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Meet Irv Rosenthal, BJ’s New President

By Susan Reimer-Torn | Issue Date: Fall 2014

Irv RosenthalAs of July 1, and for the next three years, Irvin Rosenthal is adding the responsibilities of President of BJ to the existing demands of his position as Chief Financial Officer of UJA-Federation. Irv brings his thoughtful reserved style, life-long concerns for the well being of the Jewish community, and proven expertise to both posts.

Trained as a lawyer, Irv served as a senior executive at Barneys New York, and then moved to his current position at UJA- Federation. Community service was a paramount value in the small town of Butler, Pennsylvania, where he was raised. Irv and his wife, Ruth Jarmul, came to New York in 1975 in search of a Jewish community with a small town feel. In 1989, they found what they were looking for at BJ.

“BJ was, of course, much smaller then than it is now,” Irv recalled. “We had our three daughters, Rebecca, Rachel and Sarah, at a time when there were far fewer families with children. In fact, 80 percent of new members joining BJ at the time were single.”

Irv served on the BJ board from 2001-2007, then again during the past two years. When asked why he stepped up to the presidency now, he quietly replied, “BJ has given a great deal to my family and to me. I welcome the opportunity to give back.”

When asked about his priorities, Irv emphasized the importance of the ongoing strategic planning process. As his term began, BJ members finished replying to a comprehensive survey that measured their views on a range of issues important to BJ’s future. “We had nearly 800 surveys completed, a response rate of almost 30 percent,” Irv notes with satisfaction.

When BJ’s strategic plan is completed in early 2015, new initiatives will be developed to implement it. “With the help of the survey and a wide-ranging environmental scan undertaken by the Strategic Planning committee, we will have some clear barometers of what matters to the BJ community,” said Irv. “We want the results to take into account members’ priorities, the rabbis’ vision, and the landscape of the larger Jewish world.”

When asked about challenges facing the BJ community, Irv cites the need for better communication. “A huge amount goes on at BJ that most people don’t know about unless they’re deeply involved,” he said. “The issue is not a lack of transparency; we just need more effective communication.”

A reconsidered response to intermarriage is another key challenge. “Today, most non-Orthodox Jews have the experience of intermarriage in their families, whether immediate or extended. We need to consider how to better integrate this reality into our community,” he noted. “While there are important halakhic questions involved, the rabbis and the community need to work together on this issue.”

Irv regrets that Israel, once a unifying force in the Jewish community, has become a divisive one. “These days, if we want to talk about the politics of Israel, we need to learn how to have difficult conversations, and that is something on our agenda,” Irv emphasized. “There are many other dimensions where we can strengthen BJ members’ connections to Israel, creating links so that we can learn from our Israeli counterparts and they can learn from us.”

When asked what he would consider BJ’s unique contributions to a crowded West Side synagogue scene, Irv replies in a well-considered tone, “At BJ, you can come on board wherever you are on your Jewish journey, but we will encourage you and help you to grow. We have authentic rabbis who value the questions as much as, if not more than, the answers. Then there is the music and the fact that we take both prayer and action very seriously.”

Irv especially points to BJ’s diversity, replying with marked equanimity to the question of whether the transformation of the West Side into an affluent neighborhood and the capital campaign for the Community House will not skew the community’s values. “Diversity is our strong suit,” Irv replied proudly. “BJ does not emphasize dedication plaques, even though people need to be thanked. We are not interested in living in a monoculture. Here, who you are and what you contribute to the community will always matter more than what you do for a living.”

Irv’s measured leadership during this time of BJ evolution will doubtless contribute much to our community for many years to come.

Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of the spiritual memoir Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return, available at West Side Judaica and online at susanreimertorn.com. She is a freelance journalist as well as a life coach and workshop facilitator. She and her husband Edmond, an art and estates consultant, have been BJ members for 12 years. They are active in the BJ/SPSA Homeless Shelter, Hevra Kadisha, and study groups. Susan is also on the planning committee for the 25th anniversary celebration of Standing Again at Sinai.