Summer 2019 New Mexico Jewish Link
Executive Director’s Corner
“Reflections and Farewells”
By Zach Benjamin
In the spring of 2015, my attention was drawn to the remarkable Jewish community of New Mexico, which sought a new executive director for its Jewish Federation. At the time, I was seated at my desk high above Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, where I was overseeing revenue-generating international partnerships and global governance structures for one of the world’s largest trade associations.
For several years, I had known in my kishkes that I could not watch idly as the under-informed sniped at each other in semi-anonymous online spaces and more conspicuous print and television outlets, perpetuating increasingly hostile and false narratives about Jews and Israel, a people and a land so central to my identity.
That summer, I was offered and was deeply humbled to accept the position with the Jewish Federation of New Mexico. My wife, Taina, and I relocated to the Land of Enchantment—a state that I had not visited since I was 12, and a place in which Taina had never previously set foot—fulfilling our vision of a life lived in service to the Jewish people. The past four years have been transformative for us, affording us the honor of joining a community with an incomparably rich, diverse, and fascinating Jewish history.
So, it is with mixed emotions that I announce that I will leave my position with our federation in June to start a new chapter in Southern California, where I have been named the next CEO of the Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Long Beach and West Orange County.
While I will be physically moving on, a piece of my Jewish soul will remain firmly planted in New Mexico’s red high desert soil, hopefully helping to keep the landscape fertile for vibrant, sustainable Jewish life to thrive here for generations to come. I can report unequivocally and with confidence that the future of Jewish New Mexico is even brighter than its long, colorful past.
Coming from the large Jewish community of Chicago, Taina and I found in New Mexico a healthy, robust oasis of Jewish life in the Desert Southwest. We enthusiastically joined a growing Jewish community, rich with dedicated leaders and blessed with Jewish institutions whose deep roots are nourished by a history that is like none other in the vast Jewish Diaspora.
I am proud of how this community has evolved during my time here. I have seen siloes collapse, giving way to open, diverse, collaborative Jewish spaces in which institutions and their leaders thrive productively in those areas where they enjoy common ground. Yiddishkeit, rather than mere survival instinct, is the engine that drives the Jewish communities of New Mexico, raising the tide for all who wish to pursue Jewish life here.
The Jewish Federation of New Mexico has achieved unprecedented strategic and tactical benchmarks these past several years, including historic growth in fundraising and distribution, delivery of services, and expansion of our footprint to fulfill our statewide mission. Most importantly, however, Federation has successfully reset its narrative and posture toward our Jewish communities, bringing together Jewish New Mexicans of all stripes, facilitating dialogue, encouraging communication, and helping to create a spirit of collaborative service to the Jewish people of New Mexico, from Albuquerque and Santa Fe to Taos and Las Vegas, and beyond.
I hope that, for my small part, I have been able to leave our corner of the Jewish world at least a little bit stronger than it was when I arrived. I hope that, along with our world-class lay leadership and my immensely talented professional colleagues, I have helped hold a mirror up to our Jewish communities, and that the image reflected back is one in which we can all take pride.
Yes, much work remains. However, I encourage each and every Jewish New Mexican to resist the temptation to dwell upon that which we lack, and instead to take joy and inspiration from the richness of resources that exists here. The potential of this community is as limitless as the imagination of its leaders.
I wish to extend my warmest thanks to every member of the Federation board with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to work, to our tremendous donors, and to the three presidents under whom I’ve been privileged to serve, including past presidents Sabra Minkus and Dr. Marvin Gottlieb. I am especially grateful to our current president, Dr. Ron Duncan Hart, not only for his vision and steady hand of leadership, but also for his grace and good humor as he takes on the search for the next executive director. Any success Federation enjoyed on my watch would have been impossible without the contributions of my immediate predecessor, Sam Sokolove. I was fortunate enough to stand on Sam’s shoulders, as well as those of past executive director Elisa Simon, community matriarch Mimi Efroymson, and a long list of selfless volunteer leaders who laid the foundation for Federation’s most recent achievements.
Finally, thank you to the Jewish and broader communities of New Mexico for embracing Taina, our daughter, Zoe, and me, and for supporting my and our board’s vision of a collaborative Jewish landscape. I look forward to watching from afar as you move from strength to strength.