During the nearly 13 years that Marsha Atkind of Roseland was the executive director and chief executive officer of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, the Essex County philanthropy distributed an average $8 million a year to agencies addressing the physical and mental health of vulnerable, underserved residents in Greater Newark and in the Greater MetroWest Jewish community.
Ms. Atkind retired on July 1, passing the baton to Michael Schmidt, former director of the American Jewish Committee’s New York regional office and innovator of award-winning AJC programs with civic and faith leaders in the Asian, Black, Latino, and Muslim communities.
Active concern for the vulnerable of all faiths is a Jewish value that Ms. Atkind has espoused throughout her career. And that dovetailed perfectly with the mission of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.
Despite its generic name, the foundation has Jewish roots and focus. It was established in 1996 with the proceeds of the sale of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center to the Saint Barnabas Healthcare System.
The Millburn-based foundation has given more than $165 million in grants to programs geared to assure access to healthcare for the populations the hospital served over the course of 90 years, as Newark’s demographics evolved from its heavily Jewish origins.
In 2020 alone, HFNJ awarded grants totaling $785,000 to Jewish community agencies in Greater MetroWest — $277,000 in emergency grants to synagogues, day schools, and other agencies to help them operate safely during the pandemic and adjust their work to meet the new realities, and the rest in support of significant projects at Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled in West Orange, the RTW Gottesman Academy in Randolph, JESPY House for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in South Orange, and the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest.
Ms. Atkind came to Essex County only as an adult.
Born in Brooklyn in 1946 to a mother who was a high school guidance counselor and a father who was a CPA, she was expected to become a schoolteacher as many Jewish women did at the time.
But she had different aspirations, if not role models. An avid viewer of the adventures of TV trial attorney Perry Mason, Ms. Atkind wanted to be a lawyer.
Although she majored in English and American literature at the University of Pennsylvania, she didn’t give up that dream.
“When I was a junior, I had a roommate whose mother was a judge,” she said. “And I thought if she could be a judge, I could be a lawyer. So I applied to law school and didn’t tell any of the guys I was dating, because I was afraid they wouldn’t go out with me.”
One of only 35 women entering a class of 350 at Columbia Law School in September 1967, she married David Atkind after her first year. She withdrew in November 1968 because her husband’s job required traveling abroad five times a year for several weeks at a time.
“I didn’t feel I had a choice at the time,” she said.
Those travels included her first visit to Israel. Since then, she has been to Israel in professional and personal capacities so many times she has lost count of the trips.
“Growing up, we were not that observant, and it wasn’t my goal to go to Israel,” Ms. Atkind said. “But when I went to Israel that first time, I was floored by how I felt to be in a place where almost everyone was Jewish.”
After her husband changed jobs, Ms. Atkind worked as a paralegal from 1971 until the couple’s only child, Russell, was born in 1976.
“I decided to be a stay-at-home mom and that’s when I started getting involved in nonprofit organizations and public affairs,” she said.
After the family moved to West Caldwell, a friend invited her to a pool party sponsored by the Essex County Section of the National Council of Jewish Women. Barbara Drench – now the chair of the Jewish Community Foundation’s Centennial New Century Fund — was the speaker at that party.
“The women there were so smart and involved, and Barbara sold me on the mission of NCJW,” Ms. Atkind said. “Working on behalf of women and children and families, advocating for racial and social justice — that really felt important to me. It was something I wanted to do.”
Her years with NCJW were marked by “a lot of advocacy on behalf of working women,” she recalled. “One project we did was to create lunchboxes with information about daycare for working parents, and we gave them out to women at train and bus stations.”
She also remembers “standing in front of the Russian Embassy in New York advocating for refuseniks, and the workers inside closed the shutters so they couldn’t see us.”
Ms. Atkind was president of NCJW’s Essex County section from 1989 to 1992, and was the organization’s national president from 2002 to 2005.
“I loved every minute of being national president,” she said. “I traveled around the country meeting a lot of leaders of the organization and the country. It was an extraordinary time.”
She was president of the New Jersey Jewish News from 2000 to 2002 and joined the board of its then owner, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest – the forerunner of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.
During this time her marriage ended, and her full-time volunteering days drew to a close. “When my term as NCJW national president was up, I had to go to work,” she said.
Ms. Atkind’s first salaried job was as founding director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey, established by the federation under the umbrella of the Jewish Community Foundation. She also managed philanthropic initiatives for the Jewish Community Foundation.
“I was lucky enough not to have to work for many years and was able to devote full time to things I was passionate about,” she said. “When I did have to earn money, I was able to parlay that into jobs that let me do the same kind of work.”
In 2008, she felt ready for a change. Fortuitously, she had lunch one day with Beth Levithan, then vice chair of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. “Beth said that their director was leaving and asked if I was interested in applying for the job. I started in December 2008 and have been there ever since.”
Reflecting on her accomplishments over that time, Ms. Atkind starts with how HFNJ responded to its constituent communities’ needs during the pandemic.
“Covid-19 has been an extraordinarily difficult year for everyone, and that was true for the organizations in the Greater MetroWest Jewish community and in Greater Newark, as well as for the people working in the Healthcare Foundation,” she said. “It meant meeting with people who were applying for grants over Zoom; that wasn’t difficult for organizations we’d funded before, but when a new organization came to us it was very different than sitting with them in the same room.
“But there were urgent needs we had to fulfill, and I was very proud of my board and my staff that over the course of the pandemic we threw away some of the protocols and made grants immediately.”
HFNJ provided more than $1 million in emergency grants to hospitals and health centers within the first two months of the crisis, and additional grants later to prepare them for the anticipated second wave. Emergency grants totaling nearly half a million dollars also went to 23 community agencies to buy personal protective equipment and devices to enable remote counseling, and to distribute food to the newly food-insecure.
“We gave 180 grants in 2020 as opposed to 110 grants the year before,” Ms. Atkind said. “And that was done from home.”
Mental health became an increasingly strong focus for the foundation during her tenure.
“We’ve come to realize a person can’t be healthy unless both their mental and physical health are stable and secure,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of granting to elevate mental-health services inside and outside the Jewish community, such as grants to Jewish Family Services and day schools, to make sure kids, teachers, and parents have the mental-health support they need to be their best selves and to erase the stigma when it comes to getting mental-health support.
“We all need help at times in our lives, and we should feel free to seek it without feeling embarrassed.”
She points out that HFNJ is proactive. “Sometimes when we perceive a need in the community, we call the appropriate heads of agencies to talk about that issue and hear what they’re doing about it or what they would like to do about if they had the means,” she said. “Then we issue requests for proposals.”
One example is the grants HFNJ gave seven area hospitals several years ago to establish protocols for preventing hospital-acquired delirium, a syndrome in which patients, often the elderly, become disoriented during a hospital stay. Such protocols were available, but the hospitals hadn’t had the resources to put them in place.
“We’re very focused on humanism in healthcare, and that means teaching and encouraging doctors and other medical professionals, from orderlies to nurses, to treat patients as people and not as diseases; to be culturally competent, to respect and listen to the patients and understand their fears and desires,” Ms. Atkind said.
“With that in mind, we endowed the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey Center for Humanism and Healthcare at Rutgers Medical School. The doctors trained there provide the medical staff to many of the hospitals in our area.
“More than that, we have given awards for about 20 years to employees of community agencies such as JFS and JCC who showed extraordinary empathy and cultural competence and humanism in interactions with patients or clients. Honorees are often unsung heroes, people nominated by their peers for doing extraordinary work with patients. They come to an event and are called up to receive a monetary award and a plaque. It’s a tremendous thank you for people who do this kind of work.”
The 2020 event was canceled because of covid, but the foundation’s Lester Z. Lieberman Leadership Award for Humanism in Healthcare was bestowed on Sharon Gordon, director of programs at JCC Metro-West. The Lester Z. Lieberman Legacy Award for Humanism in Healthcare went to Joseph Della Fave, executive director of the Ironbound Community Corporation, which serves Newark’s Latino and Portuguese communities.
There is much discussion lately about the evolution of Jewish giving. Ms. Atkind says she believes that “people have to follow their hearts and their minds in their philanthropy, with a great deal of thought given to the balance between local and international philanthropy. There is a lot of need here and in Israel and in many parts of the world where Jews reside. I don’t presume to tell people where their money should go. Everyone has to negotiate that for themselves.”
Ms. Atkind and her ex-husband followed their hearts by setting up a fund at the Jewish Community Foundation in memory of their son, who died 16 years ago.
“Lots of family and friends have contributed to the fund, and we’ve been giving grants to support mental-health work with children and adolescents,” Ms. Atkind said. “We also give music scholarships at Montclair High School because Russ was a musician.”
Ms. Atkind has received several awards over the years, including the Star of Essex County Award in June 2019.
Amy Schechner of Short Hills, chair of HFNJ, said, “While it is hard to say goodbye to Marsha, we anticipate that the transition to our new executive director-CEO will be a smooth one, and we wish Marsha only the very best in the next part of her life’s journey.”
Ms. Atkind says she looks forward to relaxing this summer, playing bridge and mahjong with friends and maybe relearning canasta.
But she will never retire completely from communal service. Aside from her involvement in NCJW as an honorary president, she sits on the board of NJPAC and on an advisory committee for Caldwell University.
“I want to get involved in one or two really meaningful enterprises as a volunteer,” she said. “There’s a lot more I can do, but I’m not ready to decide yet.”