Lehigh Valley: Who Are You and Where Are You?

March 2014

Shmuel Sisso was born in Morocco and moved to Israel. As a preeminent lawyer, he built and ran a very successful law firm in Israel and spent some years as partner of a New York law firm. Years later, he entered Israel’s diplomatic corps and served as Consul General in New York City. From 2003 to November 2013, Sisso was the highly successful mayor of Kiryat Yam in Northern Israel.  He won his last election with an unprecedented 83 percent of the vote, backed by cross-party support.  In late November 2013, Sisso was elected director general and chief executive officer of the venerable World ORT.  Since then he has made two trips to New York City.

Last month I joined Sisso, another World ORT representative and two Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley donors for an intimate breakfast at a New York “power breakfast” restaurant.  The donors are interested in helping Israel enhance its educational system and World ORT is a natural partner.  

Walking out of the restaurant, Sisso whispered to me: “Where is the Lehigh Valley, and who are you folks in the Lehigh Valley?”  He explained that he had been to New York twice since becoming World ORT’s CEO and already he had two meetings with the Lehigh Valley; during his first visit to New York in December he met with another Lehigh Valley donor who is working through our Jewish Federation and World ORT to provide college scholarships to Jewish students in Uruguay. 

Sisso noted that he had not yet even met with the New York Jewish Federation, the largest in North America and a significant funder of World ORT, but had already had two meetings with Lehigh Valley!

I get that a lot. 

Travel around the Jewish Federation world and people often wonder who we are and where we are. Our reputation and accomplishments are no secrets. Jewish community leaders throughout North America know that the first Maimonides Society for medical professionals was established in the Lehigh Valley. The ranks of Jewish women’s philanthropy are well aware that the sterling silver Pomegranate Pin was created by three very committed Jewish Federation Women’s Division leaders in Allentown.  Today, over 8,000 pins have been distributed throughout North America to women contributing a minimum of $1,800 to a Jewish Federation annual campaign.  Lehigh Valley is represented on the Jewish Federation of North America’s Board of Trustees, National Young Leadership Cabinet, National Women’s Philanthropy Cabinet, and twice in the last 10 years on the JFNA Executive Committee. Our participation in the Operation Exodus efforts to resettle Jews from the former Soviet Union was in the highest percentile of communities.

Like Shmuel Sisso, Yaron Sideman has come to be impressed by the Lehigh Valley. Since becoming Israel’s Consul General in Philadelphia in late 2012, Sideman has been to the Lehigh Valley five times. His visits here, most coordinated by the Jewish Federation, have included meetings with Rep. Charlie Dent, Mayor Sal Panto, Mayor Ed Pawlowski, the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, Air Products, The Morning Call and college administrators across the Valley. He was the featured speaker at a Jewish Federation Annual Meeting.  Acknowledging that his five visits to the Lehigh Valley are more than to any other city in his region outside of Philly, Sideman joked during his last visit that his staff thinks the Lehigh Valley is the second largest city in his region. And that’s saying a lot since his region also includes Pittsburgh, Louisville, Columbus and Cleveland.

Through the efforts of a Lehigh Valley donor family and their relatives in Fayetteville, N.C., our Federation has provided scholarships to every Ethiopian Israeli medical or dental student since 2005. These medical and dental students have travelled around the U.S. on speaking tours and have addressed international conferences, sharing with everyone about the Lehigh Valley. When I was in Israel this past November, I joined six of the medical students in a meeting with Jewish leaders from Toronto, Miami, Boston and St. Louis. But this time, the question/comment was different. A past president of the Toronto Federation stated to me about the Lehigh Valley:  “I don’t know where you are, but I know who you are. You guys are a wonderful and caring Jewish community who make the most of your ability to improve Jewish life. What you do with what you’ve got is nothing short of miraculous, especially with these students.”

People coming in contact with the Lehigh Valley might not know where we are. But they will very quickly know who we are.  And more importantly, we know who we are. We are a caring, committed and concerned Jewish community. But sometimes it takes someone from elsewhere to help us realize what we are all about. Otherwise we would just keep on doing our work, enhancing Jewish life, without taking a moment to appreciate just how special our community is.



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