Soviet Jewry activist chosen to head BJE

David Waksberg was ready to return to the professional Jewish world after more than a decade in the private sector.

But when the Bureau of Jewish Education called him about the post of executive director, he said no.

At first. Then he thought about it.

The next day, he called them back to say he had reconsidered.

“One of the things I miss in the private sector is a sense that the work I do has a real positive impact on my community and on the world,” Waksberg said.

Waksberg, of Palo Alto, will become the BJE executive director in July. He replaces Bob Sherman, who left to direct the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.

Waksberg made a name for himself locally and abroad as the director of the Bay Area Council on Soviet Jews. He traveled to the Soviet Union, then Russia, countless times in the 1980s and 1990s, working to improve civil rights for Jews and helping re-establish Jewish communities that had been crushed under communism.

In San Francisco, he led numerous protests outside the Soviet consulate, calling for the release of refuseniks like Natan Sharansky. When Sharansky was finally freed, one of his first stops was San Francisco to thank Waksberg for his help.

In 1995 he wanted a change of pace and began working in business. He currently serves as vice president of Descartes Systems Group, an international company that makes computer software for delivery and transportation companies.

Waksberg and his wife Ellen Bob, co-owner of bob and bob in Los Altos, have three children, ages 22, 20 and 16. All three children attended Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. Waksberg has volunteered at the school often (he calls Jewish education “close to my heart”). He currently serves as the president at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto.

“With David, the bureau is not just getting somebody who is organizationally wise but experienced as a Jew — spiritually and intellectually, cognitively and emotionally,” said Barbara Wilson, who with Waksberg founded the Jewish Teen Alliance, now an initiative of the BJE.

“He’s a realist, not an idealist,” she added. “He’s going to take the community and the bureau staff and move it forward incrementally. He’s not going to bring a radical shift. He may have a vision of where it needs to be, but he has the patience and determination to bring the community along with him.”

The BJE did a nationwide search to replace Sherman, said Nanette Freedland, immediate past president of the Bureau and head of the search committee.

“We wanted the best person for the job and spoke to people all around the country, and even some from other countries,” she said. “How extraordinary that David is well respected in this community, has deep roots and support in community.”

Waksberg has thought about how to improve what he says is an already strong organization. But he’s reluctant to elaborate too much.

“I haven’t even started yet — what I really want to emphasize is my first order of business is to do a lot of listening,” he said. “What I learned in the private sector is how to listen to customers.”

He’s already started listening. He’s spoken to old friends — those who work in the Jewish community or with Jewish education — to bounce around ideas. He also wanted to make sure he wasn’t “nuts” to think about shifting gears and moving into an executive position at the BJE.

Waksberg has a few early goals. He wants to evaluate how the bureau works with each region, from Sonoma to Santa Clara counties, to ensure that it meets the needs of all communities.

Waksberg wants to develop stronger Israel education resources for teachers and parents. He’s pleased that the bureau has already started working on that this year.

He also would like to provide more resources to Jewish educators by starting something tentatively called a “post-denominational education advisory council.” The council would bring together Jewish and non-Jewish education experts from Bay Area universities and think tanks to guide Jewish educators.

Waksberg expects that his prior work experience will serve him well in his new post.

For instance, when he directed the Bay Area Council on Soviet Jews, he constantly had to fine-tune the organization’s approach to fit with the ever-shifting policies of the Soviet Union/Russia.

“There would be huge, earthquake-like ruptures to our movement and my role each time was to say, ‘We’re defined by our mission, not by the strategies we used to fight the last war. How do we fight the next war?'” he said.

Like Waksberg, Toby Rubin, an associate director at the bureau, came to her job with prior experience as an involved parent at her children’s day school. She believes Waksberg’s “outsider” point of view makes him an ideal captain of the bureau’s ship.

“Bringing someone into an organization who has a different lens, a different perspective, oftentimes can create greater understanding for the organization itself because new questions get asked,” Rubin said.

“And he’s a mensch, too.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.