The Influentials, Part 6

Jennifer Ross – President and CEO, Jewish Federation of Harrisburg

Jennifer Ross tells a story about the man who finds starfish stranded on the beach and starts throwing them back into the water. Someone says he can’t possibly help all the creatures, and the man, starfish in hand, responds, “No, but this one appreciates it.”

In the fall of 2016, Ross became the new president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Harrisburg, the venerable, multi-faceted organization that has helped countless individuals for 100 years and, in the process, helped build the entire region.

Ross has crafted a career among nonprofits – she had most recently been assistant director of development for Homeland Center – because they fit the values she lives by. The move to the Jewish Federation was a logical step, after years of volunteer service as a board member for the Jewish Federation and Jewish Family Service of Greater Harrisburg.

The Long Island, New York, native and Dickinson College graduate was raised by parents active in community causes, including their synagogue. She adheres to the social justice and volunteerism principles of tzedakah and tikkun olam, summarized in the adage, “If you save one life, you save the world. If you destroy one life, you destroy the world.”

The principles provide guidance in her new role. The Jewish Federation is an all-encompassing entity integrating programs that cover education, fitness, leadership training and services for children, families and the elderly. Ross intends to promote inclusiveness and rebuild participation, hoping to attract everyone – Jewish and non-Jewish – seeking a place for socializing, recreation and civil discussions of critical issues.

“If people don’t recognize the value of their Jewish neighbors, and that they are their neighbors and we bring value to our communities, then they might buy into the kind of hate that is in the world,” Ross says.

With support from her “amazing team” of staff, volunteers and board members, she hopes to boost the federation’s global engagement and support for Israel, while maintaining its infusion of Jewish values. Even unexpected places, like the cheery garden behind the JCC, where preschool students grow food in plots symbolizing Jewish lessons, teach the importance of fresh food and staying healthy.

Ross doesn’t fear going out on a limb if it draws attention to beloved causes. As a contestant in the JCC fundraiser “Dancing with Our Community Stars,” she got “six lessons, but I could use probably about 60,” she says. “I’m willing to be a little self-deprecating if that’s what demonstrates that I really love this community and gets other people to feel they can go outside their comfort zone.”

Ross and her husband, software developer Michael Ross, met on and have a 22-year-old son, adopted at 13 when they learned about the dire need of older children for permanent, caring homes. With the federation’s 100th anniversary behind them, she is now leading a community conversation that her predecessor started about future directions.

She fully expects to lay the groundwork for a 200th anniversary. “I want people to feel like this is their home,” she says, “and to feel comforted for whatever need they have.”