For more than two decades, Laura Zimmerman selflessly served the Jewish community in many capacities at Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, including as chief operating officer, senior vice president, and director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. This winter, Laura moved on to her next chapter in retirement — and while our entire community will miss working with her closely day-to-day, we embrace the opportunity to reflect on the great impact of her work over these many years and express our heartfelt gratitude. In January of this year, Laura shared her reflections with the Federation community in a moving retirement speech. Below is the text of that speech.
This may be about my retirement, but ultimately it is a thank you to you, our shared community. My family has been part of this incredible Jewish community since 1983 and I have had the honor and privilege of working alongside all of you to continue to build on a strong foundation, helping to shape and keep it vibrant for 22 years. I cannot think of a better way to spend so much of one’s professional life, and I have no regrets — only pride.
So, what kept me here for 22 years? I won’t go year by year, but here are a few examples of why I stayed for more than two decades:
For starters, COVID-19 was an incredible challenge and surely showed the resilience of our community. In collaboration with the Jewish Community Foundation, we came together to raise and distribute close to $1 million in humanitarian aid and emergency funds to local agencies and synagogues. Our professionals and community leaders made it look effortless — but trust me, it was an enormous effort.
Another example: The Jewish Free Loan of Greater Hartford has been in existence for two years. Local Jewish community members now have a place to turn for interest-free loans intended to help people overcome financial hurdles and seize new opportunities with dignity and confidentiality. To date, we have helped 20 families and extended more than $100,000 in funds. Recently, we received the following feedback from one loan recipient:
“After I took out the loan, I had the freedom to upscale my business more after paying off the credit card —and it got me to where I am today. I have about four to five investors interested [...] in my company; I just have to choose which one. I really don't mean to be dramatic, but you guys have changed my life in a very real way. I will always remember what you guys did for me!”
Here’s another: For over 30 years, Federation has cared for abandoned Jewish cemeteries in our area through the Association of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Hartford. That amounts to thirty-one sacred burial grounds — more than 7,500 individual graves — once maintained by societies or synagogues that no longer exist. Federation provides these historic sites with the care they deserve. You can’t even imagine what is involved; aside from general maintenance, we regularly remove beds, couches, tires, dead animals, and even an ATM. In the past two years, we have fielded more than 500 requests like this one:
“I had been trying to locate my grandparents’ and baby sister’s headstones for quite some time. Both of my parents have passed, so it’s been a challenge. Within 15 minutes of calling Federation, I received pictures of the headstones, the location of the cemetery, and instructions on visiting and safety. I was then able to locate my sister. This isn’t the end of the story: I went to the cemetery a second time and when I still couldn’t find my grandparents, I called and that same day I received photos of the entrance and the headstone! What moved me the most was that stones were placed on the top of the headstone. How often do you come across someone who cares so deeply about what they do?”
Just two weeks ago, I was having a phone chat with a good friend of mine who apologized for having to cut the call short. She explained that she was on her way to visit an elderly woman she has visited since 2017 as part of a Federation program to decrease senior isolation and provide wellness checks. Although we had many volunteers and possible recipients, the program was unfortunately discontinued — it just wasn’t working. However, to my surprise, this dedicated volunteer and good friend had built a relationship with this woman and she kept visiting through the years. An effort we thought didn’t quite measure up has nevertheless changed the lives of these two women — quietly and without recognition or fanfare, just through Jewish values.
In 2018, we held a community vigil at Congregation Beth Israel in memory of those who died in the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. We stood together to honor the memory of those whose lives were lost and to pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded, people whose only “crime” was being Jewish. Together, we publicly denounced the growing force of hatred and intolerance as we stood as one — Muslims, Jews, Christians, and everyone else who believes that the time has come to say once and for all that we must not be complacent in the face of rising antisemitism and hate.
Federation is all about these values:
Kavod — respect.
Chesed — caring.
Kehillah — community.
Perhaps most especially, “community.” Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this? Thanks to all of you for all you do. I know this work is not always easy, and the path forward is not always perfect, but I cannot imagine a better team or a better way to spend a life.
Getting back to my interview and the team building requirement; it was the key to success. There is an important book called “Bowling Alone”, which argues that it’s the connections between people that help organizations like ours translate aspirations into realities. And isn’t that what we do every day?
As I move on and reflect, I have asked myself, “What is the Jewish view of retirement?” Here’s my answer: There is no retirement in Judaism; one must be useful to the end —and I intend to do that. Pirkei Avot says you are not required to complete the work, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it. My plans are evolving and I look forward to new challenges and adventures. But for now, I can’t thank you enough for the support, confidence, and respect you’ve offered me over these many years. Most of all, I wish to extend many thanks and all my love to my family — and especially Len — for their encouragement, support, and love.
Recently, we observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and as we all know, Dr. King had a dream. I also have a dream — namely, that the Greater Hartford Jewish community continues to build a thriving and connected community where everyone feels welcome to embrace 21st-century Jewish life. I have no doubt my dream will be realized.