One of Lee Hillerson's earliest memories as a little girl in Strawberry Mansion was helping her grandmother count money from their synagogue's pushkas. Growing up, Hillerson saw her mother, Marjorie Abrams, devote herself to Jewish communal organizations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and HIAS. "Non-profit work and tzedakah have always been the business of the women in my family," said Hillerson.
Lee Hillerson with the tzedakah box presented to her at a luncheon earlier this month honoring her commitment to Federation's Mitzvah Food Project.
So it's not surprising that in her 20s, Hillerson got involved with Federation. What is surprising, perhaps, is that she's remained deeply involved with Federation for over 40 years.
She first became a Federation philanthropist, in her own name, after graduating from college. She donated a portion of her earnings from her job at Gimbels department store to the annual campaign. This led to her membership in Federation's Business and Professionals affinity group. Through the years her involvement has expanded significantly.
She has volunteered for Super Sunday, Federation's largest single day of community fundraising, since its inception and chaired the event during its Bat Mitzvah year. Hillerson has participated in numerous Federation missions and served as a bus captain for three of them. She's served on the board of Women's Philanthropy and on numerous other Federation boards and committees. "For everything that I've done, there's never been any question about making time for it," Hillerson said, explaining that her Jewish communal work is "just a way of life."
Hillerson's most significant contributions to the Jewish community through Federation, however, have been through her involvement with Federation's Center for Social Responsibility. Her initiation began with organizing mitzvah projects to help seniors in the community -- the precursor to Federation's Mitzvah Mania day of community service, an annual event that involves thousands of volunteers, including Hillerson.
"Lee is incredible," said Jerrold "Jerry" Frezel, a longtime Federation lay leader who has worked with Hillerson on Center for Social Responsibility initiatives for approximately 15 years. "She's a worker. She doesn't mind getting her hands dirty. She just wants to help people, and she's done an incredible job at it."
Hillerson's mitzvah project work led to her involvement with Federation's Mitzvah Food Pantry, now the Mitzvah Food Project, approximately seven years ago. "I wasn't truly aware of the depth of the food insecurity facing our community until I became involved with the Food Project," said Hillerson. "People are making decisions between paying for rent, medicine or food -- basic necessities of life that you need to survive."
After guiding the Food Project for the past five years as its advisory committee chair, Hillerson passed the torch to Laurie Franz in September. "Lee has been such an incredible asset to our work," said Drisana Davis, the Mitzvah Food Project's manager. "We are extremely grateful for Lee's leadership, and for her passion about both the Food Project and repairing the world."
During her tenure as chair, Hillerson led the Mitzvah Food Project's work to ensure it best met the community's needs. She spoke on behalf of the Food Project at community organizations and synagogues, met with and inspired volunteers at pantry sites, served as the Food Project's representative at local events and led the advisory board committee at its quarterly meetings. According to Davis, Hillerson was also instrumental in seeing the Food Project through some major changes, including the introduction of produce into the food packages to help improve clients' nutrition.
"Being involved in the Food Project has given me the opportunity to get hands-on and see immediate results," said Hillerson. "I've been able to put my efforts where I felt there was such a great need."
"Lee has worked so hard for the Mitzvah Food Project," said Lainey Simonson, a member of the Food Project's advisory committee who met Hillerson while they were both volunteering for Super Sunday many years ago. The two have worked together on many projects and have developed a close friendship through the years. "Lee would drop everything to help the Food Project, whether it was to give a speech or to help at one of the pantries. She worked so hard to make sure the Food Project stayed in the forefront of people's minds."
"Lee has always maintained the right vision for the food pantries: Her wish is that one day we can close them because food insecurity will no longer be a problem we allow as a community and country," said Brian Gralnick, director of the Center for Social Responsibility.
Some of Hillerson's most memorable Food Project moments were her talks with younger community volunteers, such as religious school students, about food insecurity. "Most children don't understand hunger. I explained to them that it's like when you were fasting on Yom Kippur but you didn't know when you were going to break the fast, and that every day was going to be like that."
Though her role as advisory committee chair has ended, Hillerson continues to support the Food Project. She recently chaired its largest food drive, the High Holiday Food Drive, and she will remain a member of the advisory committee.
"You don't just forget the things you care about," said Hillerson. "The Mitzvah Food Project is a part of me. They can count on me whenever they need me."
In addition to supporting Federation, Hillerson has also been very involved with Hillel; the Klein JCC Cook for a Friend program; and her synagogue, Main Line Reform Temple. She is also a docent at the Philadelphia Zoo.
So why has Hillerson stayed with Federation all these years? "Aside from the wonderful friends I've made and the amazing people and families I've worked with, I've stayed with Federation because it has a very broad reach.
"The elderly and the hungry are my main interest, and through Federation I can hone in on what I care most deeply about, but I know that Federation is also helping address the other critical Jewish community needs that I'm not addressing myself."
"In all that I do for Federation, I get back much more than I give," continued Hillerson. "I wouldn't think of not being involved. The Jewish community of Philadelphia is such a meaningful part of my life."