Laura Schroff opens her book, An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny, with a proverb that underscores the strength of Women’s Philanthropy in Orange County. Indeed, beyond friendship and good deeds, the scope of the work of Women’s Philanthropy of Jewish Federation & Family Services (JFFS) stretches far and wide. Whether it is a knitting group, reading volunteers, a genuine smile, or writing a check, it is in the act of doing and the depth of passion and dedication which is the thread that connects Women’s Philanthropy, as reflected in the message for this year’s Women’s Voices luncheon: “AN INVISIBLE THREAD: Women’s Philanthropy is your link to community, lasting friendships, and the opportunity to do the extraordinary.”
On March, 14, 2016, Schroff will be the keynote speaker at the Women’s Philanthropy of Jewish Federation & Family Services’ Women’s Voices Luncheon. A former advertising sales executive, Schroff’s story speaks to the power of small acts of kindness. As with the opening proverb, the final words in Schroff’s book are both striking and fitting: “[I learned] the true definition of ‘lunch in a brown paper bag’… the bag is only brown paper, but what’s put inside is something we all call ‘love.’ I hope it will inspire you to think about how small acts of kindness can make a difference.” Without a doubt, one can also look at the work done by Women’s Philanthropy through the same lens: the many acts of loving kindness by Orange County’s Jewish women have an impact beyond measure.
The Women’s Voices luncheon, the largest annual daytime gathering of Jewish women in Orange County, has honored women since 1987 and boasts top keynote speakers. This year the luncheon will honor another woman who has taken the opportunity to do the extraordinary, Toni Mandel McDonald. In addition to being this year’s Woman of the Year, Toni is the daughter of Women’s Voices 2002 Woman of the Year Natalie Mandel (z”l). Says McDonald, “This is the luncheon’s first Dor v’ Dor (generation to generation) honor–it is very exciting for me!” In addition to being excited about the award, McDonald expressed being “thrilled and surprised.”
This is not McDonald’s first Women’s Voices luncheon. For 10 years she and her husband of 26 years, Terry, have donated beautiful floral arrangements for the Women’s Voices luncheon tables. In addition, McDonald began attending Women’s Philanthropy luncheons with her mother. It was her mother who taught McDonald about philanthropy. When her mother passed away, McDonald stepped into the role, “Not a breath went by before I stepped in.” According to Women’s Philanthropy President, Lori Schwartz, “Toni is so committed to our community as evidenced by her support of so many non-profit organizations. Her dedication to the Women’s Philanthropy Board and to Mandel House is inspiring. Her drive to give back to this community is limitless.”
Not only has McDonald learned about philanthropy, she has learned how to be a friend. “I’ve made friends I never thought I would have… Women’s Philanthropy has opened up a whole new world for me, and given me an entirely different life than what I could ever have had.”
McDonald comes from a family of philanthropy. Raised in California, she is a third generation Californian and the daughter of parents who believed in supporting the community. Sadly, her parents passed away in 2006. “When my father passed away he wanted money to go to people with [special needs].” McDonald, her husband Terry, and her brother Richard Mandel (along with his wife Andi) decided to create a home for Jewish people with special needs; they were instrumental in establishing the Mandel House (Orange County’s first Jewish residential home for adults with special needs). “It is a dream come true!” says McDonald. A dream in which she and her family continue to stay involved.
McDonald does not limit her time to JFFS; she is also a Heritage Pointe board member and Friends of Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter board member. Toni supports Working Wardrobes, Barclay Theater, the Community Scholar Program, Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater, and Chabad of San Clemente & Newport Beach, and is a member of Temple Beth El and Temple Beth Sholom.
When asked if she read the book, McDonald replied with an emphatic “YES.” Not only did she enjoy the book, she shared that during her time as a substitute teacher she worked with disadvantaged children, volunteering to help children read after a long day of teaching.
And the thread continues…
Women’s Voices is co-chaired by Nadine Durbach and Sherri Winkler. Winkler says, “It is a huge honor. I feel very committed to Women’s Philanthropy and Women’s Voices. It is a great opportunity to bring women from the broader community together for a common purpose.”
In addition to bringing women together for a common purpose, Durbach believes Women’s Voices is “my generation’s responsibility to build upon what has been established. Women’s Voices is a great vehicle for purposeful and meaningful collaboration and connection to each other, to our community and to Israel.”
The 2016 Women’s Voices Keynote Speaker, author Laura Schroff, was chosen for her simple but insightful story that powerfully applies to the Jewish community. We all have invisible threads that allow us to connect with each other. “Hers is a very Jewish message and a universal message,” says Durbach.
The book, a New York Times Bestseller, may also serve as a manual for friendship and humanity based on trust and kindness. Certainly, after reading the book it is highly unlikely that any of us will be able to walk down a street and look the other way. It is also a reminder of the impact we can all have in someone’s life—no matter how big or small the deed. An advertising executive who launched some of the most successful start-ups in Time Inc.’s history, Schroff’s story spans over 25 years and provides a lesson for all of us. In order to help, we have to soften our hearts and pull away from the need to look away from the dirty, disheveled and lost. When we think we have nothing in common with the panhandler or the homeless woman on the corner, that is when we need to remember the invisible thread that connects to those so seemingly different from us and fill the proverbial brown paper bag with love. As Schroff says in her book, “We live in a cynical world, and sometimes our cynicism gets in the way of seeing things for what they are.”
Acts of love and kindness and connection are what Women’s Philanthropy is all about. Last year in Orange County, Women’s Philanthropy raised over $1.5 million—25% of the total JFFS campaign, the Generations Fund—to support the organization’s work to care for people in need, to build a vibrant community, and to sustain and enhance Jewish life. Make a difference this year by joining Orange County Jewish women on March 14 at 10:00 a.m. at the Hotel Irvine.
Says Schwartz, “When attending a Women’s Voices luncheon of over 750 women who are there to reaffirm their commitment to supporting the righteous work of Jewish Federation & Family Services, there is no doubt how extraordinary the women of this Orange County community are.”
For more information on the Women’s Voices Luncheon, contact Eileen Garbutt at (949) 435-3484 ext. 336 or by email: Women@JFFS.org.
Lisa Grajewski, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist and adjunct Assistant Professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She has been a contributing writer for Jlife magazine since 2004.