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Doug Seserman’s Jewish journey

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SPEAKING at a public victory rally in New York City right after the end of the Six Day War, the late Arthur Hertzberg declaimed with unparalleled emotion:

“I will provide peace in the land, and you will lie down with none to make you afraid . . . ” (Leviticus 26:6).

The sword of extinction had hung over Israel (Nasser of Egypt’s infamous threat to “drive Israel into the sea”), but Israel vanquished its enemies.

“Five of you will pursue a hundred,” continued Hertzberg, “and a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand” (26:8).

Hertzberg captured the emotions of the huge crowd — the Jewish people had passed from mortal fear to stunning elation in a matter of days.

A second Holocaust had been averted.

However appropriate the Biblical verse — five will pursue 100 — Hertzberg inevitably got caught up in the inexplicable math of the verse. Five over 100 is a proportion of 1:20. Therefore, 100 should be able to pursue 2,000. But the verse says that 100 will pursue 10,000.

The meaning seems to be that when total commitment takes over, exponential success is inevitable. When five can pursue 100, then, yes, 100 can overtake 10,000.

I SAT down last week with JEWISHcolorado’s president and CEO Doug Seserman to learn about his Jewish journey and, more broadly, about the change in Jewish consciousness in the federation world.

I thought of the exponential growth of that consciousness.

I have known all 11 professional directors of Allied (JEWISHcolorado’s predecessor). Seserman’s tenure is now second longest. I brought a bias to this interview. I believe Seserman, his sincere demurrals to the contrary notwithstanding, embodies this exponential growth.

Seserman speaks publicly in many Jewish venues. He always cites a lesson or teaching from the Torah.

He sends out an email titled “Doug’s drash.”

He assumes his recipients know what a drash is.

He assumes his listeners will find a word of Torah relevant to his topic, whether it is explaining the shift from Allied Jewish Federation to JEWISHcolorado or exploring the meaning of Israel’s memorial day.

That did not happen 11 directors ago or, for that matter, even a few directors ago. A change has come over the professional Jewish world. It is more comfortable in its Jewish skin. It at least aspires to know Hebrew and, at a minimum, knows a few stock phrases.

Some federation directors and heads of other Jewish agencies are Sabbath observant; some attend a Daf Yomi (such as the Loup JCC’s Stuart Raynor); some study Torah; most observe Jewish holidays in a serious way.

And so, even though Seserman says that he is only at the beginning of his Jewish journey and feels quite uncomfortable being cast as representing a new generation, I thought it would be illuminating to let him tell the story of his Jewish journey.

It would not have been told this way even 25 years ago, let alone in the heyday of my father’s generation, back in the 1940s and 1950s.

SESERMAN, 51, a graduate of Cherry Creek High School in 1981, came to the Jewish professional world from the private sector. He held senior marketing positions, with a specialty in branding and re-branding, with several top corporations, such as Quest Digital Media, ATT Broadband, TCI Communications and Quaker Oats.

His undergraduate and graduate schooling was at Northwestern. He holds an MBA from the J. L. Kellogg School of Management.

“There are two parts of my gene code,” says Seserman.

“I’m part Jewish leader that my Mom raised, influenced by BBYO, Jewish summer camping at the JCC and Ramah in California.

“The other part is packaged goods marketer. That’s my experience right out of business school. Learning to fight for market share. Differentiation. Branding.

“I’ve used both of those backgrounds a lot. I worked at the JCC Ranch Camp as a counselor and program director.

“But I’m not really worthy of this interview. I understand the work of being a Jewish federation executive, and am pretty expert in that area.

“But I’m a novice in the Jewish curve, not as Jewishly knowledgeable as I would like to be.

“I was raised in a kosher home. My dad Robert Seserman died in 1985 when I was 20. We were Conservative, went to Rodef. I was Bar Mitzvah there under Rabbi Bernie Eisenman.

“Ardie Wandel was my Bar Mitzvah tutor. Neal Price was executive director. Ellyn Hutt’s sister was in my confirmation class.

“I never went to day school.”

[I’m thinking: No federation executive in the previous generation would find it relevant to note his lack of a day school education. In fact, many such directors were opposed to or even embarrassed by Jewish day schools.]

“I was very involved in BBYO; president of chapter 1387.

“Stan Beiner [a former head of CAJE] made a big influence in my life — he was a mentor; my first camp counselor. I was 12 or so.

“Albie Siegal, the camp director, was my first boss. Eventually, he worked with me at the federation.

“My Jewish identity is a real product of the system: my upbringing, my mom’s values; JCC Ranch Camp; my Bar Mitzvah; my summers at Camp Ramah after my Bar Mitzvah; BBYO.

“However, I have had no [formal Jewish] knowledge acquisition.

“When I took this position at Allied in March, 2002, I knew little Hebrew, had studied no Chumash or Talmud.”

[I’m thinking: Federation executives now cite Hebrew language, Hebrew Bible and Talmud as personally relevant.]

“I was a corporate marketing executive and a proud Jew who sent his kids to Jewish day school mostly so I could ski on the weekends.

“I observed the High Holidays; also hosted or went to two seders; and celebrated with my family and extended family the major Jewish holidays. Occasionally I went to Shabbos services; lit candles, but not every week.”

IT is now 12 years later.

Doug Seserman consults Chabad.org and various members of his staff to locate material for a periodic drash. He identifies this material as “various Jewish sources, such as Torah, midrash, Jewish phrases.”

He feels comfortable having learned Jews on his staff.

He wears a kipah when he speaks publicly.

He devises Jewish messages based on a Jewish source or historical datum.

“I am very humble in understanding what I don’t know. I’m still very much at the beginning of my Jewish journey. I’ve got a lot more to learn.”

“If you work for the community in a role like this, it impacts you, whether you wanted it to or not.”

So, that’s it. At least some of the corporate Jewish community has changed, too. Its expectations of Jewish knowledge have become absorbed into the definition of both the community and those professionals who lead it.

In Doug Seserman’s case, it has generated the desire to learn more.

“What I see in my colleagues around the country,” observes Seserman, “is that they become more ritually observant or they become more secularized. You end up in one of those two places.”

[I’m thinking: In the old days, you began, and stayed, in only one place: ritually unobservant, mostly; and you were ignorant of Jewish sources, with exceptions.]

“I love Jewish values. We have a particular mission. We’re on this planet for a purpose — to be an or la-goyim [he doesn’t translate, “a light to the nations”; the Hebrew phrase is part of his gene code.] This inspires me to do this work.

“If I were talking to you in March, 2002, I certainly would not be as knowledgeable on Jewish values, but I had enough in my upbringing to know there was a Hineni moment — I didn’t know that phrase, but when I got a call from a recruiter, it awakened in me what my Mom and my high school friends said was always there.”

Question: What changed from the Nat Rosenberg days? [Rosenberg was the founding, highly disciplined and successful director of the Allied Jewish Council, then Federation, 1946-1973].

Seserman: “You need to find meaning in the Jewish part of Jewish leadership. Go back to Moses. We are a people that is reluctantly led.

“Rabbi Isaac Wasserman — on my first day or week on the job, he comes up to me in his black hat and beard, and he says: If man didn’t have to work for a living, what would man do?

“I was stumped. That was the most foreign of conversations in a corporate job. So I just stood there like a grade schooler saying nothing. He repeats the question. Rabbi, I don’t know. He said: Doug, man would do good, and you get to do both [work, and do good].

“Part of this work is that you can marry your vocation and avocation. I’m passionate about the Denver Broncos, skiing, about my kids and family, the mountains — I’m also passionate about the Jews. Our contribution to the world. Our shared history and common future.

“And Israel is the great miracle of the 20th century. I am proud of all that.

“A job like this allows you to awaken your connection to all that.

“We’re here for a reason — answering R. Wasserman’s question — to be an or la-goyim, to have values, to make the world a better place.

“I look at Donald Sterling and Bernie Madoff and these are what Jews aren’t. They’re not our role models. These are Jews who have given their G-d-given Jewish brain power to amass massive sums of money but in so doing did not become Jewish.

“Being Jewish — it’s a humbleness in front of G-d (maybe in 2002 I wouldn’t have said G-d).

“Adam Silver swiftly sized up this thing and made the right decision, banning Sterling for life — those were Jewish values at work. He was protecting the brand called NBA, but he was also protecting the brand called Judaism.”

ALONG the way, Doug Seserman has collected Jewish mentors besides Rabbi Wasserman.

“Rabbi Daniel Cohen. I was close with him. I traveled to Israel with Rabbi Cohen. When he left Denver it was a real loss.

“Rabbi Foster’s voice is important in terms of how important it is for the Jewish community to be involved in the broader community and public affairs. One of my achievements is for the JCRC to be active in the politics of the state — we have a presence at the Capitol and coalitions with other groups.

“Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi [Raphael] Leban have both invested in me, lunch and learns. And Rabbi Leban does ‘turn and learn.’ He’s one of my ski partners. I know with certainty that he’s one of the top rabbi skiers on the planet. I think we see G-d up there together. He’s a good teacher.

“I write my own speeches, but I get help with the drash. My marketing team — Barbara Raynor,* Danielle Bergstein, Susan Kramer, Janet Sherman, they all help me with Jewish content.

“People are concerned about the name change from Allied Jewish Federation to JEWISHcolorado, but we made ‘Jewish’ the first part of our name and it’s in all caps. We made the Jewish part bigger than it has ever been before.

“I walked into the office in 2002 and it maybe felt too Jewish. Now I want to spread the Jewish word.

“I’m not that ritually observant. I’m still struggling with that. I see G-d more in the mountains and in my children’s faces than I do in shul. I think of myself as Reconservadox. I don’t really now what I am.

“I use Chabad.org a lot. I want to promote that.

“I have a little copy of Pirkei Avot and keep it handy.”

Someone bursts into the office and reports that the missing teen Ava Reinhard has been found. Seserman’s reaction: “Thank G-d.”

SESERMAN’S Jewish journey “evolves,” as he puts it.

“David Ben Gurion is alive for me because of JEWISHcolorado’s partnership in the Negev. All of the shelichim — Shaul Amir, Raz Arbel, Shmulik Rifman, Michal Uziyahu — have all helped me fall in love with Israel and connect Israel to my identity and leadership.

“I am now an ardent Zionist.

“Israel is the greatest thing going for us in addition to our Torah values.

“I read stories about Ben Gurion and his values. His retirement home is very modest. In the middle of the desert. He is a great role model around humility.

“When you’re there at that overlook, looking at the Zin Valley, it is easy to feel the humbleness. The greatness of man really isn’t so much a function of what one accumulates during their lifetime, but what their contributors are to the world. That’s a motivator.”

Question: Do you have other mentors?

“Alan Hoffman — director general of the Jewish Agency.

“Susan Kramer has had an impact on me in terms of encouraging and trying to make sure the Jewish part of our organization lives and breathes. Ellyn Hutt. Irwin Kula, Brad Hirschfeld — the Clal rabbis.

“Some people probably think I’m an egomaniac — the shine on me doesn’t always help me — but when you have strong agency leaders like Dan Stenerson [at Shalom Cares] or Yana Vishnitsky [at JFS] or Stuart Raynor [at Loup JCC] or Daniel Bennett [formerly of CAJE] — I think these people have helped me evolve in my style.

“You go to these functions, the GA, for example, and maybe you do a little Torah study — slowly, slowly it has an impact on you.

“I’m comfortable with who I am but I don’t think I’m where I need to be on my Jewish journey. I don’t speak Hebrew. I need to change that.

“I would like to be more regular in my Torah study, learning the ethics of our people. I love being a Jew.

“I don’t know about my observance level. I’m open to it. I’m probably too much of a skier to dedicate 50% of my weekend to Jewish observance.

“Rabbi Jamie Korngold — I ski with her too. She makes you see Judaism in the majesty of our state. Mountains. Skies. That speaks to me spiritually.

“My kids are very proud to be Jewish. They started on the track of Jewish day school, on a path to be much more Jewishly knowledgeable than their parents. They love Israel; they’ve been to Israel twice.”

Seserman’s final word:

“I try to be a bridger. To the more identifiable Jews and also to the next generation.”

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

 

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