Nearly 20 years after leaving his job in the government affairs office of the American Jewish Committee to start rabbinical school, Rabbi Mark Robbins is returning to the organization to head up its Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey regional office.
Seating a rabbi at the helm marks a major change for the local AJC office. For decades, the local office was headed by lay and professional leaders who had more of a secular orientation, most notably by Murray Friedman, a historian and activist, and most recently by Ilana Wilensik, who had spent most of her career as a radio personality.
"My being a rabbi will definitely carry weight in the Jewish community and in interactions with the non-Jewish community," said Robbins, 43, who starts his new job on Oct. 3. "I can do a lot to help make a bridge between the secular and religious Jewish communities. I think that AJC values that in me."
In the early 1990s, Robbins worked in the AJC's Washington, D.C., office where he lobbied members of Congress, met with diplomatic officials and updated Jewish communities around the country about events in Israel and AJC's global agenda. He has long admired AJC's track record, particularly in Philadelphia, where, in the 1960s, Murray Friedman used the post to call attention to the fact that Jews weren't being hired by most local law firms.
Robbins is no stranger to the region. He spent seven years as religious leader of Ohev Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Wallingford. Two years ago, Robbins left the congregation and moved with his family to Modi'in, Israel, fulfilling a longtime desire to make aliyah.
He founded a company that records and documents the life stories of English-speaking immigrants to Israel. But making a living there proved difficult, said the rabbi and, ultimately, the family decided to return to the United States.
"We had planned very diligently and for a long time to make aliyah. Ultimately, despite our enjoyment of being in Israel, it's a very difficult place to live for immigrants on many fronts," said the dual citizen. "We decided that we wanted to be here, that it was ultimately OK for us to be Zionists and lovers of Israel while being here.
"We will always be somewhere suspended above the Mediterranean, somewhere between the United States and Israel," he mused. He said he hasn't closed the door on living in the Jewish state again some day.
Being an Israeli citizen will help him make Israel's case, especially when speaking with leaders from other ethnic and religious communities, he said. Building relationships outside the Jewish community, especially with the growing Latino and Asian-American populations in the area, is one of AJC's core missions and one he said he intends to concentrate on.
When Wilensik left the job to become director of another nonprofit, she told the Jewish Exponent in an exit interview that her biggest challenge was the difficulty of encapsulating just what it is that AJC does.
Robbins, however, said that the organization's mission is easy to define. "I think AJC is the premier public advocacy organization within the Jewish community."
He also acknowledged that, especially in financially challenging times, fundraising is a major part of a regional director's job — and he's ready to make his pitch.
"All the great ideas in the world," he said "don't go anywhere without your bread being buttered."