Our Woman of Impact profile features a local woman, nominated by a community member, who is making an impact in our community. For this issue, we spoke with Merrill Mandell, who serves on our Jewish Leadership Academy’s advisory board and is a past board president of Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford. She also serves on the boards of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the Kingswood Oxford School, and the Jewish Community Foundation, and is a member of the 2021 class of the Wexner Heritage Program. Merrill is a trained speech pathologist and lives in West Hartford with her husband, Mark, and three teenage children. Merrill was nominated by Judy Schlossberg, our 2020 Women's Philanthropy Chair.
What inspired you to get involved in our Jewish community?
The Jewish community found me, really. My husband Mark was born and raised in West Hartford, but we met in Washington, D.C., where we were both living at the time. Mark had been on a singles mission to Israel and met some friends of mine. After the trip, we ended up at a Halloween party together and the rest is history. When we moved back to West Hartford, the Jewish community was unbelievably welcoming. They reached out and made sure we felt at home. I didn't know too many people at that point, but there were so many programs to welcome us here. Our kids went to preschool at Solomon Schechter Day School and, very naturally, we fell into a warm and supportive Jewish community.
What have you done to make a positive impact?
I’ve been involved in lots of different aspects of the Jewish community since moving here but I think any impact that I’ve made is just from staying engaged over the years. There have been times when I really needed the community for connection and support and then there have been times when I’ve provided support for others who need it. That’s what it means to be part of a community. But staying engaged for 18 or 19 years is hard; after you feel a bit more settled and you’re over the hump, it's easy to start losing that sense of engagement. But that would be a shame, because you have so much knowledge at that point, and you may not realize how much you can benefit the community if you stay engaged for the long term. That's what I've tried to do.
What was your biggest challenge?
Being patient. I was board chair at Jewish Family Services, and when you take a position like that, you go in with huge aspirations for what you're going to accomplish in a relatively short period. Over time, you realize that so much of the work involves juggling more day-to-day issues that are just as important as the lofty goals you had at the start. You may come in wanting a big, splashy win, but in retrospect, I realize it doesn't often work that way. Progress happens in small, incremental changes. It can be frustrating to discover there's not a straight line to get to the goal you have in mind, so it takes a tremendous amount of patience and perseverance to put one foot in front of the other from day to day. I've found that the biggest challenge is staying engaged and finding satisfaction in the work when progress can be very slow.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
I'm very proud of my time as chair of the board at Jewish Family Services — and not just because of the position. I was very young, I had just turned 40, and that's a position that most people come to later in their Jewish journey. I wasn't even thinking of serving in that capacity at that point in my life, but I was invited to an executive committee meeting, showed up, and the next thing I knew, I was being asked to serve as the board chair. It was total shock and awe … but as I looked around at an amazing group of people ready to support me, I thought, 'There are people in this community who will help me in areas that I don't know well,' and that's how it worked.
I reached out to the Federation and asked them for some help preparing for the position. They introduced me to Lois Koteen and Stephen Bayer and asked them to put together a mini leadership training program for me. I sat them down and said, "Listen, I'm going to ask a bunch of stupid questions and you two are going to have to help me understand what I don't know before I take this position." And that's exactly what they did. I was still slightly terrified, but I also had an amazing executive director and volunteers who weren't going to let me fail. I learned so much during that time and fell in love with the organization. Just the fact that I was able to serve, with the help of a lot of great people, is probably what I'm most proud of.
What role has Judaism played in your life?
I didn't grow up affiliated with a synagogue; my family celebrated all the holidays in our home, but going to synagogue wasn't part of my family culture. However, I did go to Jewish sleep-away camp and was in a Jewish youth group, so those experiences taught me what it means to be Jewish. As I got older, I realized that Judaism provides you a framework to understand what's important, the value of community, and the value of shared values and experiences.
I often think of the story of the boy and the starfish. Thousands of starfish have washed up on the beach and he is throwing them back, one by one. An older man sees what he's doing and says, “What are you doing? There are so many; you can't really make a difference, you know." The boy throws one more starfish in the water and says, "Well, it made a difference for that one." For me, that's a pretty good analogy for the Jewish approach to impact. And I find Judaism to be foundational in that way.
Is there any advice you’d like to share with other women?
There can be a tendency in the Jewish community to group people by age, gender, and giving level. I do understand that impulse, particularly when we're trying to understand how people fit into the community. But we are not homogenous, and we don't all find value and satisfaction in the same things, so you have to look a little harder to find your place. In terms of the Federation, you have to find an avenue that is going to provide you with the most satisfaction. Maybe that's going to events and connecting with friends, or maybe you want to roll up your sleeves and take on a social justice issue that means a lot to you. There are a lot of opportunities to get involved, but you often have to dig to find the ones that speak to you — and that may not have anything to do with your age, gender, or giving level.
For women in particular, don't be afraid of leadership roles, including those that fall outside of the women's division. There are opportunities for women at all levels of the organization, so seek those out and don't be afraid. There will always be mentors in the community willing to help you along the way. You may find them naturally, but sometimes you have to seek out your mentors. Find someone who is like-minded and has similar interests to you. If you're really passionate about Jewish sleep-away camp, for example, find someone who is also into that and invite them out for coffee. This is a community full of people who know a lot and care a lot; and they would be so happy to have you join them.