Meet the New Executive Director: Bob Goldberg

Bob Goldberg will begin as the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines’ new Executive Director soon. Continue reading to learn how Bob got to where he is today and his hopes for our community. This is the full version of the Q&A featured in the November/December 2020 Jewish Press.


Please tell us about yourself

I was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska and am a proud Cornhusker fan. Don’t hold it against me!

I am the third generation of my family from Omaha. My grandparents came from Poland and Russia before World War I. I am the middle of three siblings. My older brother, Steve, lives in Kansas City, my younger sister, Rachel, lives in Springfield, Illinois, and my parents are still in Omaha.

I was an active member of AZA #1, and most of those guys are my closest friends and brothers to this very day. In college, I was a member of AEPi at the University of Arizona and I have a circle of pledge brothers who come together either in person or through the virtual world as often as possible. The relationships that I have through AZA and AEPi are the most important friendships I have.

I earned two degrees in college, a B.S. in Communications, and a M.A.in English.

I met my wife, Kim, in 1993. We started dating in the fall of that year. In the summer of 1994, we travelled together to Israel and Greece, as she was participating through her school on an archeological dig at Bethsaida in Israel, and we had the trip of a lifetime. It was the first trip to Israel for both of us. In the fall of 1994, we moved to San Francisco where Kim completed her fine art degree at the San Francisco Art Institute. We moved back to Omaha in 1996 and were married in 1998. Our daughter Lily was born in 2001 and is currently in her second year at Washington University in St. Louis studying biology and computer science.

I spent the first part of my professional career in financial services working for Northwestern Mutual Life, Wells Fargo Bank, and a family run regional lending firm.

I have been shaped by my experiences in the Jewish community of Omaha. I grew up at Beth El Synagogue; at the JCC participating in sports and summer camp, in the library, at the pool; and later BBYO and other youth group activities.

As an adult, after moving back to Omaha in 1996, I was an active volunteer serving on the JCC board, the Federation board, and serving as Chair of the Center for Jewish Education, (a Federation agency). I was honored to be awarded the 2007 Bruce Fellman Memorial Young Leadership Award.

Bob in Tel Aviv

What lead you to working in the Jewish Federation world?

After years in the financial services industry and volunteering in the Jewish world, it became apparent to me that we need warriors to work on behalf of the Jewish people. I feel a strong sense of obligation to pay respect to the sacrifices that my grandparents and parents made for me and my siblings so that we could have opportunities to live Jewishly. I feel an equal sense of urgency to work so that my daughter, her generation, and future generations also have every opportunity to expand their Jewish literacy, experience personal and intimate relations with Israel and her people, and are moved to pursue their own Jewish journey.

Over our history as a Jewish Federation, we have championed incredible moments such as helping to build the State of Israel, fighting to free Soviet Jews, building a network of philanthropy and volunteerism that impacts more Jews than any other organization in the world. If we can do that, we can do more.

The key moment for me was when my friend Jeff Kirshenbaum became president of the JCC and invited me to fill one of his presidential appointments on that board. It was the beginning of my life as an adult in the organized Jewish world and I remember it often and keep it in mind that it is my job to invite people in to be involved and to share their knowhow and talents with the community.

In 2008, I was invited to join the Federation team in Omaha as a professional by then Executive Director Jan Goldstein and I served there for five years. In 2013, I accepted the position of Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

Bob with his wife, Kim, and daughter, Lily.

What made you want to join the DSM community?

Des Moines felt like a natural fit.

After growing up in Omaha and moving away a few times, I have come to realize that there is something special and unique about smaller midwestern Jewish communities. There is a great sense of pride, ownership, and responsibility that inspires involvement and that contributes to a warmth, a haimishness, that does not always exist in other places. I am a Midwesterner. I feel most comfortable where people are kind, and generous, and where the pace of life and the space we can live in provides a greater quality of life.

I wanted to be in closer proximity to my family members, who are spread around the Midwest in Omaha, Kansas City, and St. Louis.

Another reason is the absolute love for the community expressed by Hannah Rogers and Michael Wolnerman. Their leadership and level of caring for the community answers the two most basic questions….do you care, and are you willing to do the work to build the community that you want to live in? They clearly answer both with a resounding yes.

Finally, the community building infrastructure that already exists and is working today, such as the Beit Sefer Shalom, the Gan Shalom Preschool, Engman Camp Shalom, the work of JFS, the JCRC, the Iowa Jewish Historical Society, and because our Federation team and the other Iowa Jewish Professionals from across the state meet regularly and work together. A community that learns and respects its history while investing in building trusting relationships and a stronger community for everyone is a place that I want to be.

What are the most challenging parts of your job? The most interesting?

It can be both very challenging and very rewarding. The challenges are real. Communal needs exist, resources are often limited, and working with the board to determine priorities is an exercise always full of passion and good intentions. When you have a diverse membership that cares deeply, you will always be blessed with folks who express strong opinions, and my role is to listen and learn. Our job as an organization is to act in such a way that advocates for all without taking away from any. This is not easy, but it is right.

One of the most interesting things that I have encountered as a Federation Executive Director, and one that I have really enjoyed, is being able to travel from congregation to congregation for services and programs. I grew up in a conservative synagogue, while my wife was raised reform.  I enjoy learning about how others practice our faith, have had great experiences with clergy and at congregations across the movements, and have grown from the relationships that have been built. Learning in this way for me has elevated my Jewishness.

What was your greatest accomplishment in your previous position?

From my perspective, any accomplishments are a team effort, led by our board, our committees, our donors, volunteers, and staff. That being said, the accomplishment that I am most proud of is re-establishing our Federation’s relevance in Fort Worth as the convener of the Jewish community. I have worked hard to be present at the congregations and organizations in order to build honest relationships and work toward shared goals.

We have established a great leadership program that has proven to be tremendously successful in building a sustainable volunteer leadership pipeline by inspiring deep connections with participants from across the congregations to take ownership and responsibility for the community and by building genuine friendships.

We have created new honors and awards to recognize those individuals and families that have made an indelible impact on the Jewish community for decades through their philanthropy, leadership, and ability to motivate others to join. These honors have acknowledged and re-energized some of our greatest community heroes.

And we have invested in our people. We have done this by caring for those in need through new and innovative social service programs, by providing opportunities for meaningful Jewish experiences for all  members of the community from youth programs like Maccabi Games scholarships, summer camp scholarships, Israel savings plans, to Israel experiences, adult educational programs, volunteer and staff development, to senior programs that provide socialization and activities, and new supplemental giving opportunities for our donors and endowment giving initiatives to invest in the future.

With the New Year just beginning, what are some goals you have for our community?

Let’s create a Jewish renaissance in Des Moines.

How can we do this?

We do it by celebrating our successes. We must be proud of who we are, and what we stand for, all that has been accomplished, and take that energy and direct it to building the future we want.

We do it by spending time with our community members to listen and learn from them, develop genuine, meaningful, and trusting relationships, hear their stories, understand the history and culture of the community, learn about what matters most, what the greatest challenges are that need to be addressed, and what the dreams and opportunities are for our future.

We do it by working together to  earn and maintain the trust of the community, to have a shared understanding of our collective mission and purpose, to care for those in need, expand financial resource development, energize donor relations, invest in leadership development, offer engaging programming, promote Jewish literacy, advocate for Israel and support for vulnerable Jews everywhere, and strengthen community relations both with the general community and within the Jewish community. And we must make involvement in the Jewish community fun and meaningful.

Everyone is on their own individual journey and where someone may be today on their journey is not an indicator of where they may be tomorrow. That said, everyone’s needs are different, and my role and my goal is to first listen and learn and then work to find solutions to the most pressing issues. They may be issues about inclusion and diversity, they may be about differences in Jewish practice, they may be differing views on Israel, they may be views about utilization of precious resources, on and on and on. I want our Federation to be the key partner for all congregations and Jewish community organizations. That does not mean that they will always be happy, but we will always work to be honest, transparent, fair, and supportive.

What are you looking forward to most about joining the DSM community?

I am excited to work with a team of professionals and lay leaders who care deeply about their work and the impact it makes on those around them. I am looking forward to immersing myself in learning the local history, and its people and stories, and understanding the culture.

What are some challenges you see in the coming year and how do you plan to overcome them?

The Talmud teaches that arguments are intended to elevate the conversation to find the truth. That can happen when we engage in respectful arguing, acknowledging that we do not know everything, and if we listen carefully to what others offer, we can learn and grow. It does not happen as often as it should. We need to model that kind of arguing. The goal should be to elevate the conversation, grow as individuals, and search for the truth.

It is always a challenge for an organization to work through the process of setting priorities but doing so allows us to identify our greatest strengths and value and direct resources to amplify our responses to specific challenges.

Another obvious challenge we have today is the coronavirus. The pandemic has strained so many. It has forced people into isolation, and many have experienced increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety. We need to be regularly reaching out to each other to provide comfort and relief. Many people have lost jobs and are struggling financially. We need to act collectively to responds in a caring way to support them. There are challenges galore and we need to work together to find solutions for our friends and neighbors who are most in need. I am thinking particularly about a segment of our seniors who do not use modern technology and do not connect with others through virtual experiences. These friends and family members can become isolated like never before. We need to keep them front of mind and make sure we are reaching out and doing all we can to support them and let them know that they are loved.

The pandemic has also challenged us to try new things, to be creative and entrepreneurial about how we connect with each other whether it is virtual services, virtual concerts, or virtual happy hours. The last many months have shown us that we can find new ways to be hopeful, to find good in the world, and bring a smile to others. I am sure that none of us have ever experienced a Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur like we just had. I was able to watch services from New York to Fort Worth to Des Moines while sitting at my kitchen table. It was cool. But it was not the same as being in the synagogue with family and friends. Covid-19 has given us more time at home with our families to cook and read and binge watch Netflix- and for that I am grateful. But I am also hopeful that a vaccine will soon be found, and we can get back to being together in-person. We need to be thinking about what the world will look like and need after the pandemic, so that we are prepared and organized in a way that allows us to respond efficiently and effectively to the needs of our friends and neighbors.

As a Jewish professional, I see the need to inspire greater Jewish literacy. We are the people of the book, but too often those books collect dust on our shelves. To learn Torah, its lessons, and its teaching is empowering. To learn Jewish history is exciting and inspirational. For me, I love Jewish literature, Jewish food, Jewish travel, and so much more. I am sure that all of you have those areas that you are passionate about. I want to work with the community to inspire Jewish learning; provide opportunities to draw people to our great books, great teachers, thinkers, and creators, and the tremendous lessons they provide, so that they can wallop us with their magic; and to share with our children a cherished appreciation for how Judaism, as a religion, as a culture, and as a people, can provide our lives inspiration, guidance, purpose, and meaning.

Bob and Kim at Lily’s graduation

In your opinion, what is the defining feature of Jewish life today?

I would suggest that there are three defining features or values in Jewish life that move us forward and they are:

  1. B’tselem Elohim, we are all fashioned in the image of G-d and we all deserve respect
  2. Kol Yisrael Arivim Zeh Bazeh, we are all responsible for one another
  3. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, we have a responsibility to pursue justice

If you could meet any figure in Jewish history, who would it be and why?

I could list so many, but four or five names come quickly to mind:

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Golda Meir, Theodore Herzl, King David, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Why? Well, as a literature fan, it all comes back to their words.

Ben Yehuda revived and crafted modern Hebrew. It was truly a modern miracle to achieve this end. His sacrifices and those imposed on his family has given us, as Jewish people, a shared language.

Golda…well, Golda…what else needs to be said? She exemplified leadership, courage, and strength. She has some of the most classic quotes ever, and many of them are as accurate today as they were when she first said them.

Herzl wasn’t the originator of Zionism as an ideal, but his work served as the impetus that led to the creation of Zionism as a political aim which resulted decades after his passing in the creation of the modern State of Israel. “If you will it, it is no dream”- Herzl.

King David was a complicated man, both a great fighter and a great poet but also a flawed individual. To me, he represents our possibilities and our imperfection.

And the great Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer.  I love a good story and I am huge fan of Jewish literature and Singer is one of my all-time favorites. His stories are fantastical and entwine you in tales of the old country and Jewish folklore that let you taste and feel and hear the shtetl come to life in his boyhood home of Radzymin, Poland. He would have been fun to have a cocktail and conversation with.

What is your favorite Jewish holiday? 

Favorite Jewish holiday. I think during my time as a Jewish professional, I have come to really appreciated Shabbat. It may happen every week, but I look forward to the opportunity to turn out the office lights, turn off the phone and email, and unwind and refresh and appreciate the freedoms that are ours and the gifts that we are so blessed to enjoy.

What else do you want us to know about you?

What do I want you to know about me? I want you to know that the work we do together through the Jewish Federation matters deeply. Donors do not give to the Jewish Federation; they help make the world better through the Jewish Federation. The lives that we impact through our work, those here locally, as well as those in places around the world, their lives are changed through our good deeds, through our generosity, and our mitzvahs. I believe that with every fiber of my body because I have seen it with my own eyes.

I have seen what happens when a young family first enrolls their child in the Jewish pre-school or Jewish summer camp and the ripple effects that can have on an entire extended family. I have seen what happens when a young person participates in the Maccabi Games or youth group convention or goes on Birthright. I have seen how senior programs provide friendships and connections that give life meaning for folks who may otherwise be isolated and alone. I have seen the care provided to Holocaust survivors who have experienced hell and today need support so that they can age with dignity. I have been with our most vulnerable Jewish brothers and sisters who, without our help, may go without food, medicine, support, or connections.

I am not only a giver to the Jewish Federation; I have also been a receiver. Thanks to the Jewish Federation, during a difficult time in our life, the Federation was there when we extended our hand and asked for help. It was a very uncomfortable situation to find oneself going from being a giver to being a receiver. But we knew that our caring community supported us, and we swallowed our pride and asked. Federation was there for us, so I know the power of the collective. I know the strength of the Federation when we work together. Our strength is our connectedness and collective caring for each other. That matters to me. That is why I do what I do. I also love music, sports, books, a good adult beverage, great food, and of course, my dog Maggie.

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