As a cantorial soloist, Naomi Adler could have followed in the footsteps of her grandfather and father, both renowned conductors and composers of Jewish music.
But instead of pursuing a career in music or Jewish communal service, as she once contemplated, she chose a different beat: She became a lawyer, using her voice to defend the rights of victims of domestic violence and child abuse.
As an assistant district attorney in upstate New York, however, she began to realize that she couldn’t effect the kind of systemic change that would improve the lives of victims of poverty and crime. So she began to dream of running a nonprofit organization that could directly tackle those issues.
She shifted tracks once again, venturing into the world of nonprofits, ultimately landing two successive CEO positions at two separate New York chapters of the United Way.
Now, at the age of 47, she’s about to fuse her passion for fundraising and management with her commitment to Jewish life when she becomes the new chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in May.
“What an incredible opportunity to combine my Jewish identity and spiritual being with my professional role,” Adler told the Jewish Exponent in her first interview after being officially named to the post.
Her appointment was approved last week by the Federation’s board of directors, who endorsed the recommendation of a special search committee that worked for the past six months to find a replacement for Ira Schwartz, who left the post last May.
Adler’s selection means that the Philadelphia Federation will have its first female professional head to lead the centralized fundraising body. When she takes office, Adler will also have the distinction of being the only woman to head a major Federation in the country.
She said she feels honored and “extremely gratified” that the search committee reached beyond the Federation world to look for talented and passionate Jews. But she doesn’t want to overplay the gender issue.
“In a world where there’s still talk about pay equity and changing laws to include women, it’s about time we have more and more equality with every kind of executive position,” she said.
And, she quickly added, what sold the committee on her are her executive skills and her commitment to Jewish issues, not her gender.
Adler grew up in a family steeped in Jewish roots and Holocaust stories. Her grandfather was Hugo Chaim Adler, an Antwerp-born cantor who composed Jewish sacred music.
Her father is Samuel Adler, a renowned composer and conductor whose family fled Nazi Germany and whose cantata commemorating Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogram against the Jews, was performed in November at Har Zion Temple. She proudly notes that her mother, an author and poet, is a “fourth-generation Reform Jew.”
Adler was raised in Rochester, N.Y., in what she termed a “very religiously educated household,” where she studied with her father every Shabbat. She was also active at her temple and sang in its choir.
Her first date with her husband, Rabbi Brian Beal, came in Atlanta in the mid-1990s at a Reform biennial, where the movement brings together lay and professional leaders.
When she decided to shift careers from practicing law to nonprofit fundraising, she initially focused on Jewish causes. Her first post brought her to Dayton, Ohio, where she headed the Community Relations Council and the Women’s Division at the Federation there.
It was in Dayton, she recalled, where a mentor taught her “what it means to sit across a kitchen table and ask for a Lion of Judah gift,” a high-level donation from a woman.
She later pursued an opportunity at Rutgers University, where she raised funds for the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
Adler says she is passionate about fundraising, even insisting that “one of my favorite things to do” is have the opportunity “to talk to someone about something they really care about and have the capacity to change.”
She also appears keenly aware of the challenges that organizations like federations face at a time when donors increasingly want a direct connection with the programs they support. She said the same criticisms about centralized giving are leveled at United Way, which, like Federation, provides grants to an array of causes.
“I’m the first one to say — give to your favorite agency, but give to a federated system as well,” she said. Supporting such a system “is the most impactful way to support the largest number of people. There’s no better way to get a bang for your buck philanthropically.”
Adler said she isn’t put off by the reputation of Philadelphia as a hard town for an outsider to break into and one that doesn’t raise Federation funds commensurate with other cities of comparable size. She said she welcomes the challenges that await her.
“We need to be inclusive and open to serving the needs of all Jews” as well as the larger community that interacts with Jews, she said. The Jewish Federation “has to be the light that everyone can be drawn to.”
Calling Federation “one of the most impactful agencies in Philadelphia,” she said, “We have to make people understand why we’re relevant.”
She said she sees the role of Federation first and foremost as a fundraising and grant-making operation, supporting a wide array of vital programs, from senior services to Jewish education. But she also sees Federation as an important convener to tackle community issues.
“We have to be the ones” who figure out “how best to grapple with Jewish community issues.” She sees support for Israel as one of those issues.
“I grew up with Israel as part of my consciousness and heritage,” she said. Personally and communally, “solid support of Israel is not even a question,” she said, adding that she wants to work closely with the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council to “support the state of Israel any way possible.”
At the same time, she said, “supporting Israel is a very multifaceted experience and we have to recognize that.” She said she is eager to reach out to those who do not support Federation because of political reasons relating to Israel.
“I don’t accept that,” she said. “It’s time now for us to be talking about what we have in common and what our differences are.”
She will soon be looking for common ground in the Philadelphia area for her family – her husband, Rabbi Brian Beal, and their three sons, a 13-year-old who recently became a Bar Mitzvah and 10-year-old twins — who will be moving from Nanuet, N.Y., north of New York City. Beal is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth Torah, a Reform congregation in Upper Nyack, N.Y. She said she she doesn’t yet know exactly where they will settle in the area.
When asked about her vision for the Jewish Federation in Philadelphia, she said she isn’t ready to articulate that yet.
“I still have a lot to learn,” she said. “It would be a bit arrogant to have all the vision pieces finished before I even start or have an opportunity to hear” from all the stakeholders involved.
At the same time, she said, she is convinced that the Philadelphia Federation has the potential “to take a huge leap forward” when it comes to raising money. With growing disaffiliation, alienation and economic recession, the donor rolls have declined dramatically in recent decades.
“We have to make sure that people understand there is a place for them in the tent of Federation,” she said. As a convener, it is Federation’s job to ensure that “no one is excluded — no one.”