Admittedly, being born in North Carolina and spending the first part of one’s life at the Andrews Air Force Base, located in Maryland, is not very conducive to a religious Jewish upbringing. For Susan Holzman Wachsstock, whose family was unaffiliated, growing up without a Jewish community or the typical resources of an observant Jewish lifestyle wasn’t of primary concern. How ironic, then, that in her new position as the Associate International Director for NCSY, the international youth organization of the Orthodox Union, she deals with the mission of bringing teens closer to observant Judaism every day.
Susan, who spent time at the air force base because her physician father was serving the U.S. military in a medical role, didn’t have to wait too long to be immersed in a Jewish community: the family soon moved to the Miami area, with its large Jewish population. Susan spent her formative years there, and, despite the fact that her family remained unobservant, said she always felt a strong association with Judaism. However, it wasn’t until after she graduated from Palmetto Senior High School, a local public school, and began attending the University of Miami, that she really became deeply involved in exploring her Jewish heritage.
A Search for Jewish Identity
“At the University of Miami, I was introduced to Hillel and quickly became involved in the organization, which at the time was associated with B’nai Brith,” said Susan, who served on Hillel’s student board as well as the International Board of Directors for B’nai Brith/Hillel. “That experience, in a sense, sparked my real search for my Jewish roots.”
The summer before her senior year of college, Susan decided to intensify her Jewish education and traveled to Brandeis Collegiate Institute, a rigorous 26-day summer program in California featuring Jewish learning and communal activities. That time in California impacted her so much that upon graduation (from which she emerged with a degree in organizational communications and religious studies), she returned to California to begin a more intense education of her heritage and religion.
During this time, she became close friends with Rabbi Daniel Lerner, then the Regional Director of West Coast NCSY, and his wife Alison, who lived in her building. “I spent many a Shabbat afternoon debating and discussing the different aspects of observant Judaism with Rabbi Lerner,” said Susan. “I credit the Lerners with helping me along on my road to religious Judaism, because our discussions made me realize that I wanted to really spend some time learning more about what it means to be a religious Jew.”
Committed to her decision, Susan took off for a year in Israel, despite the fact that she had no friends or family there. She spent a year learning at Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a co-educational, Orthodox yeshiva that sponsored cultural activities as well. At that point, Susan was observing the laws of Shabbat and kashrut.
From Jerusalem, Susan continued on to another traditional enclave of Judaism, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, though it was more for educational reasons than social purposes. Susan attended a two-year dual master’s program of Columbia University in which students earn a Master’s Degree in both social work and Jewish Studies. At Columbia, Susan joined the Social Administration track, confident that she wanted to have a role in the realm of management in a Jewish organization. She was quickly awarded both the FEREP and the Michel fellowships during her second year of the joint graduate program, which meant committing to work at the UJA-Federation of New York upon her graduation.
Working under Jeffrey Solomon, then the Chief Operating Officer of UJA-Federation, Susan coordinated a variety of projects and internal communication. Her work so impressed her superiors that she was enlisted to help manage a major merger the UJA-Federation was undergoing with the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF) and United Israel Appeal, to become formally known as the United Jewish Communities (UJC).
At UJA-Federation, Susan came into contact with David Frankel, then its Director of the Young Leadership Division. Mr. Frankel, who went on to become Associate International Director of NCSY and is now the Chief Operating Officer of the Orthodox Union, would be instrumental in bringing Susan to the OU later on.
A Homecoming of Sorts
Susan, who met her husband, attorney Charlie Wachsstock, in their Upper West Side neighborhood (perhaps the true mark of a Modern Orthodox Jew), then accepted a job with the Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. The organization’s headquarters are based in Washington, D.C., and so the newlyweds packed up and moved to our nation’s capital.
Susan commented, “It was really gratifying for me to work for Hillel, which in a sense is ‘my first love.’ Working for Hillel was the culmination of what I originally envisioned myself doing when I was first starting off in my professional career, especially as it possessed a personal element for me because it helped me reach the religious level where I currently stand.”
At Hillel, which was then headed by Richard Joel, Susan was Director of Accreditation. The role meant setting the national standards for how all Hillels should be run, and traveling to the different Hillel campuses around the country to make sure they are being carried out effectively and smoothly. After four years at Hillel and numerous travels around the U.S., Susan moved to the Hillel office in New York. By that time, she and Charlie had two kids: Eliezer, better known as Ezzy, now six-and-a-half years old, and his sister Adara, now four-and-a-half. The family moved to White Plains, in Westchester County, and was soon joined by a third child, Meir, now two.
Back on New York ground, Susan soon moved from Hillel to Matan: Jewish Learning is for Everyone, an organization dedicated to creating solutions in Jewish special education, where she had an opportunity to become its Executive Director and thus further put her management skills into greater use.
When this spring, David Frankel was offered the position of Chief Operating Officer at the OU, he immediately thought of recruiting Susan as the new Associate Director of NCSY. David stated, “I was immediately impressed with Susan’s ability and professionalism while at UJA-Federation more than a decade ago. Though she was a fairly new professional at the time, she was almost instantly recruited to manage a major initiative with the UJA-Federation merger. Therefore, I’m particularly gratified to have played a significant role recruiting Susan to fill my former position as NCSY’s Associate International Director, and I’m confident that she will be a spectacular addition to the NCSY executive team.”
Rabbi Steven Burg, International Director of NCSY, declared, “I’m pleased that we were able to bring Susan on board to work with NCSY. She brings strong leadership skills and management of professional staff from her time at UJA-Federation, and wonderful outreach work to young Jews from her time at Hillel. I am certain that these skills will serve her well in her new position, and I look forward to working with her.”
Her former employers share Mr. Frankel’s and Rabbi Burg’s votes of confidence. Jeffrey Solomon, now President of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, said, “Susan combines a passionate concern for the individual with a deep and abiding love of Judaism and the Jewish people. She will be a precious asset in NCSY’s work with the next generation.”
And Richard Joel, now President of Yeshiva University, declared, “From her earliest professional moments Susan has been guided by a passion for the Jewish people and a passion for professionalism. We are fortunate to have her helping to guide our community.”
Susan admits she was initially uncertain about whether she wanted to switch over to the OU, happy as she was working for Matan, which also allowed her to work largely from home. But over time, the appeal of coming to the OU increased as she considered the fact that the mission of NCSY was one that strongly resonated with her.
“Because I traveled so much during my own journey to reach this level of observant Judaism, the opportunity to work with NCSY and have a large say in the daily coordination of the agency of the OU became very compelling to me. It’s not just a professional assignment for me, but a credible challenge and opportunity that personally resonates with me, and one that I am excited to be a part of.”
Not to be underestimated is the additional opportunity to make a mark in the realm of Orthodox Jewish women in high-profile roles. “I truly feel that there are not nearly enough female Jewish role models in the Orthodox world today,” notes Susan. “The fact that the OU was proud to welcome a woman to the role of Associate International Director for NCSY was a big draw for me.”
The only thing not a plus in her new role at OU headquarters in lower Manhattan? “My commute is a bit longer now,” says Susan dryly. “Although anything farther than my living room would be an increase in travel time for me.”