New strategies for handling ‘The New Norm’
When Raz took office of head of the SA Zionist Federation (SAZF or Fed) three months ago to undergo mentorship with Isla, she refused an interview. “Give me a few months to find my feet,” she told Jewish Report, “and then you can ask me anything.” So we did, and she did, and the following is bound to be as enlightening to our readers as it was to ourselves.
Raz is a no-nonsense, clear-headed and confident woman who has earned her stripes in both corporate and communal service. She was elected a vice-chair of the national Fed at their quadrennial elective conference in February this year. Nicci works “because she loves” it and she is pleased that her husband and three daughters are proud of her achievements.
Nicci Raz: the past…
Nicci grew up in Johannesburg where she matriculated at Yeshiva College.
Her meteoric rise to where she is today, taking over from the doyenne of SA communal Jewry, wasn’t because she was a slow starter.
While still at varsity studying for her B.Com (Law and Economics) degree, Nicci married her childhood sweetheart David. She had her first daughter, Edden, now 15, when she was just 20, and graduated pregnant with her second, Noa, now 12. Two years later, Nicci had her third daughter, Ora, now 10.
Nicci has always worked, juggling family and a career, mainly in the fields of marketing, public relations and project management. “I choose to work not only because I enjoy it but because I want my daughters to understand the true value of their potential as women, I believe all people are entitled to feel the pride of independence; to enjoy the fulfillment that comes with success; and that they can do anything they choose to.”
And yet, she says, her daughters know that she doesn’t expect them to do what she does. “They don’t have to choose my path,” she says adamantly, just that they know that it is among their basket of choices.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” adds 35-year-old Raz, “I have a great deal of respect for women who choose to be full-time mothers and I have seen the tremendous contribution ‘full-time-moms’ have had doing communal work,” she says. Globally women are putting in the hours, getting involved in their congregations, non-profit organisations and moms are always happy to become involved in school PTAs,” says Nicci.
After working in various areas in the private sector, Raz spent six years working for ORT SA, where she started as a part-time fundraiser for ORT JET and ended on the executive management team.
“My dream was, (and still is), to do an MBA one day, when my kids are older and I have the time,” says Nicci. She considers herself lucky to have been accepted to do a Social Entrepreneurship Programme at GIBS (The Gordon Institute of Business Science) which she completed over 18 months. “It was an incredible experience to spend a year in an academic environment with such a diverse and interesting group of people. I learnt so much but it was really gruelling to complete the course work while juggling a full-time job and family,” she says. But, finish she did. With her ever-faithful brood standing by her side every inch of the way. “We all had to compromise a lot of family time, and I often felt guilty, longing for normal life,” she says.
While studying, Nicci felt a yearning to acquire more knowledge in the area of digital marketing than her position at ORT JET allowed her to. And so she moved from being a big fish in a small, communal pond – to being a small fish in a big, corporate pond.
Why the Fed is so important….
Isla has been thinking and talking about retiring for several years. But her chairmen, first Avrom Krengel, and more recently Ben Swartz, has asked her to stay on ‘for a while’ to assist– and to allow them time to find the right replacement.
And so ‘Aunty’ – just ‘Aunty’, not ‘Aunty Isla’ – as she is affectionately and respectfully known at the Beyachad Centre in Raedene, from where most SA communal life operates, agreed to stay on temporarily… several times!
LEFT: Isla Feldman, fondly known as “Aunty”
First, it was to see to the arrangements for youth camps at the end of 2013 and the combined Fed events of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers) in 2014.
All of these were very important events that Isla had managed for the Fed all the years and the thought of having to do them without her was just too scary to contemplate – both for the Fed’s executive, the staff and for Isla herself. (In fact, the never-say-die Isla was flung down a staircase at the Yom Ha’atzmaut concert after single-handedly standing in the way of anti-Israel lobbyists who had invaded the Lyric Theatre.)
The Fed’s primary functions are to provide Zionist education for SA Jewish youth and to lobby for the State of Israel in SA. In the latter role, their biggest adversary is the South African arm of the US-based non-governmental organisation Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (against Israel), BDS-SA. They lead the anti-Israel activities in the country and are at the coalface of feeding the global “Israel is Apartheid” parable.
By the end of 2013, BDS had grown into a strong lobbying group and Isla had presided over the planning of a myriad counter-lobbying strategies.
And so it was that Isla was persuaded (or she persuaded herself) that she should stay on for the following year to attend to the tactical implementation of the planned strategies and to organise the 2015 quadrennial elections.
RIGHT: Two-term past chairman of the SA Zionist Federation’s national council, Avrom Krengel, remained on in the capacity of treasurer after the February 2015 elective conference
When that was done in February, she was again asked, this time by the Fed’s newly-
elected national chairman Ben Swartz, to please stay on a while and assist in identifying a replacement and handing over her crucial role in an unhurried manner.
2015 in a nutshell….
At the end February 2015, Nicci Raz was elected as a vice-chair of the national committee of the Fed. Previous deputy chairman and now national chair Ben had asked her to consider taking over Isla’s crucial office at that time.
But, Nicci told JR Online, she was happy working (sort-of) normal hours and enjoying her family – as well as her job where she was both learning and using digital marketing.
Meantime, the anti-Israel lobby was growing its support base and resources, and after the summer Operation Protective Edge disaster, BDS-SA was able to reinforce the “Israeli Apartheid” slogan with new vigour.
As the year progressed and Nicci sat at SAZF meetings and grew to understand the global importance and urgency of Israel advocacy in SA – and the critical role that Isla played in it – she says she started to see things differently. “I saw the SAZF and the role they play in a new light, respecting the pivotal role Isla played in running the operation…and I think Isla grew to respect me.”
RIGHT: Current Fed chairman Ben Swartz
And so, says Nicci, when Isla again approached her “one evening after a Board meeting,” they had coffee and discussed the idea of her filling the role more seriously. “I think that Isla’s endorsement and genuine encouragement made me think about it as something I could do,” explains Nicci. Indeed, these would be big shoes to fill. But not with more of the same, she says. The playing field has changed. The ‘new normal’ is very different and lobbyists have to move in line with the times, she believes.
That evening, Nicci went home and discussed the matter with David and the girls. She half-expected them to try and discourage her from taking the position. How wrong she was…
“My family is extremely supportive and proud of what I am doing. They understand how important it is. David said: ‘Of course you should,’ and they all encouraged me to go for it,” she says.
She began by hot-desking…
Nicci has always been passionate about her work. But, she says, this time it intertwined with personal passion. She understands the difference between anti-Zionism (the purview of the Fed) and anti-Semitism (the purview of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies). Yet, she says, there is always a high risk of the former leading to the latter.
Nicci joined the Fed as presumptive head three months ago, with Isla remaining until the end of December. This allowed for a period of mentorship, says Nicci but turned out to be more a case of Isla handling what she was better skilled to do (with Nicci looking and learning on from the side) while Nicci took charge of areas where her strengths were greater.
On 4 January, Nicci will be going back to office, solo.
Isla has left the office (but not the building). Isla told Jewish Report that she will continue to work for the JNF part-time (she also headed the Jewish National Fund in SA for many years) and will travel part-time. She has three trips booked for 2016 already, she says.
Neither Nicci nor the staff at the Fed knew what to expect on 1 October. Some, she says, expected her to move into Isla’s chair from day-one. “People were surprised to see me hot-desk anywhere that was available,” she says.
“Isla showed me a lot of respect and I have a great deal of respect for her,” says Nicci.
“Her absolute passion and brilliance lies in her ability to organise events and in fundraising.”
Nicci says that “people in the community respect Isla.” She admits to having been a little intimidated on the first day that she walked in, given the huge shoes she was in line to fill.
“I found Isla to be very nurturing and we got on really well,” she says.
People thought she was crazy going back into community work and many were concerned whether she realised how much she would have to navigate Jewish communal politics in this position, she says. But, with the belief that she has a mission to achieve and with the support of Isla, SAZF chair Ben and, most importantly, her family – she was up to the job.
“I will tackle the landmines as they come, I am not afraid!”
But Nicci is looking forward to introducing a new order. And from January, she will be doing things her way. She is confident that as long as she doesn’t lose sight of the fact that “any strong leader has to keep their focus on the task and their allegiance to their executive,” she will enjoy the support of her executive and her staff.
2016, a year of managed change…
“The Fed faces challenges of many fronts,” says its new executive director. “The ‘new normal’ is that we can’t continue to live in a bubble. The days of thinking we are okay are over!” she says emphatically. “We need to be more honest with our kids. We need to prepare them for the real world which is more often not so kind to Jews.” She says Jewish youth should be prepared for what they will find on Campus – and the Fed has played a bigger role in ensuring that our teenagers can “feel a level of confidence and safety” on campuses and in the workplace.
“No-one has been unaffected by the events of the past year,” says Raz about the shocks South African Zionists have had to endure. “The Hamas visit was a massive one,” she says, and proceeds to rattle off a laundry-list of events that have caused the Fed to be on the back foot for much of the time. 2016, she promises, will be a year fraught with challenges too – but with a new way of dealing with them. It will be a year of getting much more information out. But not just information – positive information, proactive policies, planned strategies and tactics put into place by a dedicated operational team.
Most of all, she believes, the new strategy of the Zionist Federation needs to be a proactive one – building and expanding on the activities of the past decade. Here are a few highlights:
- Speaking to the ‘missing’ generation – Nicci sees that there is Zionist strength and action among youth, young adults and the older members of the community. She wants to get the middle group, call them the 25 to 45-year-olds, active in Zionism
- There is a need to expand the role of the Fed in the Jewish and Zionist community. “It has become increasingly clear that we need to become involved in education,” she says
- “The Fed is a Federation of other very strong bodies,” says Nicci. She plans to utilise the resources of these groups, like the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, Israel United Appeal and Cape Town’s United Communal Fund, SA Association of Jewish Students, Jewish Agency for Israel/Israel Centre, WIZO and so many other constituent organisations to the common Zionist good
- She wants to get further ahead of BDS-SA. “The growing anti-Zionism with SA at the front lines of the Israel is Apartheid analogy” is unacceptable and much of the Fed’s future activities will be aimed at combatting BDS-SA. She says BDS are being substantially funded, reportedly from outside of SA, and if the Fed is going to have the resources to act against them effectively, they need the support and critical mass of the South African Jewish and broader community.
- The Fed has made huge inroads into “reaching out to people who already have an affinity towards Israel,” says Nicci, through the Fed’s flagship project, SAFI (SA Friends of Israel). She plans to grow the links with SA and African non-Jewish Zionists.
Raz says SA Jewry “can’t always be on the defensive, we have to be positive and give our new generation of Zionists new tools to work with.” These, she says, have to be better than simply prepared answers to difficult questions they may face. We have to educate them so they have thinking tools.”
There has to be a balance of being on the defensive versus being out there, being proud of Israel, proud to be a Zionist, she says. At present many Zionists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are often fed propaganda and told to spread it. “We have to be honest in future,” says Nicci, “and more positive. We have to encourage people to ask honest questions – we have to create a safe space where people can speak openly.”
It all starts on 4 January…
The new Fed boss plans to hit the deck running from 4 January. “For me it’s going to all be about teamwork,” she told JR Online. She plans to upskill and multi-skill the “amazing team of people who work at the Fed…I am hoping to help members of the team find themselves more fulfilled by playing bigger and broader roles.”
“We all need to grow and learn together.”
Nicci will also be taking guidance from the regional directors of the SAZF. “Our regional offices play a major role in delivering on our mandate and I look forward to working closely and visiting as often as I am able to”
She believes that: “People who know what their jobs are, have clear goals and deliverables, will feel more passionate and motivated to do and achieve more” and that this is what it’s going to take to build a bigger, better, more effective Fed that meets its goal of lobbying for Israel in a world that is fighting to do just the opposite.
“Our community has a lot to learn. I have a lot to learn.” Nicci says she knows what has to be done, and she knows she can do it. “I feel privileged to be able to have the experience of people like Ben, Avrom and the long-serving staffers – and also all the affiliated organisations in SA and the world of Zionism to rely on for guidance,” she says,
It is daunting, but not scary for Nicci. “Not being endearing is going to be the biggest change for me, I am naturally a person that tries to get on with everybody” she says. As a person who has always tried to be endearing to others, she says this job doesn’t allow her the luxury of either time or resources to go around “massaging peoples’ egos.”
So, while she will try and get on with everyone, she will follow the mandate of her SAZF executive, and get the job done!