by Annette van de Kamp-Wright, Editor of the Jewish Press
The Phil and Terri Schrager Spirit of Federation Award is given on an annual basis to those community members who have gone above and beyond in their efforts to build community. Its recipients have demonstrated personal commitment, dedication and leadership to the Jewish Federation of Omaha and its agencies. It’s a way to recognize leadership and put a spotlight on those who have gone the extra mile.
Robust community engagement is the backbone of a Federation that not only functions, but also thrives. For that to happen, professionals need the support of lay leaders who are dedicated and passionate, and who are all in. This year’s recipients, Toba Cohen-Dunning and Rabbi Jonathan Gross have, each in their own ways, contributed to a successful Jewish Omaha.
Toba currently chairs the Planning and Community Engagement Committee. Its purpose is to provide strategic and long-range planning for our Federation. Before that, she was President of the Board of Directors of the Center for Jewish Life, was part of a JFO strategic planning group, and chaired the committee that organized the Jewish High School. She serves on the JFO Board, and the JSS Board of Directors. In addition, she serves on the Board of the Omaha Home for Boys.
However, there is more to Toba than her list of accomplishments, and it has to do with the way she embodies that “spirit” the Schrager Award was named for. She gets that, by sharing her time and expertise, she receives something even bigger in return: a thriving Jewish community.
Toba Cohen-Dunning is a classic lay leader; she has tremendous professional leadership qualities, such as organizational skills, the ability to process information quickly, decide where the problems are and recognize what needs to be done. In addition, Toba has built effective relationships. She has translated those skills to her work in the Jewish community. According to Toba, it goes both ways:
“Professionally, I feel fortunate to be the Executive Director of the Omaha Schools Foundation,” she says. “We not only support the 50,000 OPS students, but we help make changes in the community. It makes me a better administrator as I serve the directors of my agency’s board. In turn, it makes me a more conscientious volunteer. Sometimes we forget about the importance of what both the professional staff and the lay leadership bring to the table.”
Rabbi Jonathan Gross came to Omaha as Beth Israel’s rabbi in 2004; and from the very beginning, he was engaged with our community as a whole.
“In the last ten years I have learned that building community is all about supporting one another,” says Rabbi Gross. “According to the Talmud, every individual represents an entire world. A community is when we can simultaneously play a leading role in our own world while playing a strong supporting role in the world of our neighbor.
That means showing up and helping out, and it goes beyond the walls of one single building. It means handing out diplomas at our day school’s graduation, and it means keeping the dialogue going between different synagogues and organizations, and it means showing up at the monthly rabbis’ and presidents’ meeting. It also means putting up “welcome to the neighborhood” signs when another synagogue moves in right across the street from your own. For a functioning Federation such as ours, having rabbis who are engaged on many different levels is essential.”
Jay Noddle, JFO president says: “I think Rabbi Gross has been an enormous asset to our community, and he will be sorely missed when he moves to Baltimore later this month. I am excited about the opportunity to say thank you to both Toba Cohen-Dunning and Rabbi Gross. The Phil and Terri Schrager Spirit of Federation Award enables us to show our appreciation appropriately. Toba and Rabbi Gross have shown a level of community engagement that we should all aspire to.”
Cohen-Dunning added: “I am not only deeply honored to receive this award, but I am humbled by the fact that I get to share the moment with Rabbi Gross. He has meant so much to my entire family and to our community. I value the opportunity to be part of a dedicated group of people who want to ensure growth and longevity for the Federation and the Jewish community. It takes a village, and this is a GREAT village. Everyone is busy these days with work, family, etc. Take a minute and give a minute; it really is life changing.”
This year’s Phil and Terri Schrager Spirit of Federation awards will be handed out during the JFO Annual Meeting. This year’s event will be held Monday, June 2 at 7 p.m. in the Jewish Community Center’s Theater.