JULY 13, 2017 – When people talk about fundraising for Jewish charities on the North Shore and in Greater Boston, Flori Schwartz’s name is usually one of the first mentioned. For the last 32 years, she’s worked tirelessly for Jewish organizations, including Cohen Hillel Academy, the Anti-Defamation League, and currently for Combined Jewish Philanthropies. A native of Great Neck, NY, she moved with her husband, Dr. David Schwartz, to the North Shore 32 years ago and lives in Swampscott. She is the mother of Jeffrey, Avra, and Abby, and has a grandson, Alexander.
Flori, could you tell us about growing up in Great Neck?
My father was a doctor, an internist, who made house calls. My family belonged to a temple but we weren’t really engaged in the Jewish community other than going to High Holiday services. I met my husband while we were at the University of Rochester. And then I met his family, and Jewish life was part of their everyday life, and that’s where my engagement with the Jewish community started. My Jewish identity has been very strong since I married my husband. David grew up in a very observant household. His parents were both presidents of the temple at different times, and his mother taught Sunday school. I think his parents – especially his mother – became role models for me in terms of Jewish identity and the Jewish family.
Originally, you planned to become a doctor?
Yes. I thought I would become a doctor but I realized that it was my father’s dream and not mine.
Why did you move to the North Shore?
It was a career opportunity for David – he joined a practice affiliated with Beverly Hospital. We moved from Philadelphia, where we both worked at the University of Pennsylvania. He was teaching at the medical school and I also worked for the university and my first career was in the public health arena. I did a combination of research and administration there.
So, I was thrown into this community and I was looking for something, and I walked into the basement of the old Temple Israel in Swampscott, which was then Hillel Academy. It was 1985 and I met Bennett and Sue Solomon. Bennett was the head of the school. I said ‘I’m a stranger in a strange land’ and I was not happy about this move, and he was reassuring and said, ‘Hillel will be your home and family and the Jewish community will embrace you,’ and that began my love affair with the Jewish community. We sent all of our children to Hillel.
How did you get into fundraising?
I started volunteering for Hillel, and I started working on the idea of holding an annual Hillel gala concert. That actually began in 1988 after Bennett died. The concert was Peter, Paul and Mary at the North Shore Music Theatre, and we sold out the 1,800 seats. I got to introduce them on stage, and Peter Yarrow dedicated the song “Light One Candle” to the memory of Bennett. Bennett died during Hanukkah in 1987. He was just 37.
At the same time, I started doing freelance grant writing for the Jewish Vocational Services of the North Shore. And that was the time of the big Russian immigration, so we were writing grants in support of the new Americans who were coming.
You had an opportunity to work with the late Lenny Zakim at the Anti-Defamation League. Could you tell us about Lenny?
He was inspiring, he was tenacious, and he was stubborn but in a good way. If he believed in something he was unyielding – he was smart, articulate, and very passionate. He was also sick then. He definitely made a mark; it was very emotional to work there. I learned a lot. Once, somebody complained to him. And he said, ‘Look, I come to work every day knowing I’m dying and I still get my work done and more. If you sit around and say I can’t or I feel sorry for myself, then what good is that?’ He believed that if something was important, you’ve got to make it work. He believed that if there’s a roadblock, then one should go around it or go to people who can help you figure it out.
How is it to work with Barry Shrage, and what have you learned from him?
Barry is a joy to work with and an inspiration to the staff as well as the community. There are over 150 people who work at CJP and he treats every one of us with respect – regardless of our job title/position. Barry has a tremendous thirst for knowledge. He is always learning and reading. Barry really believes in every one of us, which inspires us in the work we do. He is comfortable quoting biblical texts, the Founding Fathers, or lyrics from the Broadway smash ‘Hamilton.’
You’ve worked with Bennett Solomon, Lenny Zakim, and Barry Shrage – three prominent Jewish leaders in New England over the years. Do you see any similarities or common threads/ideologies between the three?
All three of these men were brilliant leaders in their field – all were among the most passionate and compassionate individuals I have ever met. They all truly loved their work. It was and is more than just a job. They were forward thinking visionaries as well as being Jewish community leaders.
Why are you so passionate about the Jewish community and fundraising?
The Jewish community became my family when we moved to the North Shore in 1985. I care about my ‘family’ … I want to do everything in my power to ensure that our community is strong, healthy, and stable. Obviously, our community – the North Shore and beyond – needs financial support. We need to care for people who can’t care for themselves. We need to educate and engage people, including the next generation. We need to promote social justice for all people and we need to support our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world. I think that every fundraising job I have held has focused on at least one of these areas. This has made my job much easier.
Additionally, as much as I have given – through work, volunteering, and financial contributions – I have gotten so much back. I have met some of the finest people through my work – both professional and as a lay leader. Many of these people started as my mentors and evolved into wonderful friends – part of my extended family.