As President of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, Beth Millstein works with the Federation board and staff to direct the organization’s efforts. Read more about Beth’s work on the board and her vision for Federation.
How would you describe your role as President?
As president of the board, I help the board set the direction and priorities for the Federation. I liaise on a regular basis with the Executive Director to discuss community needs and assess how the Federation is meeting those needs and living up to its mission and vision. Another part of my responsibility is chairing monthly board meetings. The Executive Director and I set the meeting agendas based on input from staff members, board members, donors, and the community at large.
At your “day job” at Fannie Mae, you manage business development and sales. Do you find that any of the skills and resources from your work spill over into your presidential role?
Absolutely. At Fannie Mae, my team is responsible for identifying new business opportunities and managing multiple, complex business relationships that often have conflicting needs. My experience managing multiple stakeholders and setting strategic priorities and direction, all while creating mutual value, translate really well into my role at the Federation. I’ve also had the benefit of participating in robust leadership training programs at work that have been helpful to me in leading this organization.
How would you describe your personal connection to Jewish life?
I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, where my family belonged to a very liberal Reform congregation. Active, communal engagement was always part of my Jewish identify growing up. In 1995 my husband and I moved to Howard County to raise our family. The combination of a strong public-school system and the values of Howard County –civility, diversity, and inclusion—really appealed to me. I was delighted to find a vibrant Jewish community here. We joined Temple Isaiah in 1999 and have been active congregants from the beginning.
I am fortunate to several family members who serve as clergy. As a lay leader, it’s been very insightful to hear their perspective of what the relationship between the lay community and professional staff should be. This has helped me better understand challenges that other lay people might not appreciate.
What is the history of your role as president?
I have been on the Federation board for five years. Originally, I was asked to join the board to help lead a strategic plan that planned for the future of Federation, and I was very excited to take on that role. However, the year that I joined the board was the beginning of a couple of years of significant change, including staff turnover, so I had to set aside that initial goal and redirect my energies more towards an operational lens. Now that we are fully-staffed with highly competent professionals, I am able to shift my focus to the future.
What are some of the ways the Federation has developed since you began your role?
In the past two years, it’s been increasingly evident that the community wants the Federation to be a visible and local Jewish voice. To that end, we’ve established the Jewish Community Relations Council. In addition we’re very fortunate now to have a Community Social Worker who is working throughout the community in a very visible way. I’m thrilled with our ability to deliver more service more broadly.
I imagine that as President, you hear a lot of feedback from community members. How do you prioritize these concerns?
I listen to everyone. I think everyone has a legitimate perspective or opinion to offer. Then I try to evaluate if the issue is very narrow or a broader one that affects the wider community. With limited resources, we have to devote our attention to those areas where we can have the most impact. When prioritizing our concerns, I also rely on feedback from a number of advisors, including the staff, the board, the Board of Rabbis, and other area Jewish professionals.
I embrace the test and learn model, something I learned from my day job. At the Federation, we have to try different things to see what resonates within our community and donor base. For instance, the community seems very energized by the expansion and delivery of social services locally and the establishment of the JCRC as a place to take a stand against anti-Semitism.
As a community, what is our biggest challenge and what is our biggest strength?
Our biggest challenge as a community is complacency. I think there are so many people in the community who don’t recognize the depth of need right here and who may be struggling themselves and thinking that someone else will step up to ease the burden of others or address the issues. What people don’t realize is that we need everyone. We need everyone’s financial support, and we need everyone’s engagement so we can work together.
I think our greatest strength is our sense of community. We are extraordinarily well-connected and caring for each other. I also think we are very blessed to have a wide range of clergy members and synagogues that work together in our community. We are relatively small, yet we have a vibrant Jewish life here: lots of synagogues, lots of clergy, lots of engaged community members.
What would you say to people who feel that their money should go to other causes?
Firstly, I applaud anyone who even thinks about being philanthropic because that is the first step. People give to causes that are meaningful to them, what tugs at their hearts. At the same time, Jewish causes are almost 100% funded by Jewish donors. As a Jew, if you want to make a difference in the world, you should think about the where your money will make the most impact. Your gift has a different meaning when you give to Jewish causes because our people are so much smaller in number, and we have a more personal connection to the ones we give to.
If it’s important to you to maintain a Jewish identity personally, it should be important to you to support Jewish causes more broadly so that others have the same access to resources as you. Ultimately, as the saying goes, if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?
You have been the Federation President since July 2016. This summer you will be passing on the baton to incoming President Rachael Simon. At this juncture, what would you say you have learned from your post?
We’re on a journey. After 40 years, we are no longer “wandering in the desert,” but we are still exploring various forks in the road. I’ve learned along the way that we’re capable of doing a lot more than I think we gave ourselves credit for and of having a more significant impact than we might recognize. I’ve learned how important it is to tell our message, tell it often, and tell it in several different ways. The lesson inspires me not to give up. If it doesn’t work the first time, keep trying.
I’ve also learned that we, as a staff and as a community, are very resilient, which is an important characteristic for survival. There’s been a lot of change for the staff and community to absorb, which can be very unsettling. But while sometimes change is thrust upon us, we also have a lot of autonomy. As the Federation, we get to decide what we want to be, where we want to focus our efforts, and what our priorities are. I think we’ve built a very solid foundation, especially over this past year, and we want to continue to refine the focus to align with our priorities.
What is the Jewish value that speaks to you the most in your work?
I would say tzedakah. Money is only a means to an end to me as it gives me the ability to help people—my family, my friends, the community. I’ve always believed that it’s important to help other people, to share resources. At the end of the day, it’s about people—it’s not about things.
What is your favorite Jewish holiday?
Passover. I like to cook, and I love having family and friends together. We sing a lot on Passover. We have young children who perform plays. It’s a wonderful bonding experience. And of all the holidays, the Passover story is the one that resonates the most with me about what it means to be a Jew.
What do you hope for the future of the Federation?
In an ideal world, I see Federation in a significant leadership position in the county, partnering closely with our synagogues, schools, county services, and other Jewish organizations to address our local needs. I also want the Federation to be the first place come to to access Jewish life in the county. We should be a rich resource for people who want to be more connected, active, and engaged in Jewish life.
You can reach Beth at President@JewishHowardCounty.org.