The outgoing CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Steven Rakitt, was praised last week for putting the local Jewish community “on the path of inclusiveness.”
Rakitt, 61, who is leaving the Federation after six years to become president of the Genesis Prize Foundation in August, lost his hearing at age 2. Speakers at the Federation’s annual meeting, held June 7 at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, connected his disability to his drive to make the Jewish community — and particularly the Federation as a microcosm of that community — welcoming to those with disabilities, as well as others who might easily be shunted aside.
Federation donor Larry Nussdorf told the 200 people gathered that he and his wife, Melanie, became involved with the umbrella organization during Rakitt’s tenure “because he pushed the community toward inclusion.”
“His commitment to the Jewish community including and welcoming difference has been a priority,” echoed Liza Levy, incoming co-president. Inclusion is a “mindset, in the language we use and the actions we take.”
Because of Rakitt, the Federation now adds an “inclusive” statement on its invitations and its videos are closed captioned, she said. In addition, the Federation under Rakitt provided funding for the first Gallaudet University Birthright trip, bringing students with hearing impairments to Israel.
“Thanks to you, Steve, inclusion is woven into the fabric of our Jewish community,” Levy said.
When the Federation opened its new building in 2014, Café Sunflower, with its staff of people with intellectual disabilities, opened right off the lobby.
The café’s prominent location “shows our Jewish community needs to be welcoming and inclusive,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, who called the new building “crisp and vibrant.”
Rakitt was involved in the Federation’s branding effort, which produced the “Make It Yours” slogan, with its intent of welcoming local Jews “to be themselves and bring it to Federation,” said Jeff Rum, Federation’s vice president for marketing.
Dottie Bennett, a Federation volunteer, said there are now many ways to enter the Jewish community, and pointed as an example to P.J. library, the free children’s book program, which began in Washington five years ago with a grant from Federation’s United Jewish Endowment Fund.
Rakitt’s attention to Northern Virginia was “a first” said Bennett. “He was at every meeting, every gala. He was always there.”
Other innovations during Rakitt’s tenure include the Israel Your Way mission, the Sara and Samuel J. Lessans Good Deeds Day, the Imagine Israel initiative, and a $250,000 investment to bring Israeli emissaries, or shlichim, to local congregations “to develop personal relationships and share contemporary culture.”
As he closed the meeting, Rakitt offered a list of “everyone” who “must be included” in the Jewish community: the disabled, newcomers, LGBTQ people, teens and families.
“All are waiting to be welcomed in,” he said.
At the meeting, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Potomac received the Rabbi Matthew H. Simon Rabbinical Award. Benjamin Milakofsky won the Jerome J. Dick Young Leadership Award. Carol Croll and Elinor Ginzler received the Ted B. Farber Professional Excellence Award. And Jeff Distenfeld won the Jack Kay Campaigner of the Year Award.