Last June, the Federation welcomed interim executive director Ralph Grunewald. A veteran of the non-profit world, Ralph works with Federation staff and community leaders to build community, provide Jewish programming, and help the most vulnerable in our own backyard. Hear more about Ralph's role and his top priorities for the Jewish community.
As interim executive director, my role is to work with the board of directors to set goals for the Federation, raise money, and work closely with the staff to carry out our mission and programs.
You have worked for a long time in the non-profit world. What attracted you to the executive director role?
I have devoted my entire career to supporting the Jewish community and the State of Israel, and I was excited to bring my 30 years of non-profit experience to help the Howard County community grow and achieve new levels of success. Since my arrival last June, I have come to admire the community and feel closely connected to it.
What do you think is special about our community?
The history and locality of the community is unique. The Jewish community in Howard County is a relatively new community. It is situated between two large metropolitan areas, and yet, it is independent of those two communities and has a strong desire to maintain its own identity.
I have found that the leadership here, both at the Federation and within synagogues and other institutions, are deeply committed to Jewish continuity. While that may not be unique, it is for me a wonderful opportunity to partner with our leaders, across the board, and find unique solutions to the desires and needs of the county.
What do you think should be the Federation’s number one priority right now?
The number one priority has always been building a community and bringing the community together. Throughout our history, we’ve learned that Jews only survive when institutions have been built within the community, such as synagogues, schools, a chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society), and social service agencies, so that we continue in our tradition of taking care of one another and ensuring a bright Jewish future for our children.
This is all about Jewish continuity. It’s believing that our Jewish history, religious heritage, and values are important and meaningful in the world we live in. It’s more than merely “generation to generation”; it’s actually imparting values that have great significance to the world we live in and living those values as a community.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for our community?
The greatest challenge is the relatively young age of the organized community. Fewer than 30% of Jewish Howard County residents belong to a synagogue, and Jews are spread out throughout the county. There’s also an unfortunate reality that Howard County residents, whether Jewish or not, are under-givers when it comes to philanthropy. This came out in a study a few years ago. Both Jewish and non-Jewish institutions, therefore, need to work extra hard to raise money. I and our board are determined to change the giving culture by explaining to our current and prospective donors that there are great needs to be filled.
What inspires your work?
I’m a lawyer by training and worked at a law firm for a short time before realizing that my passion is tikkun olam, in terms of bringing my skills into the non-profit world. I wanted to contribute in helping ensure Jewish continuity and improving our world. I think each of us has a short time to live on this earth, and we have to do things during that precious time that are meaningful to us. My love of Israel and my love of the Jewish people truly defines who I am as a human being, as a father, as a spouse, and as a professional.
There are Jewish values that are completely woven into our being. Among them is the imperative to improve our world. I would even consider that an 11th commandment—"Thou shalt improve the world.” I also believe in kindness, in just giving to others, what we call chessed. And I believe in tzedakah—righteousness, not charity—but what we interpret as financially supporting institutions and causes that are important to us. I believe the Torah and all Judaism’s teachings contain great wisdom. We are part of a long chain of Jewish life and history, and I’m determined that during my time on this earth, that chain won’t be broken.
You are also a child of Holocaust survivors.
The fact that my parents were Holocaust survivors and that there were very few surviving family members after the Shoah very much influenced my decision to go into this type of work. My father has a sister who lives in Israel and that was also an important part of my decision to play a very active role in pro-Israel politics and support Israel and the Jewish community more generally.
In what way is Israel’s survival dependent on the support of American Jewry?
Personally, being an active and caring Jew means many things, but among the most important is ensuring that Israel has our spiritual, political, and financial support. For thousands of years, there was no Israel, there was no home, there was no refuge, a circumstance which resulted in pogroms, murders, and eventually the Shoah. That history can never be repeated. The Jewish people need a Jewish homeland to ensure its own destiny and future.
Switching to a more personal note, what is your favorite Jewish holiday?
Sukkot used to be my favorite holiday, but now that my kids are adults, Passover has become my favorite. On Passover, we can have really insightful conversations about the meaning of freedom and how slavery pervades societies in so many different ways, whether being a slave to your work, a slave to social media, or unfortunately, human trafficking.
What do you like to do for fun?
I love spending time with my family, traveling locally and abroad, and photography. (Check out Ralph's personal Facebook page to see samples of his photography.)
You can reach Ralph at RGrunewald@JewishHowardCounty.org or 410-730-4976 x 102.