Tikkun Olam. It means “healing the world” in Hebrew. It’s been Linda Meisel’s goal since childhood, and it’s the lesson she works to impart on the Princeton community — Jewish or otherwise — as the executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Greater Mercer County.
Meisel and her nonprofit will accept the Community Leader Award at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 Business Leadership Awards Gala on Wednesday, December 4, at 7 p.m. at Jasna Polana. Other honorees include Ben Weiss, founder & CEO of Bai Brands LLC; Bernard M. Flynn, president & CEO of New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company; and Bob Carr, chairman & CEO of Heartland Payment Systems. For more information, call 609-924-1776 or visit www.princetonchamber.org. Tickets: $250.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Meisel earned her degree in history from Brooklyn College. Her mother was an administrative assistant, her father an accountant. She moved to New Jersey in 1969 to attend graduate school at the Rutgers School of Social Work.
Meisel has made use of her mother’s administrative skills, her father’s eye for finance, her own love of history and tradition, her Jewish upbringing, and her concern for society to shape the nonprofit powerhouse that is Jewish Family Services. Social work allowed her to pursue her desire for social justice (an effect of going to school in the late 1960s, early ’70s, she says), which aligned with the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam. “You want to behave in a way that will help heal the world. Do good work, advocate, help individual people,” she says. It’s what members of her family had always been taught, and Meisel was no exception.
After graduating from Rutgers, Meisel spent most of her professional life working for secular family agencies, while also volunteering within her congregation and the Princeton Hadassah. Meisel had a foot in two places — the Jewish community and the secular business world — and she’s never found a need to step out of either. In fact, she attributes her success with Jewish Family Services to her ability to combine and mobilize these two pieces of her life.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread,” Meisel says, quoting the old Jewish bread advertisement. And you don’t have to be Jewish to love Jewish Family Services. JFS receives financial and volunteer support from the whole community, and so serves the whole community. When Meisel first got involved with JFS and saw a need for a kosher nutrition site, she was able to work with a long time friend and head of the Mercer County Office of Human Services (a secular agency) to find funding for the first Kosher Cafe.
“It’s really all about people and relationships; cultivating relationships with the people who are involved, in both board and staff level, agencies, and programs where you have some synergy,” Meisel says. She’s successfully cultivated relationships with Spanish-speaking agencies to help support JFS’s large bilingual counseling service, and with senior citizen agencies and youth agencies, which is necessary because JFS’s services cover a wide spectrum of ages.
For the kids, JFS has the Jewish Community Youth Foundation for 8th to 12th graders, which teaches them how to become “the philanthropists of the future,” Meisel says, even allowing them opportunities to give money to charities both local and international. JFS’s other program for youth is called “Gesher LeKesher,” which means “bridge the connection” in Hebrew, and focuses on teen leadership.
For senior citizens, JFS runs programs that allow the elderly to continue living in their homes, such as delivering meals on wheels and doing minor household chores.
JFS is even bridging the connection between religions with their interfaith services. “Fifty percent of Jewish young adults marry someone who is not Jewish. So if you want to be inclusive in a community, you want to both educate and embrace people,” says Meisel, who has worked with the board of rabbis to offer a 16-week class called Intro to Judaism, as well as speaking engagements to groups who don’t know very much about interfaith parenting and grandparenting. Meisel says that the key to serving everyone is being able to adapt with the times: to see a need, and cater to it.
Perhaps even more varied than JFS’s service for people of all ages is its volunteer corps. With more than 200 volunteers, Meisel says that it’s important to have a diverse group of people to serve the diverse needs of the agency. “On our board, we have people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, probably a couple pushing 70. Diversity is important because people bring their own unique life experiences and skills, and the cross pollination is exciting.”
Meisel says that the way to attract such diverse and numerous volunteers is to be passionate, “When you’re passionate about what you do, it’s contagious. Behind every good executive director is a terrific board and a very confident and strong staff. It’s a team effort. The board sets the policy, community connections raise the money, and the staff has to be continually confident so that when you go out in the community, people say, ‘I went to JFS and they were very helpful.’”
Volunteers like to be part of a successful agency, and they like to feel like their time is valuable and they’re making a difference. Meisel doesn’t have to work too hard to convince people of that. “It’s personally rewarding because they are really making changes in individual people’s lives, sometimes literally putting food in people’s mouths.” Though maintaining a strong staff can be a challenge in the nonprofit sector where compensation is not always an option, Meisel says that making sure your staff feels valued and like a real part of the team is often compensation enough.
Meisel’s volunteer-recruiting methods must be working, as JFS recently made plans to expand at 707 Alexander Road because it was “bursting at the seams. When you have an eight-page schedule of who sits in which chair at what time of the day, you know it’s time to expand,” Meisel says. The organization has purchased enough space to accommodate the food pantry and extended private counseling services, which is expected to be ready by spring.
When Meisel took over the position as executive director of the agency about 15 years ago, the budget was $500,000. It’s now at $1.8 million. “I think it has to do with vision. My vision was to use the core Jewish values of healing the world and social justice, and that you can participate in the community at large and really make a difference collectively and individually in the lives of people. The sum of the total is better than anyone’s individual effort,” she says.
Meisel’s own little corner of the universe is Princeton, where she lives with her husband, an attorney and the executive director of the New Jersey Dental Association. They have three adult married children, four granddaughters, and two grandsons. “Which is great for me,” Meisel says, “because they give me purpose and explain why my investment in the future community is so intense.”