“I grew up on tango, matzo balls & southern hospitality,” was the line that particularly stood out in one interview. The whole room laughed and immediately perked up. But let’s back up to almost one year ago today when Howard Mirowitz was tasked with the responsibility of forming the Jewish Federation & Family Services (JFFS) CEO Search Committee. The committee consisted of nine members from all walks of Jewish life; the fact that this diverse group of people came together because they want JFFS to be the best it can be shows how invested they are in this community.
With the guidance of Carin Maher at the Jewish Federations of North America Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence and her management of the search process—during which over 50 candidates were identified—JFFS held meetings with constituent focus groups from all over Orange County, including the Board of Rabbis, Chabad rabbis, & Community Partners. The Search Committee carefully considered all input gathered from these meetings, which confirmed their unanimous recommendation to the JFFS Board of Directors to offer Arlene Miller the position of President & CEO. What was unique about this process was that the organization really listened to the community and everyone felt like they had a voice, and a hand, in helping to choose who would lead JFFS—and the dialogue has just begun!
“Arlene understands Jewish philanthropy and this knowledge, coupled with her strong leadership skills and hamish personality, bode well for her transitioning JFFS into one of the most successful fundraising Federations in North America,” said Irv Chase, a member of the CEO Search Committee.
Originally from Atlanta, Arlene Miller comes to Orange County after an extraordinary five years as Chief Philanthropy Officer of Shalom Austin, an association of organizations that includes the Jewish Federation of Greater Austin, Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Community Center, and the Jewish Foundation of Austin & Central Texas. There, she led the launch of the Jewish Foundation of Austin & Central Texas from concept to reality, and the quiet phase of a multi-million dollar Capital campaign to advance the vision of the Dell Jewish Community Campus. “In the first six months of the launch, I secured $1 million in new assets, comprised of Donor Advised Funds and Endowment funds. The $25 million capital campaign to expand the JCC and the vision of the Dell Jewish Community Campus Generations Capital Campaign hit $10 million in December 2015,” said Miller. She deepened relationship building and donor engagement as the core principles of the community’s financial resource development strategy, among many other successes.
She returns to California, the state where she began her career as a Jewish professional with Hillel nearly 18 years ago. Miller has earned the respect and admiration of colleagues, donors and volunteers throughout the country.
“An important function of the Jewish Federation is fundraising. Arlene served successfully for five years as Chief Philanthropy Officer in Austin, Texas. Also her demonstrated leadership and managerial experiences, coupled with great people skills, made her my number one candidate to serve as our CEO,” said Ralph Stern who was also on the CEO Search Committee.
Jlife Magazine recently sat down with her to find out about the woman behind the title and learn a little bit about her past and what opportunities lay ahead for JFFS and the greater Orange County community.
Her story begins in the late 1800s in southwestern Russia, now Ukraine and Poland. There was a wave of anti-Jewish protests, or pogroms, which swept through the area. To save Jewish lives, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a German-Jewish philanthropist, established farming communities in South America. In 1889 he funded the voyage of 892 Jews from Kamenetz-Podolsk, Ukraine on the S.S. Weser to become gauchos (cowboys) in the northern Argentinian town of Moisés Ville (the Village of Moses). “My maternal and paternal grandparents were on that boat. It is because of the vision of a Jewish philanthropist, Baron de Hirsch, that I am here today. I am indebted to him and what he stood for and am honored to pay it forward. I believe in the power of community and I believe in people. When you’re doing something Jewish you don’t do it alone. It takes two people for havruta [Jewish text study] and ten for minyan [the quorum needed for Jewish prayer]. When you’re part of a community, and especially in my role as the leader for JFFS, you don’t act alone— you must act with other people.”
When asked about her role as CEO and what she plans to bring to JFFS she said, “As the CEO, I serve as the ambassador or face of JFFS. It’s important to me that I am both interested in the people of our community but also interesting to them so I work hard to have a life outside of the workplace. A quote that I live by and that I think about with regards to my involvement with the Jewish community is the Maya Angelou quote, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ Judaism isn’t just about the words—it’s about actions and what you do. Judaism is how we live our lives.”
It is clear that her work inspires her family and parenting and her children inspire her work in the Jewish community. She has such a warm, engaging personality that I almost forget this is a formal interview. When we bring up her children she absolutely lights right up! “I have 2 beautiful children, Max (10) and Sophia (6). Our favorite bedtime books are from PJ Library. These books changed everything at home for the kids. We learn together about Israel, about helping others, taking care of our environment, and the stories of our Jewish holidays. Max was reading the book “A Sweet Passover” which tells the story of a little girl learning to make matzah brei. The back of the book had a recipe for the brei and Max decided he wanted to make it. Out came the eggs, matzah, milk, sugar and the pan. Because of his PJ Library experience, Max single-handedly pulled off making a batch of matzah brei…and he ate it!”
At the end of all my interviews, my favorite question is what’s the best piece of advice you were given? The advice she holds close to her was learned from the leadership of Women’s Philanthropy. Time and time again, Arlene heard generous women share their conviction that it is a gift to give. So simple yet so profound. “Giving is an action inspired by our Jewish value of tzedek – justice. Giving helps others and the act itself can bring one immeasurable benefits. In today’s world giving of money and resources is critical but just as important are time and talent.”
Heather Kline, the President of Women’s Philanthropy of JFFS, was on the Search Committee and commented, “The committee was enthusiastically unified in its decision to have Arlene Miller lead OC as our new CEO. Her vast fundraising experience, seasoned natural ability to connect and collaborate with a team, and enthusiasm make her the perfect leader for JFFS to achieve even greater progress toward accomplishing our mission. I can’t wait to get to work with her!” I, for one, second Heather’s sentiments and can’t wait to work with her! For more information about JFFS and Arlene Miller please visit the JFFS website at JewishOC.org.