COVER STORYDecember 2021/January 2022

Heidi Gantwerk Federation President & CEO

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When long-time San Diegan Heidi Gantwerk and her husband, Andy, want to have fun, relax, be inspired, feel supported, or entertain friends, they do one thing: make music.

“For us, music is everything and anything. It’s always been a part of our lives and our family’s life, and it always will be,” Gantwerk says. “There’s only one other thing on par with music for us — our Jewish community.”

As Gantwerk officially becomes the permanent President and CEO of Jewish Federation of San Diego County, she’s bringing a fresh outlook to the job combined with decades of experience and community knowledge. She’s served on numerous local Jewish organization boards, consulted professionally for many of San Diego’s Jewish organizations, and has deep roots and close friends in the community.

“I think there are a lot of similarities between my approach to music and my approach to living a Jewish life,” adds Gantwerk. “Being involved in the Jewish community brings me meaning and makes me whole. And our community, like music, gives me strength, inspiration, and joy. I am so grateful for the opportunity to give back now in this capacity. I’m standing on the shoulders of my predecessors, giants who shaped this community, including Michael Jesser, z”l.”

Gantwerk had been serving as Federation’s interim President and CEO for seven months, following the passing of Jesser. She is the first woman to head the 85-year-old organization. Born in Israel, she has lived in San Diego for 28 years and already has left an indelible mark in the community. She is part of the musical team of service leaders at Congregation Beth Israel and has served on the boards of San Diego Jewish Academy, Hillel of San Diego, the Center for Jewish Culture and Congregation Beth Israel. Prior to stepping into her current role at Federation, Gantwerk consulted for a wide range of organizations on strategic planning, visioning, evaluation and public engagement. Among her varied clients were many San Diego Jewish organizations, including the JCC, Jewish Community Foundation, the Butterfly Project, Ner Tamid Synagogue, Hillel, Jewish Community Farming Initiative, Leichtag Foundation, Congregation Beth Israel and of course Federation. She and her husband Andy Mayer have three grown children all of whom grew up immersed in Jewish life in San Diego.

“For 20 years, Heidi and Andy have lifted the spirits of our congregation, with the essence of synagogue prayer — its music,” says Rabbi/Cantor Arlene Bernstein of Congregation Beth Israel.

“Heidi and her family have helped nurture and grow the life of evolving Jewish music not only in the synagogue but in the larger San Diego Jewish community as well. Singing and playing for the elderly, giving concerts, creating uplifting wedding celebrations, and performing at rabbinic conferences – these experiences reflect their deep commitment to Jewish life. Combine this passion with her high intellect, knowledge, and professional skills, and we are a very fortunate community to have her at the helm.”

Gantwerk will lead a Federation charged with a mission to broaden and deepen engagement in Jewish life to strengthen Jewish identity, foster dynamic connections with Israel, and care for all Jews in need. By mobilizing the community’s resources, leaders, and organizations to address the community’s most critical needs, Federation creates profound impact around three priority areas: Responding to Jewish Poverty in San Diego, particularly addressing the needs of seniors and Holocaust survivors; Ensuring an Enduring Jewish Community, particularly focusing on community security and developing lay and professional leaders; and Fostering Global People-to-People Relationships, with a focus on connections among Israelis and the San Diego Jewish community. Federation will soon open registration for its spring 2023 CommUNITY Mission to Israel, an opportunity for Jews from all over San Diego to be a part of a once-in-a-generation trip to Israel during its 75th anniversary and marking the 25th anniversary of San Diego’s relationship with its sister region, Sha’ar HaNegev. This will be the first community-wide trip since 2006.

“Becoming Federation President and CEO really ties together all parts of my personal and professional life,” continues Gantwerk. “There is a sense for me that assuming this role, at this moment is besheret. After everything that our community has been through in recent years—from the tragedy of Poway to the pandemic—I feel even more of a calling to help lead this community into the future. I’m blessed to do this now with an incredible team at Federation. I saw how Federation staff and lay leaders over the last two years continued their work with imagination, with kindness, and in collaboration with partners locally, in Israel, and around the world. Not once since the beginning of the pandemic did Federation step back or turn away from the work; they doubled down with creativity and resilience.”

Federation lay leaders recognize how fortunate they are to have Gantwerk on board. They wanted a leader who could step in and lead immediately, while ensuring that Federation supports Jewish life that helps those in need and offers meaningful experiences for everyone.

“Beyond Heidi’s experience, expertise, and knowledge of our community, she has genuine passion for Jewish life in San Diego,” says Jack Maizel, Board chair. “Under her leadership, Federation will forge new, powerful partnerships and bring together more people in inspiring Jewish life. We’ve worked closely with her over the last 18 months. We’ve already seen her execute on the vision we all have and that she helped us to shape. Especially at this unprecedented time, people need and deserve support and connections to each other. Heidi already is positioning Federation to deliver for the entire San Diego Jewish Community.”

In addition to its core priorities, additional areas of focus include Jewish teen engagement and the increased need to respond to rising antisemitism. Federation’s unique role in the community enables it to serve as “connective tissue,” bringing together organizations and individuals to more effectively address issues and needs at scale. It has partnered with ADL, for example, to support a Community Security Director and to provide security training for local Jewish organizations. And Federation leads a coalition of organizations through the Kulam Ba’bayit initiative to support San Diego Jews experiencing poverty, especially Holocaust Survivors and Seniors. The initiative distributes money to local organizations to get resources rapidly into the hands of people in need to keep them in their homes.

“We are a diverse and vibrant community with so many ways for people to engage in meaningful Jewish life and build long-lasting connections,” says Heidi Gantwerk. “Federation can bring together different organizations and individuals in ways that others simply cannot — whether it’s to support those in need, to train Jewish professionals and develop lay leaders, to engage our incredible volunteers and strengthen our connection to the global Jewish community, and so much more.

“Again I go back to music. Of course a solo performance is beautiful, but when you have an entire choir singing together, each person bringing their unique voice and their passion to the group, well that tends to be very powerful, very impactful on the listener.”

With that mindset, Gantwerk builds her “choir” of Federation staff, volunteers, other organizations leaders, and anyone in the community who envisions a vibrant, caring Jewish community that is there for all San Diego Jews today and into the future.

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