It is with great pleasure and a deep sense of humility that I join your community as executive director of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico. My wife, Taina, and I have been New Mexico residents for mere days, and yet we have experienced an outpouring of warmth, friendship, and genuine excitement for our arrival that has been unexpected and very poignant for us. We are honored to be here, and we are eager to become active, visible contributors to Jewish life in New Mexico.
Although I served on a number of Jewish organization boards and committees, my work with JFNM is my first foray into Jewish professional life. While I am aware that significant challenges lie ahead, this is also an opportunity to grow along with the community.
My Jewish journey has been circuitous, much like the lives of many New Mexicans, for whom an eclectic set of personal and professional adventures led to the Land of Enchantment. Shortly before my second birthday, my family relocated from Chicago to Southern California, where I was raised in a Reform household in a heavily Jewish neighborhood. Just prior to my Bar Mitzvah, we moved to Tampa, Florida. It was there that I first experienced the challenge of being Jewish in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish environment, and where I realized the importance of strength and cohesion within a Jewish community.
At age 18, my first of many trips to Israel further served to strengthen my identity and sense of place in the Jewish world. Upon arrival, I first felt the hot blast of July air buffeting my face, followed by an immense and unexpected upwelling of pride upon seeing the Israeli flag flying for the first time, the Star of David waving resolutely over a land to which I felt a deep and immediate kinship.
Throughout the ensuing decade-and-a-half, I found myself wandering great physical distances from these early Jewish experiences. From college at Northwestern University in Chicago and graduate school studying Chinese language and history at Columbia University in New York to working as a “foreign instructor recruitment contractor” in a remote corner of China; from working with a Kenyan social services agency to fund AIDS education programs to visiting Jewish communities throughout the globe on backpacking excursions that took me through the Alps, Andes, and Himalayas; from building cultural competence programs for hospital executives across the United States to my most recent work fostering bilateral partnerships with non-government real estate organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific region and Middle East, Judaism has remained a guide and a source of comfort through challenges and triumphs alike.
Five years ago, Taina became a Jew by choice, and I was privileged to stand by her side as she carved her own personal path to Judaism. That experience, along with what I observe as an increasingly turbulent geopolitical environment for Jews, has led me to New Mexico, where I now fulfill my deep personal commitment to serving Judaism and to building a sense of Jewish community.
To be Jewish is a privilege with which comes the responsibility to be a positive influence both individually and communally. To be Jewish is a joy with which comes the obligation to work towards repairing the world. To be Jewish is not simply to be part of a religion or an ethnicity, but it is an experience, a state of mind, and a way of life that should be a sense of pride, comfort, and fulfillment for all who are a part of it.
Each of us expresses our Judaism differently. Whether you are a regular attendee of Shabbat Torah services, occasionally reflect on your Judaism, or do not actively practice, you are a valuable, important member of the Jewish community.
In that spirit, Jewish Federation of New Mexico strives to be a welcoming, inclusive and community-building endeavor. Philanthropic giving is important. The contributions of our donors are the lifeblood of the community and help JFNM provide services for Jews throughout the state. New opportunities for Jewish New Mexicans to interact with each other and the broader community will both fill the pipeline of potential contributors and encourage those who are already engaged to continue their involvement.
Soon, you will notice changes in how JFNM operates and interacts with the community. We will implement new strategies for communication, donor appreciation, and outreach. You will hear from us often, and will see us continuing to work to enhance Jewish life throughout New Mexico. Soon there will be new ways to interact with Federation, and I hope you will join with us to further renew Jewish life in this wonderful place.
The leader of another Jewish organization reminded me in a recent note that “a high tide raises all ships.” A strong, vibrant, cohesive Jewish community can be a light and a healing presence unto all who call this beautiful, enchanting state home.
Zachary M. Benjamin
Jewish Federation of New Mexico