Robin Hettleman Weinberg’s Path to the Presidency

Robin Hettleman Weinberg
Robin Hettleman Weinberg. Photo by David Stuck

How does someone become a “community person” — one of those perpetually busy people who attends a lot of meetings and is deeply involved in giving money and soliciting donations to Jewish causes?

Robin Hettleman Weinberg offers an example.

Having worked and volunteered in the nonprofit world extensively, this summer she became president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, a two-year position that sits atop the organization’s volunteer structure — with its executive committee and board and fundraising responsibilities — and works with CEO Gil Preuss, who heads Federation’s professional staff.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Weinberg lived in Pittsburgh and New York City before moving to the Washington area. At the Council on Foundations, she was director of communications for nearly a decade. In 2006, she co-founded the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation, a grantmaking organization rooted in Jewish values. A fan of the arts, she became a docent at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

At The Federation, Weinberg, 65, sat on a variety of committees, was a board member and held several vice presidencies — women’s philanthropy, donor engagement and stewardship — before becoming president.

“Robin brings a real deep understanding of The Federation itself,” Preuss says. “She has the unique ability to think across different parts of the organization.”

Rather than focusing on programs as individual initiatives, Weinberg looks at how they fit together, Preuss says.

She and her husband, Matthew, have three children and belong to Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County.

What has your path to the presidency been in the Jewish community?

I don’t think of it as a path, of getting from point A to point B. My path was circuitous. My path was curiosity.

My husband, Matthew, and I moved here from New York in ‘87. You know how some people move to a town and they connect with a [Jewish] federation? We didn’t do that. We were here for 10 years before someone said, “Hey, do you want to come to a program?” Which we did and thus began the path, without realizing it.

We participated in the Heritage program — a local offshoot of Wexner [to deepen the Jewish knowledge of Jewish community people]. And that’s where I went, “Wow, so this is what Jewish values are. This is what history is. This is what a community can look like.”

How does someone miss all that the first time?

For me, sometimes you have to be open to what you don’t know. I grew up in a family where every Friday night we had to be home. There was always a big table. Did we do the Kiddush? No. I was happy to say yes, and not “I don’t need that.” But prior to that, growing up in Pikesville, everything was Jewish. Family was important. My mother has three sisters. I’m one of four daughters. So women were huge in terms of power and agency.

The first thing I did here was sit on the board of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County. Then, when I did the Heritage program, I saw there was a whole other world. I was on the board of Panim [a Washington-based nonprofit to encourage activism in Jewish youth]. When I stopped working full time, I started Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation, and I did that for 15 years. And that was as a volunteer.

Federation gave me the chance to explore the totality of the community that I can’t even begin to do on my own.

Robin Hettleman Weinberg (center) checks in with Federation staffers Sharon Sherry (right) and Dana Bornstein. Photo by David Stuck

Federations have been on their own journey at the same time. The core work that Federations do are essentially the same…

That’s the magic. How are we the same, but how can we be different?

With [CEO Gil Preuss] Gil, what I’ve seen is, even with a big ship like Federation, he’s willing to pivot and say, “I’ve got to focus.”

All of a sudden, a group of donors comes to him and says, “You need to think about mental health issues.” OK, let’s put a task force together. Let’s think about what that looks like. What are the resources that organizations can be using to support constituencies with mental health issues, especially teens?

In some ways, the Jewish community doesn’t see that activity. Federations always had a hard time being seen. They were in the back of the store ― planning and fundraising and allocating. But at the front counter, you don’t see the federation. Over the last few decades, federations have begun to move out front. One example locally is Gil’s weekly column. There he is in the inbox with The Federation viewpoint. So now we can see it. There’s more branding going on recently.

To that point, one of the things I want to do in the next two years is communication. In the sense of who we are as a [community] partner. How we can showcase and spotlight all the amazing things that are going on in this community. And how Federation is supporting that and partnering with that. How Federation is thinking about NextGen [young adults], and what are the organizations out there that we can help support.

Federation is still in that space post-pandemic, still dealing with vulnerable populations, still thinking of families with 0-3-year-old children. They need to build community and how can Federation support that?

What does Federation seem to be evolving into?

They’re laying the groundwork for being a space where people are comfortable coming, offering ideas, not feeling like they’re not welcome. They’ve done a lot with belonging, with working with synagogues, the JCCs. Federation has really doubled down on Next Generation. They’re designing programs along the lines of, Who am I? My values? My identity?

In the past, when we learned from generation to generation, it was, “This is what the past taught me in terms of values and wisdom.” At least for me, I am in awe of what I am learning from the people younger than me.

What I’ve been hearing, this generation is saying, “I want to think about philanthropy differently”, and I think that Federation is listening to that, putting it into place and saying, “How about this?”

What is Jewish community to you?

It’s a space where we’re all curious, learning. We’re open. I want everyone to feel, “I’m proud of who I am.” And I’m still exploring that. Every day, if I’m not learning something, challenged by something, wrestling with something ― if we’re not doing that, then we’re not growing. ■

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