By Noreen Friedman
Tal and Steve Widdes are involved with a long list of Washington-area Jewish organizations, so much so that last summer, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington gave them its distinguished service award — individually and as a team, as professional and lay leaders. We wanted to know what motivates Tal, 65, and Steve, 68. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been involved with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the Jewish Social Service Agency, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, the Hebrew Home, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation and Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. It’s quite a list, and it isn’t even the whole list. What motivates you?
Tal: Both of us are very mission driven with our passion, very much connected to Judaism, the way we were raised. We were both drawn to the same fundamental values of tikkun olam [repairing the world], tzedakah [charity] and gemilut chasadim [act of loving kindness] that formed the foundation of our respective lives and our lives together. These values demand community involvement and action.
Tell me about your backgrounds.
Steve: I grew up at a traditional Orthodox synagogue in Duluth, Minn., the one whose building was recently destroyed in an arson fire [Adas Israel Congregation]. My grandfather was one of the congregation’s founders. As a youth, I taught Sunday school and was a counselor at a camp for underprivileged kids. In high school, I assumed I would become a social worker. However, during college at Drake University in Iowa, I determined that a law degree would afford me more options.
Tal: Originally from Israel, I spent about four years of my childhood in Central Africa. My physician father set up the main hospital in Malawi after the country gained its independence from Great Britain. Following his work in a similar position in Zambia, we settled in upstate New York.
In high school, I traveled to a nearby town to teach Hebrew school and worked with kids with disabilities at a summer camp. I obtained a master of public health degree from Yale, later moving to D.C. for an internship with the National Institute of Mental Health. After my first job with a consultant firm, I worked for Manor Care and then Marriott. At a certain point, I realized that I did not want to balance shareholder value with what is best for the people served. I joined JSSA as chief operating officer.
Since Tal’s retirement from JSSA in 2017, how have you continued your active roles in the community?
Steve: We have been involved with legacy arrangements and endowment funds to sustain, and hopefully grow, organizations such as JSSA and Suburban Hospital. Through my firm [Stein Sperling Bennett De Jong Driscoll PC], I am involved with Community Reach of Montgomery County, which provides services and advocacy for the homeless.
Tal: Upon retirement, I joined the JCRC board and was recently inducted as co-chair of Maryland’s Intergroup Relationships, which works with interfaith and other diversity groups. Through my connection to Identity Inc., which assists at-risk Latin youth and their families in Montgomery County, I am providing leadership mentoring to an amazing young Latina who was recently promoted to be director of finance.
Looking to the future, what aspect of community involvement really resonates with you?
Tal: Participation is down in synagogues and other Jewish organizations. Where will people turn for experiencing their Jewish spirituality? Even if we help traditional organizations, how will they attract young people?
Beyond financial viability, institutions must be creative to teach Jewish values. There are a lot of opportunities to get involved with an organization such as JSSA, but we need to create Jewish context for engagement in activities. There are outstanding leaders at organizations such as our Jewish federation who are thinking differently and pursuing new ways to connect and involve people in the community.
What do you do in your free time?
Tal: We enjoy spending time with family, including my 86-year-old mother who lives in the area, our three grown children and grandkids.
Steve: We like tennis and racquetball, going to the theater and watching local sports teams — plus the Minnesota Vikings.
On a recent trip to Minnesota for a junior high school reunion, I was approached by a guy in a wheelchair who I had not seen in over 50 years. He shared, “You don’t know how you changed my life!” He recounted that he played football and other boys picked on him for being relatively short. “You told me not to let them get to you; you’re a good guy and should be proud of who you are.” This really made my reunion trip rewarding. Sometimes, the smaller things that we do to help individuals are the best things.
Tal: When you do the right thing, you can really have a tremendous impact on people’s lives.
Noreen Friedman is a Washington-area writer.