While the Jewish Federation of Cleveland continued to move forward during its leadership transition, new president Erika B. Rudin-Luria pressed pause on meetings to take advantage of the moment and learn from leadership, community members, people who built the community and those who are continuing it.
Through this self-described “listening tour,” Rudin-Luria heard existing concerns, support for Cleveland and its Jewish community, and ideas for the future. She wanted to take the pulse of the community, understand where it sits now to help move it forward during her tenure.
“I’ve worked with a large number of our leadership, but there are so many people who have contributed so much to our community in different ways and I wanted to meet with as many as possible right now,” she said. “I’m not done. There are still more that I haven’t met with that are at the top of my list.”
Rudin-Luria was named the fifth president in the 115-year history of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, succeeding Stephen H. Hoffman, who held the position for nearly 35 years.
Four months after taking the helm, Rudin-Luria listed increasing vibrancy of Jewish life and focusing on security throughout the community among her top goals as president.
How people relate to being Jewish is changing, said Rudin-Luria, explaining part of the Federation’s evolution is making sure it’s set to be able to respond to those changes through its partner agencies and relate to the five generations of Jews the organization serves.
“The notion of being part of the community or not part of the community – the whole notion of the binary you’re in or you’re out – doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “It’s rare for someone to participate in one organization and to stay with that organization their entire lives. People come in and out of different programs and different experiences in different institutions as fits for their family, as fits for where they’re at in their life cycles.”
A key part of that increasing vibrancy is synagogue life, which she sees as growing through the Federation’s Campaign for Jewish Needs and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights. Another area is Jewish education, where she said she sees families who might not have pictured themselves as day-school families enrolling their children in classes after getting a taste of the schools through early childhood education.
“Whether it’s a synagogue or a day school or another event or institution, we want every door to be the right door someone walks in, so that any door someone comes through, we want them to feel invited to participate and engage in Jewish life in the way that it works for their family,” she said.
In the wake of the Tree of Life Congregation massacre Oct. 27, 2018, in Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland announced security funding would increase to $3.3 million for the next fiscal year, almost $2 million more than in 2018. Yet, as security increases in the 43 area buildings that contain Jewish institutions, Rudin-Luria doesn’t want Jewish Cleveland to be defined by its security.
“Our security needs are enormous,” she said. “The worst thing we can do is create a fortress with no Jews inside. We want to be defined by being a caring community, by how we work together, by how we educate our children, by how welcoming and inviting we are. We have this enormous security need that we must do in order to make sure that we’re safe, at the same time as we’re doing everything we want to define us.”
The Campaign for Jewish Needs is a key factor in growing the vibrancy of Jewish life and increasing security, among other needs throughout the community. The fundraising is necessary to be able to support a “high-quality” community, which Rudin-Luria said can’t happen without raising money.
“We look at the entire Jewish community and we ask ourselves, ‘What are their needs?’ and we work to meet those needs,” she said. “We’re generally working in areas that are not easy to solve or, frankly, someone else would be doing it. We don’t look to duplicate what any one agency is doing within or outside the Jewish community. We do look to partner with and leverage the resources within and outside of the community to help families in our community. We also look to be strong within the general community.”
As the community grows, a new group of leaders is emerging. Rudin-Luria has spent time with young leadership, a demographic she quipped she’s still technically a part of for the next few months. During these times, she’s learning how they’re able to stay diverse, coming from all walks of Jewish life, and about their openness to new and different experiences.
“We always have to be focused on leadership development and our young leaders, listening to them, growing them as leaders within the Jewish community,” she said. “If we maintain that focus, then I’m very optimistic given what I see in young leadership today.”
Working with different parts of the community is of interest to Rudin-Luria. Prior to her role as president, she worked on the creation of jHUB, which connects interfaith families to Jewish life, as well as the creation of the Cleveland Chesed Center, which opened in March 2016.
“I love bringing people together from different parts of the Jewish community,” she said. “To me, as a Jewish organization that’s not religious, we have a unique role to play in having a table that everyone can sit at around shared values. Everyone wants their children to be educated, to be fed. People want families to be successful. Our geographic density allows for closer relationships than exist in many other communities. I’ve always had relationships across the community and it’s something that I cherish about our community.”
Road to president
Rudin-Luria, who joined the Federation in 2001, previously served as the senior vice president and chief strategy officer, a role in which she oversaw the Federation’s strategic planning, community development, allocations, governance and marketing functions.
Becoming president was something she wanted. Around the time she became planning director in 2004, Hoffman and Joel Fox, former executive vice president of the Federation, both noted the tendency of a planning director going on to become a federation executive, though not necessarily in Cleveland.
“I had thought about whether or not I would want to run a federation one day, and the more time I spent in Cleveland and the more I got to know the Cleveland Jewish community, the more I wanted to be here,” she said.
She began her career at UJA-Federation of New York City, the largest local philanthropy in the world, as a project coordinator.
When Rudin-Luria and her husband, Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike, were looking for a community that would be right for them, they passed over Palo Alto, Calif., and Westchester, N.Y., and settled on Cleveland. Working for Hoffman was a deciding factor in choosing Cleveland.
When they first moved to Cleveland, their plan was to live here for three to five years. After seven years, she stopped pretending they were leaving. The couple lives in Pepper Pike with their two sons, Jacob and Ari.
After 18 years in Cleveland, she wanted to stay for the community’s shared values, especially in terms of volunteer leadership. She saw their dedication to the Jewish community, keeping it strong and “raising the bar and making it even stronger.”
“They care so deeply about all of the issues that are important to me personally,” she said. “They care about helping the vulnerable. They care about being welcoming and inviting. They care about Jewish identity and Jewish education, and they care about bringing the entire community together across its diversity. Why look elsewhere if we have all of those incredible values right here in the Cleveland Jewish community?”
Rudin-Luria said becoming president of the Federation and having an opportunity to work with its leadership and the community to impact Cleveland and the Jewish world is the greatest privilege. At the end of her tenure, she hopes to be remembered as someone who was able to bring the community together during trying times.
“I want to be remembered that during my tenure, we engaged thousands of more families in Jewish community and in federation work. That we managed to bring people together at a time when they felt so divided politically and isolated,” she said. “That we managed to weave people back together so that they recognized as individuals what an important part of the community each of them is.”