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Called To Do This: BJ’s President Ilene Rosenthal Wants To Give Back

Like so many of us, BJ’s new president, Ilene Rosenthal, was looking for meaning in her life when she found BJ. Though Ilene grew up active in her Conservative synagogue, Jewish camps, and Young Judaea, after years of focusing on career and fun, she was ready to become more involved with Jewish life in a way that was her own. Her mother suggested she try BJ because feminist Jewish writer Letty Pogrobin was a member, and on a fateful Shabbat morning one April Ilene walked into services at BJ and never looked back. “I was smitten,” she said. “I just sat there in my own self and was connected again.”

In the 30 years since, Ilene’s spiritual life has dovetailed with her personal one. She met her husband, Lou Geser, at a BJ singles event just a few months after her first service and the two were married at BJ. (Technically, the ceremony was held at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew while BJ’s building was under repair.) They raised their daughters, Amelia, 26, and Cara, 25, at BJ too, celebrating their baby namings and B’not Mitzvah and guiding them in their search for resonance in their Judaism. Today, even as she runs her own company, White Space Marketing Group, Ilene applies the lessons in her professional life to her leadership as BJ president.

In her journey with BJ—from her first service, to becoming a member, to her first term on the board, and now to her current role as president—there’s a clear throughline for Ilene of a sense of connection. When she was a young adult, she says, something felt like it was missing, and she knew she wouldn’t find it in her previous Jewish frames of reference. But once she found BJ, everything clicked. The tefillot were familiar but the overall feeling was different; the Divrei Torah were thought provoking and personally challenging. Every element of the community was layered and relevant.

“When you come to a place, and you’re searching, and you find a place that you recognize—that was the seed for everything that I get from BJ,” she said. “There’s room for me to be who I want to be.”

We’re honored to have you serve our community as president. What made you choose to serve in this way at BJ?
I happen to have certain skills that might be helpful to the rabbis and the rest of the community. I know what I’m good at, and when I got the call for the role of president I realized that my skills could advance BJ’s mission. But mostly, I feel like I was called to do this. My entire life was given meaning and shape and love and family through BJ, and at this point in my life, I am ready to give back in this way.

In your opinion, what is the most important part of your role?
To create a meaningful experience for the board and to share the platform of influence and activity with people who are equally and more talented than I am. I feel like I can inspire people and give them opportunities to find their own path to a satisfying board experience like I did.

What do you think is the secret sauce of BJ’s community?
The rabbis set the tone that love and intentional actions really drive everything. I see the humility and the empathy that they exhibit every day and it sets the stage for lay leaders and congregants. They walk the walk.

What’s your favorite thing about BJ?
The Sanctuary is literally a sanctuary for me, a place of peace and contemplation. And maybe also Mark Lehrman’s schnapps table at Kiddush!

How do you want to lead?
I’ve always been a leader, but that doesn’t mean I’m good at everything. I want to share the podium. I want people’s engagement on the board to be meaningful; I need the wisdom and the energy of what other people know, and I feel like that is the way the community gets the most out of its board members.

What’s been the most unexpected part of being president so far?
The thing I’ve noted so far is how strong this current board is. They’re incredible, to a person. The diversity of thought and skills—they are so talented and care so much and are ready to give of themselves. It’s really quite extraordinary.

What’s your guidance on how we can connect with more Jews who are seeking community?
We don’t need to provide everything for everyone. People come to BJ to connect with what they need, with something that makes them show up and raise their hand. Whether it’s helping with the refugee crisis or attending services or the Hevra Kadisha or the health and wellness of our older members, to be able to engage in one or two important ways is what our community members are looking for.

What life or career experiences do you feel have best prepared you for this role?
In my long career building marketing strategies and plans for growing businesses, I have two roles that truly map to the role of board president. In marketing, I help businesses keep their eyes on what the customer needs—in the case of BJ, that means our community members. And, as a fractional chief marketing officer, I have an obligation to be boldly honest even when it’s uncomfortable. In representing the BJ community, both of these skills apply. Having some distance from the day-to-day helps me offer perspective. As I like to say, “it’s hard to see the label when you’re inside the jar.”

What’s your favorite part of Shabbat services?
Shaharit on Shabbat morning. It’s a challenge to get to shul on time each week, but when I do the morning service puts me in a calm and receiving state that sets the stage for the whole week ahead.

If you could pick any cuisine to have at Kiddush on Shabbat, what would it be?
A traditional Israeli breakfast spread—the kind you see at those wonderful Israeli hotels.