Like many effective leaders, Penny Blumenstein wasn’t looking for greatness, but inevitably stumbled into it. Currently serving as the president of the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC) since December 2011, Blumenstein told The Times of Israel during a brief pause in last week’s 100th anniversary celebrations that she’s always just been interested in getting a job done well.
Sitting in Jerusalem’s posh David Citadel Hotel’s executive lounge, Blumenstein was greeted by several other breakfasters, all still buzzing from the previous night’s gala event, the pinnacle of the week’s festivities, headlined by Israeli President Shimon Peres in honor of the JDC’s longtime former CEO Ralph Goldman’s 100 birthday.
Accompanied by her husband Harold — “That’s Mr. Penny to you” — Blumenstein told how her first visit to Israel in 1971 was an awakening of sorts.
After the third-generation Detroit native and her husband spent three weeks on a young couples’ trip, she devoted her time to their three children before reallocating her resources to various causes, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Jewish community where she was the first female Jewish Federation president.
During her first trip to the Holy Land Blumenstein said she began to tangibly see what money raised in the Jewish community was doing in Israel. This spurred her to fundraise and she became a campaign chair in her region.
She said although she started raising funds with a variety of Jewish organizations, the stories surrounding the JDC were the most compelling. To make things “real” for her community, she would use a cardboard box of essentials — flour, oil, eggs, etc. — as an effective tool in showing how even $10 could mean the difference between survival and starvation in the former Soviet Union.
Saying it was impossible to raise money for what you didn’t understand, beginning in the 1980s Blumenstein joined “secret” JDC missions to visit Soviet Union refuseniks in Moscow and Riga to learn what was happening on the ground.
“What I learned really connected me, it was a time of hardship for everybody. Many Jews — and non-Jews — were able to survive because we were there,” said Blumenstein.
It is healthy to help non-Jewish neighbors, said Blumenstein, and not let them starve while Jews feast. “It makes the Jewish people who live there more part of a whole. We don’t want to create animosity.”
She related a story of an elderly woman outside Lvov who refused to have her leaky roof fixed. Once the on-the-ground team there understood it was in deference to her equally elderly neighbor’s equally leaky roof, it arranged repair for both.
This tikkun olam ideology of making the world a better place is also what drives the JDC in its missions in disaster zones such as Haiti, and more recently, the Philippines. Noting that all work done in emergency situations comes from separate fundraising campaigns, she said she is often asked why a Jewish organization would be on the frontlines there.
“The fact that we’re not only willing but able helps the image of Jews. A Jew would never turn away someone if he thought he needed help. We can’t make anti-Semitism go away, but we can change people’s image of Jews,” said Blumenstein.
Blumenstein’s philosophy of getting to know the grassroots served her well as the first female president of the Jewish Federation of Detroit. A volunteer position, unlike her male predecessors, Blumenstein didn’t have a “day job” to get in the way of her work and she was the first president to have an office onsite.
She said she was raised in an era of women self-identifying through their husbands, from mailing addresses on bills to their names on credit cards. And although she was once known as Mrs. Harold Blumenstein, she said women have had an easier time reaching positions of influence while volunteering.
“This is the beginning of an era of more equality,” predicted Blumenstein.
It was not her goal to become JDC’s president; she wanted to use her time to do something meaningful and moved from job to job, eventually finding herself at the top.
“I am honored to have this position and find the work very satisfying. Be being president I can have a vision of how to take something really very good and make it better,” said Blumenstein.