“As the person in charge, I am up for taking charge. Also, I have compassion for the people who are struggling to find the answers to these challenges and are not finding them elsewhere.”
Caren Leven, Executive Director, Baltimore Zionist District
Caren is a Sabra (one born in Israel), and she arrived in the US at the age of 10. Although she could speak and understand English, she couldn’t read or write in English, creating a huge challenge when her parents enrolled her in public school. Thus began her journey that ultimately led her to have passion in her heart as an Israeli and as an American, and, as Executive Director (ED) of Baltimore Zionist District (BZD), to use her voice and actions to connect the Baltimore community with the beauty, heart and inspiration of the people and the State of Israel.
BZD has a small staff of 3, so Caren has engaged other organizations in the community to create a large network of partners to achieve BZD’s success. This network includes synagogues, Jewish day schools and camps, as well as other Jewish organizations and institutions. She describes the most effective way to set up professional opportunities for growth for her staff as enabling others to step out of their roles to support each other and to undertake functions BZD doesn’t have staff to perform.
Caren says her journey as a leader since assuming the role of BZD ED three years ago has evolved exponentially. She took on responsibility for managing staff reporting to her and working with her Board of Directors. As both an Israeli and an American, she stepped into the role “with a full heart and full soul,” but it was her first professional position at the top of an organization. She had to learn how to address the political and bureaucratic aspects of community life and help BZD show its value to the broadest spectrum of the community.
Other challenges that emerged included managing the often negative portrayal of Israel in the media and in public opinion, which involves changing the narrative, deepening the conversation and raising a voice against the rise in anti-Semitism. “We (BZD) receive many calls from constituents reporting anti-Semitism instances that BZD then calls on the appropriate authorities to address. Fighting against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is something that has become a part of our work: to educate and comfort our constituents who turn to us for guidance and leadership regarding the message and response. We direct inquiries to the right people who can help them deal with what they are experiencing and how they are responding. We are a voice in the community that will not be silent in the face of hate against Jews or the Jewish State. And we are affected right here in this community,” she said, citing the recent desecration of Jewish gravestones near Dundalk and swastikas found in Fells Point.
Caren identified several leadership strengths she feels she brings to these challenges: “As the person in charge, I am up for taking charge. Also, I have compassion for the people who are struggling to find the answers to these challenges and are not finding them elsewhere.”
The pandemic presented leadership challenges that required immediate decision-making and evaluation of how to best accomplish the virtual creation of cultural and political programs and educational activities that deal with all aspects of Zionism and modern Israeli life. “We closed our office in one day…We thought it was going to be two weeks at first, then it became clear that there was no way to calculate how long we would be operating from home.” Working with her Board, a new strategy was developed that started with Facebook live and progressed to Zoom, which offered interactive capabilities. As participant numbers grew, “we thought ‘if we can‘t take people to Israel, then we need to bring Israel to our participants.’ ”
She and her staff interviewed and selected Israeli tour guides best suited to the BZD target audience and then began scheduling virtual live tours. “Our program participation started growing to 50, then 75, then 100. Word spread via word-of-mouth, and we had visiting lecturers on a variety of current events on the Jewish calendar such as Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Haatzmaut, and then added Heritage tours of Jewish Communities around the world. The key was having guides that spoke English well and had good production capability to guide people’s eyes to the visual imagery and scenes while the guide interpreted.” More than 1600 “armchair travelers” joined the last tour. No longer limited to participants in the greater Baltimore region, the largest US attendance outside Baltimore is from Florida, then NY, then California, followed by Canada, London, Venice and, “whenever we have a Heritage tour of a community, there is a large number who participate from that locale.”
Caren said that because of the BZD pivot in response to Covid, there is a constant flow of communication via emails from participants in the geographic areas reached via BZD programming during the pandemic. “Most are in English, but many require us to use Google translate. I have interviewed with Sephardic radio, which they translated to Spanish. Now we are planning a tour to Israel next year. It has been an incredibly successful ride.”
Her job is stressful because she sees so much anti-Israel, anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic speech and incidents world-wide. Her 13-year-old son is exposed to encounters on social media daily, and she worries that he sees so much that he may be numbed over time. “On Tik Tok the increase in anti-Semitic posting this year is over 941%.” She finds it difficult to find a balance between work, family and personal time, with a full family life, husband, kids, extended family, both in her household and beyond. She tries to carve out weekends together and after work hours. “My kids are big lovers of Israel and, perhaps because of my work, they are more aware of anti-Semitism and have questions for me. Their days are filled with love and happiness, going to camp and volunteering at Goldsmith. We have family vacations. So despite some challenges we do make a big effort to achieve balance.”
Despite juggling so many priorities, Caren says, “I want to make a difference. There is good in the world. If I can awaken in others the same passion I have about what is going on that threatens Jewish security, we can make a difference. I don’t want my kids to go through what our grandparent’s generation went through 75 years ago. I don’t want that to ever happen again.”