community asked of them,” she said, and is reinforced by her liberal arts education at Smith College, “which made me feel I was up to whatever task was put in front of me.
“I love my local Jewish community and Jewish communities across the world, and I feel that serving them is the most important way I can give back,” Ms. Rosenthal said.