Despite COVID-19, Jewish Federation of Edmonton’s new CEO will hit the ground running

Stacey Leavitt-Wright is CEO of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton. She officially begins in January 2021.

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – As the torch is passed by outgoing CEO Debby Shoctor to Stacey Leavitt-Wright, Jewish Federation of Edmonton has extended its practice of hiring from within the community, but with a difference says Federation President Steve Shafir.

After an extensive search yielding a total of 11 local, national and even international applications, Leavitt Wright was the unanimous choice of Federation’s selection committee, comprised of Lisa Miller, David Eisenstat, Shea Pertman, Ram Romanovsky and Shafir.

“Wright was the right choice,” said Shafir.

The fact that Leavitt Wright hails from elsewhere and has a long track record of Jewish engagement in other communities and in Edmonton – including knowledge of how Federation operates – provides the best of both worlds, Shafir told AJN.

“Stacey is invested in Edmonton,” Shafir said.

When asked why she’s stepping into Jewish Edmonton’s top civil service position, Leavitt-Wright was unequivocal.

“Why wouldn’t I?  I’ve always felt, since I was a kid, that you create the community you want to live in.”

There was some happenstance involved in her decision to apply. Leavitt-Wright and her husband had been looking forward to taking their three daughters to Israel during her husband’s long-planned sabbatical.

“I was looking to regroup, get some inspiration and figure out what my next steps would be, both career-wise and as a volunteer,” Leavitt-Wright said.

But COVID-19 derailed the adventure.

“The things that got me through were Israeli TV, Jewish cooking sites, Jewish engagement webinars and services online . . . . This is all the stuff I’m passionate about and enjoy,” said Leavitt-Wright.

“All the roads have led me here. This is what I need to be doing,” she said of her new professional calling. Those roads include impressive educational credentials and career experience including a BComm in international businesses and an MA from Concordia University. She is a Myers-Briggs type certified trainer and has led workshops in leadership development and conflict management, “helping people to play nice together in the sandbox,” quips Leavitt-Wright of the qualification that will, no doubt, prove most useful in the Jewish civil service.

Leavitt-Wright sees Federation as the “. . . umbrella that brings the community together,” adding that it is also important to maintain the local community’s “. . . constant connection nationally and in Israel.

Growing up in Montreal it was easy to feel a part of the Jewish community, said Leavitt-Wright. “It was Judaism by osmosis . . . . You could be Jewish just by showing up.”

Having since lived and volunteered in less populous Jewish communities, she is keenly aware that considerably more effort is required to sustain and enrich Jewish lives in smaller centres.

Leavitt-Wright’s formative Montreal Jewish experiences included summer camp and a high school social action group that led to volunteering at Maimonides Hospital, a home for Jewish seniors. Her first job was at the Auberge Shalom, a National Council of Jewish Women shelter for abused women.

Shortly after they married, Leavitt-Wright and her husband moved to London, Ontario which had a Jewish population of about 2,500.  There, they began their family.

“We supported each other,” Leavitt Wright recalls of the tightly-knit Jewish community.

Her first leadership role was at the London Community Hebrew Day School.

“I phoned the president to complain about something.  Next thing I knew I was on the Board.”

“That could be my tagline,” quips Leavitt-Wright. “Be prepared. If you’re going to call me with a complaint, you’re going to be on a committee.”

Leavitt-Wright went on to volunteer at Congregation Or Shalom – London’s Conservative Synagogue – where she served on the Rabbi Search Committee.

One of Leavitt-Wright’s most memorable experiences was her participation in a national young leaders’ mission to Moscow. She was inspired by the work done on behalf of Jews in Russia and enjoyed networking with some impressive peers from across Canada.

“It was nice coming to a bigger city,” Leavitt-Wright recalls following her family’s move from London to Edmonton in 2007. She became active as a volunteer in the Talmud Torah pre-school which, at that time, was parent-run, eventually joining the TT board and taking on a major role in organizing the school’s massive 100th Anniversary celebrations in 2012.

Leavitt-Wright joined the Aviv Dancers, helping to establish that organization’s board of directors and attaining society status. Taking things up a notch, she co-founded the annual Festival Hatzafon.  On the Synagogue front, she served on the Beth Shalom search committee that led to the hiring of former spiritual leader Rabbi Kliel Rose.

Her service on the Jewish Federation board and executive, and two consecutive stints as UJA campaign chair (2014-2016), will stand Leavitt-Wright in good stead as she looks to governance and fundraising from a professional perspective.

“Every role I’ve had I’ve learned something from,” said Leavitt-Wright who is grateful for the “dedicated, passionate people” she’s met along the way.

“Stacey is a community builder,” said Shafir of his new CEO.

“Stacey is a community builder. Everywhere she’s gone and everything she’s done in this community has been to build community, to bring people together, to invoke enthusiasm in projects, either existing or new . . . . We are really looking forward to her enthusiasm and seeing what she can do.”

Shafir has stayed on longer than his original mandate as Federation president to provide continuity during the professional handover and a pandemic that has impacted the Jewish community resulting in a significantly reduced Federation staff, resignations by some board members and fundraising concerns.

Shafir expressed gratitude for the strong professionalism and management of Debby Shoctor who has served Federation as CEO for six and a half years.

Debby is second to none in the Federation system,” Shafir told AJNews.

“I want to thank Debby for everything she’s done,” added Shafir, praising Shoctor’s role in professionalizing and streamlining Federation operations and “. . . keeping Jewish life at the forefront” in Jewish Edmonton.

Shoctor, who moved to Edmonton 33 years ago to work for B’nai Brith Canada as Western Regional Director, has served an astonishing number of organizations as a Jewish communal professional and/or a professional Jewish community volunteer, among them Hadassah-WIZO and Jewish National Fund.  Prior to taking on the CEO position at Federation, she was the archivist at the Jewish Archive and Historical Society of Edmonton and Northern Alberta for over 13 years and served as a Federation VP and a UJA volunteer.

“She is an unsung hero,” says her successor, Leavitt-Wright, adding that Shoctor has given the community “tremendous leadership” while providing “a strong foundation to build from.”

Federation highlights during Shoctor’s tenure as CEO included the successful solicitation of major gifts that led to the permanent endowment of the Belzberg Family and Jewish Federation of Edmonton Professorship in Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta as well as a significant Holocaust education fund named in memory of her predecessor, Russ Joseph, of blessed memory, who was a mentor to both Shoctor and Leavitt-Wright.

The Jewish Federation of Edmonton Integrated Bursary Program – based on Calgary Jewish Federation’s model – was very successful due, in large part, to Shoctor’s effective management, Shafir said.

Shafir notes that, like Shoctor, Leavitt-Wright is “invested in Edmonton” and can hit the ground running due to her already deep knowledge of, and commitment to, her community.

Leavitt-Wright has already begun the journey while Shoctor has graciously agreed to provide guidance and mentorship through to her retirement at the beginning of January.

By all accounts, Leavitt-Wright has the right credentials and experience but, according to Shoctor, the most important prerequisite is her “Jewish heart.”

“It’s a privilege and honour to work for the community,” says Shoctor who, nonetheless, admits some fatigue after more than six years in the professional hot seat.

“What you hope to accomplish is to leave things better than they were when you got here.  I think that’s the case,” adds Shoctor, who takes pride in having brought Federation “into the 21st century,” establishing processes and procedures that are the bedrock of good management and streamlining operations.

“We are very lucky that we have the community we have. . . .We just have to keep it going for the next generation,” Shoctor adds.

She urges a warm welcome from Jewish Edmonton for their newly minted Federation CEO.

“Give her guidance and encouragement and positive rather than negative [feedback] and give her time to learn what’s going on,” suggests Shoctor.  “There is a bit of restructuring going on and things are not going to be exactly as they were and that has nothing to do with her.  It has to do with the economy and the pandemic.  Things are really changing.”

Edmonton isn’t alone in those shifting sands, said Shoctor, alluding to restructuring plans currently evolving at the national level involving Jewish Federations of Canada – United Israel Appeal (JFC-UIA) and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

Eyes wide open, Leavitt-Wright acknowledges there will be a learning curve.  She feels strength in the potential of the community and exudes enthusiasm about tackling the challenges.

“For its size, this community really packs a punch in what it offers and what we have established here,” Leavitt-Wright says.

“There’s a lot going on and it takes a lot of people to pull that together as well. . . . We have a vibrant community here.”

“My challenge and my joy will be to pull people together . . .  and to see them collaborate a little bit more.  It very much depends on how people are willing and wanting to engaged,” adds Leavitt-Wright, pointing to the community’s long-standing and enthusiastic participation in Heritage Days and Festival Hatzafon, celebrations that bring the community together.

“My vision is that we have a continued, vibrant, engaged community, that we have volunteers of all ages and stages wanting to show up, that we find roles for them and bring together our institutions in a collaborative way.”

In order to do that, Leavitt-Wright is looking forward to conducting a listening tour in order to get to know community members better and to find out what’s motivating them while, also turning her attention to other key priorities including fundraising and board development

COVID is a challenge, says Leavitt-Wright who sees an opportunity to rethink how the community does things.  “There are a lot of vulnerable people right now . . . we have to find ways of responding and helping each other out.”

While acting locally, Leavitt-Wright will also be thinking globally about how Jewish Edmonton connects with communities across Canada and in Israel – always, she says, with a view to solutions that make sense for her Edmonton community.

“We should be inclusive and we should connect people to one another,” she says.  That’s what makes us stronger.”

That’s the Wright stuff.  So let’s Leavitt at that!

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News.

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