Our Woman of Impact profile features a local woman making a notable impact in our community. For this issue, we spoke with Gayle Temkin, who has become involved with many of Greater Hartford’s Jewish agencies and organizations. Gayle began her professional career at State of Israel Bonds, followed by UJA-Federation of New York, and Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. While at UJA Federation, Gayle attended Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, where she received her master’s degree. After getting married, Gayle moved to Connecticut. Having been inspired by her work with her former lay leaders, she wanted to get involved in Greater Hartford’s Jewish community. Gayle is now actively involved and holds volunteer leadership positions with the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, Jewish Community Foundation, Mandell JCC, Voices of Hope, Jewish Family Services, and Solomon Schechter Day School. She is also the founder of Alyssa’s Angel Fund, an organization supporting families affected by Glycogen Storage Disease. Originally from Westchester, New York, Gayle now lives in West Hartford with her husband Steven and two daughters: Alyssa, 17; and Lily, 15.
What role does Judaism play in your life?
I’m the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, which has helped define who I am and guide my path as a Jewish communal professional and volunteer. My father survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Yavishavitz, and was liberated from Buchenwald. He immigrated to America and was very proud of his Jewish heritage. From a young age, he taught me to stand up and be proud of who I am and where I came from. As I became an adult myself, I learned to own my dad’s story and history, and knew I wanted to make a difference for the next generation. That led to my involvement in the Jewish communal world.
How has your father’s heritage followed you?
My dad was born in Sighet, Romania, which is the town Elie Wiesel is from. In fact, they grew up together. It was Elie's father who told the boys from my dad’s hometown to lie about how old they were, because they saw that [the Fascists] were dividing them based on age. They were 13 at the time, and he told them to say they were 16 so they would be sent to the work camps. A few years ago, I was honored by Voices of Hope, and we had the pleasure of having Elie's son, Elisha, as our guest speaker. I brought the story of his grandfather to his attention and it felt like it bound us for life.
In looking at your past work with Jewish organizations, you seem to get as involved as you possibly can—often in a leadership capacity. What accounts for that drive?
I am not one who joins an organization just to add it to my resume. In whatever capacity I serve an organization, If I do not feel compelled to shout their mission from the rooftops, or see clearly how I can pay it forward, then it’s time for me to step aside. You need to feel connected to the work you’re supporting and remember the reason you’re doing it, which cannot be about getting credit. In fact, if you serve in a leadership position, you step up and do the work you’re asked to do, and it should never be about who gets the credit. My husband and I feel that community and volunteer work is our responsibility, and now our daughters are getting involved—our oldest daughter is the teen rep on the JCC board, our younger daughter is on the regional USY (United Synagogue Youth) board, and they’re both very involved at school—and for us, that’s the source of much pride.
Can you identify a few examples from the work you’ve done so far that you’re especially proud of?
I was very honored to be part of the Wexner Heritage program. It challenged me to think about the big picture, and consider possibilities for our community that are now in play. We’d ask ourselves, “Where do I see myself making real change?” As a result of what I learned in that program, I started to see our community like an octopus. I use this analogy all the time: There should be a central hub, where everyone is welcome. And from there, the ‘legs’ are every part of our Jewish community working together. Because of Wexner, I carried that perspective into my work as president of the JCC and as the current chair of the Jewish Community Foundation. I understand the importance of giving—both in time and money. I am also proud to be an endowed Lion of Judah. We support our community by being fiscally responsible and growing membership. The most important thing you can do is try to make a difference and leave your legacy for those who come after you.
Some years ago, the Crown Market was in danger of closing. Together with a few other families, my husband and I invested some money to keep the store open. And while some may think of it as just a kosher supermarket, it is a big part of our larger community. If our work doesn’t support the larger community, where is the focus?
Of course, the work you’re probably most proud of is Alyssa’s Angel Fund. Would you mind saying a bit about the creation of that fund and what led up to it?
When our daughter, Alyssa, was born, we knew something was wrong the night we brought her home. She was three days old at the time, and we rushed her to the hospital, where we learned she had just an hour left to survive. At that point, she was experiencing full renal failure and we had no idea why. They put her on an IV right away, which saved her life, but then we spent the next six months trying to find out what was wrong.
We finally brought her to a medical facility in New York and they did a blood DNA test that gave us the diagnosis of Glycogen Storage Disease type la (GSD), a genetic disease that is prevalent among Jews. From there, we were connected to a doctor in Florida who specialized in GSD, and he spent almost three and a half hours on the phone with me, discussing the disease and letting me know that it is manageable and Alyssa would be okay. Essentially, the regimen for the disease is corn starch; it slowly metabolizes in her body and keeps her alive.
We flew down to Florida to meet the specialist, and while we were in the hospital, I overheard him on the phone talking to another family experiencing GSD … and it just sounded bad. After telling us it was going to be okay, I couldn’t understand why another family was getting such bad news. He explained that not all families are able to be compliant; in fact, they couldn’t afford to be compliant and buy the regimen the disease requires. That really set us on a path of understanding that, as difficult as Alyssa’s life is, there are families who can’t even afford the box of corn starch that is going to keep their child alive—never mind the medical expenses, especially for a family who is uninsured or just making ends meet. So we wrote the doctor a check and said, “Don’t ever say ‘no.’ If you need to fly a patient down to see you, or buy them a lifetime supply of corn starch, do it.” And that was really the beginning of Alyssa’s Angel Fund.
What would you say to other Jewish women who would like to get more involved in the community but don’t know where to start?
First of all, be brave. It’s not always easy to speak up and say, “I want to get involved.” We watch our kids struggle to find their way socially, looking for the group they’re going to fit in with, and honestly, it can feel the same for us as adults. But don’t let that stop you; sometimes you get that fit on the first try, and sometimes it takes several tries. Regardless, remember that what you have to offer is a secret until you share it with someone else. Everybody has something to offer, and there’s a place for everyone in the Jewish community.