Each month our Women of Impact profile features a local woman, nominated by a local community member, who is making an impact in our community. For this month’s profile, Meredith Chandler spoke with Lisa Berman, who serves on several boards while balancing her volunteer work with a part-time career teaching reading intervention one-on-one or in a small group setting at the Wolcott Elementary School in West Hartford. Lisa was nominated by Melissa Weinstock, who said, “Lisa is one of the kindest and most caring human beings on the planet, and we are so lucky to have her in our community.”
What inspired you to get involved in our Jewish community?
Being raised in Manchester, Connecticut, there was a very small Jewish population. Because of this my parents, Linda and Barry Snyder, and my grandparents, Israel and Shirley Snyder, always felt the importance of instilling in me the values and teachings of Judaism. I was extremely fortunate to have my Bubby and Zaddie live a few streets away from me. My brother, my parents, and I enjoyed monthly Shabbat dinners with my grandparents and attended Shabbat services with them at Temple Beth Sholom (now Beth Sholom B’nai Israel). They always emphasized giving of ourselves in any way we could - whether it was picking vegetables from my Zaddie’s garden and delivering them to synagogue members who were sick, making matzah ball soup with my Bubby, or volunteering as a candy striper at the Hebrew Home and Hospital, where I painted residents’ nails, read them books and combed their hair. My family often told me, “Lisa, we are the wealthiest people in the world. Not monetarily, but because of our health, our family and our ability to lend a helping hand when someone needs one.”
So much of who I am today is because of my upbringing. Both of my parents were role models in different ways and were active members of our synagogue. My mom wasn’t only a stay-at-home mom; she was president of ORT, a leader in Project Concern, worked part time for the Judaic Studies Program at UCONN, and in later years was an assistant to the Vice President of the University of Hartford. She always had the desire to do more than just care for her family; she needed fulfillment in other ways too. She taught me to appreciate the importance of the different roles one can play in life. Her example led me to get involved with the Jewish community when my own children, Max and Brett, were young, and helped me deal with my grief when she passed away 12 years ago.
I have a college degree in K-12 special education and K-6 elementary education. I began teaching special education in Hartford right out of college. When my first son was born in 2000 with bilateral club feet, I decided to become a stay-at-home mom and put teaching aside for a while. When Max defied the odds after numerous surgeries to correct his feet and took his first steps to walk independently, my husband and I decided to grow our family. Our son Brett was born in 2002 and diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy on his right side. At that point, volunteering became an outlet for me. My aunt Elaine introduced me to the Hebrew Home Auxiliary and I very quickly became a member. The Auxiliary ladies became role models to me. Years later I became co-president of the Auxiliary with Pia Rosenberg Toro. I also took a Jewish Studies class led by Shayna Gopin, for seven years, and built a very special friendship with the other women in my class.
What have you done to make a positive impact?
I’ve volunteered in so many different ways through the years. I was fortunate enough to participate in the Frank Stavis Leadership Program for young adults, a collaboration between the Federation and the Mandell JCC. I attended a mission trip to Israel gifted by this program, chaired an at-home backyard fundraiser for the Orthopedic Division of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and served as a board member for the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) and The Emanuel Synagogue. Currently, I serve on the board of Jewish Family Services (JFS) and am a member of the Hall High School PTO. I also chair the Volunteer Committee and the Possibilities Team for JFS. I’ve chaired and co-chaired numerous fundraising events such as the Mega Challah Bake for Chabad, The Hebrew Home’s Strawberry Festival and Bugbee Elementary School’s Auction Night.
I truly believe that delving in hands-first is most rewarding, but sometimes there just isn’t enough time to be as involved and do all that you want. There are many organizations that my husband and I support, including the Embracing a Child Program at JFS, the Mandell JCC, Chabad and Friendship Circle, Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford. Getting involved and giving back has given me emotional strength and a great network of lifelong friends.
Today I’m continuing to build my leadership skills as a member of the highly respected Community Leadership Initiative (CLI). It is a year-long program of the Jewish Leadership Academy designed to help experienced lay leaders develop the knowledge and skills essential to steering our Jewish organizations in increasingly challenging times.
What was your biggest challenge, and what is your proudest accomplishment?
I have two. My biggest challenges and my proudest accomplishments are the same. When both of my sons were born with mild physical disabilities and my mother was diagnosed with cancer, my life was quickly put into perspective. I learned that G-d only gives you what you can handle. Watching my boys defy the odds and take their first steps was truly my greatest accomplishment.
The same goes for my relationship with my mom, Linda Iris Forman Snyder. She was there for me my entire life, and then I was there for her and saw her through to the end of a five-year battle with stomach cancer. When she passed away, I utilized all my resources and friendships to throw a fundraising party in her memory. I used the proceeds to create a scholarship fund in her name at the University of Hartford. I created the fund to honor her passion to try to learn something new every day. She also worked very hard to put herself through the University of Hartford and earn her degree.
I’m so proud of my sons not only for overcoming the obstacles and challenges that they faced, but also because they are committed to giving back. One did his Bar Mitzvah project for the Miracle League of Greater Hartford, and the other did his for Jonathan’s Dream Reimagined. I was taught to help others and now I know that they have learned this lesson too. It’s the ultimate example of L’Dor V’Dor (from generation to generation).
What role has Judaism played in your life?
Judaism has always been an important touchstone in my life, and I’m so thrilled that my sons are embracing their heritage. Both Max and Brett attended Schechter’s preschool program and we are active members at The Emanuel Synagogue. In fact, not only did Rabbi Lazowski Bar Mitzvah my husband Evan and perform our wedding, he also participated in our son Max’s Bar Mitzvah! I’d say that L’Dor V’Dor, passing on traditions, and Tikkun Olam, giving back, are the two most important pieces of Judaism for me.
Is there any advice you’d like to share with other women?
Life isn’t always easy, and G-d only gives you what you can handle. That is what I live by. So it’s up to you how you want to live in the time we are here, the role model you want to be for your children or those you love, and how you want to be remembered when you are gone. You can never go wrong when you are helping others, making a kind gesture and saying hi to people you don’t know - because good deeds will always make you feel good.