My Federation Journey: Bluma Zuckerbrot-Finkelstein

by JCPConnect-

In early May, a contingent of Memphis Jewish Federation staff members traveled to Cleveland, OH for JPRO22, a conference for Jewish communal professionals – anyone who works for a Jewish nonprofit organization – in the US or Canada. At the morning plenary of the second day of the three-day program, a select few Jewish professionals from across North America were asked to speak about the unique career path that led each of them to do their important work strengthening Jewish communities.

Bluma Zuckerbrot-Finkelstein, Memphis Jewish Federation’s Chief Strategy Officer & Executive Vice President, was among those who spoke to the 1,200 professionals in attendance. The following is her story, in her words.

“Good Morning. I’m Bluma Zuckerbrot-Finkelstein from Memphis Jewish Federation.

When you signed up for this conference, I bet you didn’t expect to hear from someone who started out averse to working for a Jewish organization. Yes, you heard me correctly. After graduating with degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and recovering from 5 years of conjugating Arabic verbs, I set out to be a Middle Eastern Affairs analyst in any space, but the Jewish one.  

Look, I was highly engaged Jewishly, passionate about my identity as an Orthodox Jewish woman connected to the Jewish people and Israel. I just didn’t think I could get professional fulfillment from working in the Jewish world since my life was already so “Jewish.”

I stand before you today as Executive Vice President of Memphis Jewish Federation, and more importantly, as an inspired and fulfilled Jewish communal professional. How did I get here? After a friend connected me to a Middle East position in a national Jewish organization, I said, Ok, It’s my first job –  I will be a Middle East expert who happens to be working for a Jewish organization and then I will move on.

Surprisingly, I loved my time there. But I still didn’t consider myself a Jewish communal professional – like, I still wrote “Middle East expert” whenever I had to fill in my occupation on a form.

Fast forward to marriage and moving to Memphis. Something happened after I started working at Federation and engaging with a broad range of Jewish issues. I saw that I could actually effect meaningful change in people’s lives. I saw lights at the end of tunnels.

Identify issues, convene team members, problem-solve. Of course, it’s not always as easy or smooth as that but generally, yes, that’s how it works.

There was no one moment of epiphany. It was and is a slow and steady process with multiple moments like training seniors on iPads during lockdown, stimulating innovation by creating a second line grants process, bringing diverse Memphians together to fight antisemitism and hate when the Klan came to Memphis or for JFNA’s Shine A Light on Antisemitism initiative, helping a Shabbat observant college freshman obtain special permission to live off campus and, most recently, being part of a team that raised $500,000 for Ukraine.

These moments continue to inspire me. I now embrace my role working on behalf of the Jewish community. I will always be passionate about Israel and Middle Eastern Affairs. But those forms – I now proudly write “Jewish communal professional.”

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