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New Jewish Federation director looks for ways to connect the community

New London — For the past 35 years, the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, while it was run by former executive director Jerry Fischer, transformed itself into a community pillar for promoting Holocaust remembrance, civic missions and the overall strength of the surrounding Jewish community.

But with Fisher’s retirement in June, newly named Executive Director Carin Savel, who brings with her a wealth of life experience and an abundant network of contacts, is hoping to also bring her own form of significant change to the surrounding Jewish community.

For Savel, that means connecting the Jewish community in ways it never has before, she said.

Besides being the spokesperson for the organization, where she will both promote and defend the federation as well as the greater Jewish community, Savel said she has been working over her first 100 days as executive director to meet and learn about the people who make up her new community and what they want from their federation.

"They want a lot," she said. "People want the local getups, the local meetups, the local get-on-the-bus programs. People want that, they want to feel connected," Savel said during an interview with The Day last week. "So I will be the one to give that to them."

“I’m new and I don’t care what divides in the community might exist here,” she continued. “My goal is to bring everyone together, to tear down the silos of our synagogues, and to be that community convener. And now that I’m new, I get to just add.”

Describing her vision to connect the community, Savel said that, besides recently hosting a women's event with the executive vice president of shoe company Stuart Weitzman and taking a bus trip to New York City as part of her new "Get on the Bus" program, Savel has been organizing women’s philanthropy events, talks and lectures — which on Sunday included a visit from sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer at the Garde Arts Center — and soon hopes to collaborate with both local Jewish and secular organizations, while also keeping the federation’s already-existing programs in place.

“Part of my responsibility is to show the greater New London community who we are as people,” Savel said. “I think that our responsibility to our community is also much greater than just the Jewish community.”

On Sunday, as Savel stood center stage at the Garde before a crowd of more than a hundred to introduce Westheimer as part of one of her first federation-sponsored events, Savel demonstrated that vision.

Attracting both young adults and old to the event, the notoriously open and blunt Dr. Ruth spoke on stage with Savel about everything from modern-day communication issues about sexuality to Westheimer’s Holocaust experience, much to the audience's enjoyment.

Also part of Sunday's show, audience members were given the chance to write questions on memo cards to the therapist pondering thoughts like, “What is pansexuality, and does it have something to do with cooking?” and “Should we still be inspired to use cucumbers and zucchini to spice up our sex lives despite recent outbreaks of E. Coli?” spurring bouts of laughter.

“These are the opportunities to mobilize, to have Jews the opportunity to connect with each other, to see each other,” Savel said last week. “We become so siloed by our synagogues, but it is the federation’s job, my job, to make sure that we are connecting as a community.”

Getting to New London

Before arriving in New London for her new job in May, Savel lived a life of adventure and intrigue, taking on several high-profile positions with organizations such as the United Way and the Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary as its chief executive officer from 2014 through 2018 and, among other various roles, has also pursued a riveting career as the president of her own campaign management company, where she managed the campaigns for judicial, state, congressional and presidential candidates alike — both Democrat and Republican — for more than a decade.

But because of her Jewish family history and Jewish upbringing in Long Island and the Upper West Side — where her parents would funnel Russian-Jewish immigrants through her childhood home after much of her family was killed in the Holocaust — Savel said there had always been a stirring in her heart to serve her Jewish community.

“This had been calling me internally for years. I just didn’t really know how to do it, I didn’t know how to make the leap into a being a Jewish professional.”

After she was asked, then, by the Jewish Council for Policy Affairs to represent Massachusetts for a leadership mission in Israel in 2013, and after having met Israel’s former Prime Minister Shimon Peres on that trip, Savel said she knew she needed to fulfill that calling.

“Peres asked me what I did for a living back home,” Savel said, explaining that, at the time, she was working as the senior vice president for the Springfield, Mass., United Way. “In his imitable way he then said to me, ‘A smart woman would go back home and work for the Jews.’”

“And that’s what I did,” Savel said. “It was like when you fall in love. You meet someone and you have no idea, but you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, that’s it.’ I didn’t know how (that trip) was going to affect me and I definitely didn’t know that I was going to go home and do that, and just change.”

Since that realization, Savel has served, before coming to New London, as the chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary in Raleigh, N.C., while also volunteering on several national and state Jewish councils including the Jewish Council for Policy Affairs — “The big daddy of all Jewish legislation and social policy of the globe,” she explained — of which she sat on its board of directors from 2014 to 2018 and is still on its national delegates assembly.

During her tenure at the Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary, Savel led fundraising efforts, raising $2.6 million while growing her surrounding Jewish community.

It was there, Savel said, that she was also on the front lines of her Jewish community, fighting against various hate crimes, including everything from cross burnings at the local synagogue, bomb threats at her own federation, as well as hate speech and LGBTQ parades planned on Yom Kippur, she said, “so as to exclude gay Jews from participating.”

“Raleigh was tough. I had a lot of difficulties in Raleigh as far as anti-Semitism and bomb scares. It was very difficult,” she said. “Unfortunately, none of us federation leaders could have predicted two-and-a-half years ago the amount of hate crimes that were about to happen.”

“It was a lot to deal with,” she continued. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would have the FBI on my speed-dial on my phone, and I do. Never did I think that the FBI would call me and say, ‘We have at least six notifications of a credible threat where bombs have been placed in the cars. Get the directors, do your drill and get the children out.'"

Asked, then, what made her take her position in New London and not, say, a different location, such as New Mexico — which Savel said she had also been considering — Savel said that she was enticed by the opportunity to come into a community where she could “truly move the needle, truly make a difference and see that effect within the community.”

That, and plus, “the board here is really smart. For every meeting I came to, they made sure it was by the water,” she said, laughing.

Turning her focus back to her new role as part of the federation, Savel said that besides her core mission of connecting her Jewish community, her main priority as the federation’s director is three-fold: to depoliticize the federation; to promote Israel; and to “provide a safe and protective community” — efforts, Savel said, that are particularly important in light of rising anti-Semitic hate crimes around the U.S.

In an Aug. 26 op-ed in The Day, Savel wrote that “according to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitism rose 57% in 2017 across the United States and Europe. Close to 2,000 cases of harassment, vandalism and physical assault were recorded, the highest number of anti-semitic incidents since 1994.”

“I am acutely aware that Jews will be politicized and weaponized in this next election and so we need to stand fast. It’s now, more than ever, that our federation needs to act as a tent that protects people's needs, while also being open to everybody. We are not red and we are not blue,” she said. “We are there for everyone.”

“My predecessor was all about acts of kindness, which I believe are necessary in this world,” Savel said. “But when it comes to the survival of Jews in a community, their safety, security, vibrancy — that’s my job. So that for generations to come, we have something here.”



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