Jewish Federation’s Holly Nelson Tries to Make Jewish Life ‘Endure’

Holly Nelson (Courtesy of Holly Nelson)

In 1930s Slovakia, Holly Nelson’s father, Peter Gershanov, hid from the Nazis for six years. Later, Nelson visited the town he used to live in with her husband, Norm Nelson, and two kids, son Danny and daughter Sarah.

They saw that there were no Jews left.

As Norm Nelson told the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in an old website post, published in the 2000s, about the family’s involvement with the organization: “When you drive around and see that there are no longer any Jews where Jews used to live, you realize how precious our lives are.”

It was this realization that drove Holly Nelson to get involved with the Jewish Federation. It also remains her motivation for serving the organization today. She sees it as the best vehicle for helping, preserving and continuing the Jewish community.

Nelson, 58, a Wynnewood resident and Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El member, is the head of the Jewish Federation’s grants allocation committee.

Here’s Nelson in that old Federation web post: “We felt it was the natural progression of our philanthropy to be able to make a gift that would endure, no matter what, for future generations.”

Now here’s Nelson today: “The nature of the Jewish Community Fund and the gifts from the Jewish Community Fund are to help those in the greatest need. Israel and global, vulnerable populations and the Jewish future. The hope is that by helping people in these areas of expertise, the way that it will endure for generations to come is that they will have opportunities that they could not or would not have if not for this assistance.”

Another area that Nelson has worked in since Oct. 7 is the Israel Emergency Fund. Nelson and the Jewish Federation have raised more than $15 million for temporary bomb shelters, psychiatric services for victims of terror and “basic needs for people who have lost everything,” Nelson said.

“It’s imperative for people to even hope to have a future,” she added.

When a person in the community gives a gift to the Jewish Federation, they can make it restricted or unrestricted, according to Nelson. Restricted means they specify where they want the gift to go. Maybe a day school, elder care or interfaith efforts, among others.

Unrestricted means they are saying, “You are good stewards of my money. You know where the needs are,” according to Nelson. That money goes into the Jewish Community Fund. Nelson’s allocation committee then makes recommendations to the Federation’s board of directors to distribute it to “organizations that meet our criteria,” she said.

Now, the Jewish Federation is at the end of a three-year giving cycle. That means that grants for the past three years are ending. They will soon be replaced by grants that last for a year with the option to extend for a second year, according to Nelson.

This money supports a variety of important programs.

The Mitzvah Food Pantry helps food-insecure individuals. Another Jewish Federation program helps 14,000 Israel-based Holocaust survivors receive necessities. A scholarship program helps students continue their educations in Israel. A camp scholarship initiative helped send more than 800 local Jewish kids to camps like Golden Slipper, Ramah and Harlam in 2022.

“The hope is that when they receive this help, it will ease a financial burden in other aspects of their lives,” Nelson said.

Holly Nelson, left, at a bakery on a recent trip to Israel. (Courtesy of Holly Nelson)

With all of these different programs, Nelson believes she’s making an impact in several areas of Jewish life.

“I want to make a difference that will endure for generations,” she said. “I understand very deeply the importance of one Jew helping another.”

Nelson got involved with the Jewish Federation 25 years ago. She believes the organization “stands on its own two feet as the central address for Jewish giving in Philly and the region.” But she also believes that because it’s part of a collective in North America (the Jewish Federations of North America), “we have the resources, the knowledge base, the intel and professional staff that can respond to immediate needs like those that happened on Oct. 7 and look at the future and see where needs might be.”

Nelson’s children are now 27 (Danny) and 25 (Sarah). She hopes she’s setting an example for them.

“My hope is that my children will find that philanthropy speaks to them,” she said. “I hope that they choose to give Jewishly, and I will be happy with however they choose to give as long as they make philanthropy a priority as well.”

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