Chappaqua resident works to ensure Jewish continuity by teaching Jews about Judaism and everyone about Israel.
Harriet Schleifer’s dedication to Jewish causes is rooted in a fundamental drive to ensure the future of the Jews.
“My parents were Holocaust survivors who were in forced labor camps,” said Schleifer, a resident of Chappaqua. “My father lost everybody in Treblinka; I have a very strong connection to Jewish identity and a strong feeling for Jewish continuity.”
Although Schleifer and her parents hadn’t been affiliated with any synagogue while she was growing up in Queens, she’s quite clear about her dedication to supporting Israel and the Jewish people.
Toward that end, Schleifer, who earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell, has two graduate degrees in education from the University of Virginia as well as a law degree from St. John’s University, has applied her considerable talents and skills to both local and national Jewish organizations, as well as other groups whose missions resonate with her passion to “help make a humane life for people.”
One way Schleifer does that is as a member of the board of governors of the American Jewish Committee (she also serves as a member of the board of directors for the AJC’s Westchester regional office).
“What attracted me to AJC is that it helps shape the destiny of the Jewish people so that it’s not about being a victim,” she said. Her focus is on Project Interchange, where she is the incoming chair.
Project Interchange is an educational institute of AJC that sponsors trips to Israel for a wide range of American, international and student leaders. Attendees come from a variety of fields including politics, journalism, diplomacy, science, clergy and civic organizations. Most of them are not Jewish and half of the 24 yearly trips are geared for non-Americans, to expand the program’s reach and impact.
“Israel is such a focal point in my family’s life,” said Schleifer, who is married with two adult sons. “Project Interchange is a concrete way to educate people. This is hands-on authentic education. It’s high level across the spectrum, in the areas of civil, political and religious realms.
“The point is allowing people to see for themselves and ask their questions, to go and learn for themselves, so they can understand the historical, economic, social and political fabric of today’s Israel, what shaped the narratives for Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis and Palestinians.”
Some notable alumni include Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami, House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Jerrilyn Dodds, dean of The College at Sarah Lawrence, participated in a trip earlier this winter. “It was an extraordinary experience: deep and complex,” she said in an email. “Project Interchange truly exposed us to experts from very diverse points of view, something that was appreciated by all. We were at times shocked, at times enlightened and at times saddened. I came away with a more complex, authentic picture of Israel, and for that I am very grateful.”
That’s precisely the kind of reaction Schleifer hopes to elicit.
“The understanding is more nuanced,” she said. “There’s an emotional piece.” And there’s a tangible impact, too, with various exchange programs between academic and cultural institutions emerging from these experiences, as well as professional relationships and networking opportunities.
Beyond AJC, Schleifer is also actively involved in other areas of Westchester’s Jewish life and community service. She’s currently president of Bet Torah synagogue in Mt. Kisco and vice-president of Chapel Haven, in New Haven, a school and organization that works to develop independence for adults with social and developmental disabilities. She’s the former president of the Westchester Jewish Council, was on the board of Westchester’s Student Advocacy Organization and is an active volunteer leader in the Chappaqua public schools.
At Bet Torah, her goal is to have “every congregant step into the building and leave knowing one more thing, and to live as much of a Jewish centered life, without judgment,” she said. That could include coming to a Friday night or Saturday morning service, learning a new chant, making a new synagogue friend, joining a synagogue book group or making Shabbat at home.
As Schleifer said, “I want it to be more a center of their lives, so the spark can be lit. That’s my goal. It’s the quality of the connection that will resonate.”
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