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 Melissa Weinstock, co-founder of Deeds for Needs, community volunteer extraordinaire and longtime Federation supporter. Melissa was nominated by Kathy Fishman.
What inspired you to get involved in our Jewish community?
It’s how I was raised. My family was involved with our local Jewish Federation when I was growing up in Pittsburgh. I went on a Federation mission to Israel with my family when I was 16 and remember making a gift to the campaign in my own name. My husband moved to Greater Hartford right out of college, and in 1993 when I graduated, I followed not knowing anyone else. We pretty quickly joined Beth El Temple and then a few years later, I got involved with Federation and met some of my best friends at outreach events: Stephanie Gitlin at VOICES (as two pregnant working women, we were “fixed up” by Charna Kaufman and Carolyn Gitlin), Robin Fierston at a Federation event at Nancy Baron’s house, and Dana Keller at a paint night at The Claypen.
What have you done to make a positive impact?
In 2004, Stephanie, Robin and I decided we wanted to start our own business and formed a nonprofit of our own called Deeds for Needs, Inc. We wanted to give back by helping Jews in our community in a hands-on way. We are very small but mighty! We work with existing agencies and local clergy to fulfill a very diverse and ever-changing range of requests. For example, we have paid for hearing aids for Holocaust survivors; covered car repairs, medical costs and moving expenses; and helped a young single mother move her children to a safer neighborhood. We’ve served about 115 clients over the past 15 years, and I’m beyond proud of our work.
A few years ago I was honored to participate in the Wexner Heritage Program, an intense 2-year national leadership development program offered locally through Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation. I learned a lot about Jewish history, practices and traditions and also much about the current problems that we are facing. This inspired me to organize two programs to help prepare Jewish high school students for college and university life, which can be challenging to say the least for Jews and supporters of Israel.
I am involved with the Lillian Fund giving circle at the Jewish Community Foundation, which awards grants to address the challenges of women and children here and in Israel. And I was a Children’s Reading Partners volunteer at Milner School in Hartford for three years. Currently, I serve on the boards of Jewish Family Services, Beth El Temple and Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council. I am also training with Legion to learn Israeli self-defense, which is a new program offered in our community.
What role has Judaism played in your life?
I love being Jewish and I love, love, love our Jewish community here in Greater Hartford! I make Jewish values and practice part of my life in big and small ways – from my volunteer work to saying the Shema at the end of every yoga practice. And I work really hard to create joy and Shalom Bayit (peace at home) for my family. I make challah every Friday, we celebrate the holidays together, and we have passed along and created many Jewish traditions. My kids have been involved with the Jewish community since day one. They have attended the Mandell JCC’s Early Childhood Center and the Schechter preschool, and every year we help out as a family with Jewish Family Services’ Thanksgiving food drive.
What was your biggest challenge, and what is your proudest accomplishment?
My biggest challenge was battling breast cancer and coming out of it stronger. Cancer sucks and I’m so grateful that mine was detected early and it’s behind me. I felt a deep connection to my Judaism throughout my diagnosis and treatment, and I genuinely felt the power of prayer firsthand. The outpouring of love and positivity from my community literally carried me through. My mantra when I was going through treatment was “grace+GRIT” as I knew I needed more of both. Since then, I’ve fulfilled my dream of opening my own store (two stores, actually) called – you guessed it – grace+GRIT. I sell activewear but it’s really about helping people look and feel good so they can be their best. Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) is also part of the grace+GRIT mission. About a year ago I hosted a Federation yoga class and shopping night and donated a percentage of sales. I’ve hosted trunk shows to raise money for other charities, I sell clothing to fundraise for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and I’m super excited to dress models for the Mandell JCC’s Evening of Friends, Fun and Fashion in April 2019, which benefits the Adult Special Needs Program.
My proudest accomplishment is hands-down my family: my 24-year marriage to my best friend, Randy, and our three incredible children, Jordan (21), Evan (19) and Sylvie (16). I am proud of the fact that my children love being Jewish. Their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were three of the best days of my life, and the memories of our family trip to Israel will be cherished always. The fact that my children still volunteer with Chabad’s Friendship Circle and will all participate in Birthright missions to Israel – without my nagging! – is the icing on the cake.
Is there any advice you’d like to share with other women?
- Don’t ever discount your Judaism and your ability to contribute. Even small acts repair the world: helping a child learn to read, smiling at a stranger, or baking a challah for a friend who is facing an obstacle. Don’t ever say “I’m not a good Jew because I don’t keep kosher, go to services, donate enough money,” etc. We don’t all have to do the same things, but it’s important that we all do something!
- Our community has a never-ending list of Jewish opportunities to learn and grow and do! Pick something that appeals to you and soak it all up: the programs and events offered by Federation, our many synagogues, Jewish Family Services and our bustling Mandell JCC. Shop at The Crown, volunteer with Children’s Reading Partners, help organize Tara’s Closet, or take a class to brush up on your Hebrew.
- Exercise your body as well as your mind. Working out every day – whether it’s yoga, bootcamp, Krav Maga or going for a walk or run – keeps me more balanced as a human being and as a Jew. Being healthy and strong enables each of us to better serve our family and our beloved community.
To nominate a Jewish woman from Greater Hartford to be featured in a Women of Impact profile, contact Meredith Chandler, Associate Vice President, Development and Director, Women’s Philanthropy at email@example.com or 860.727.6125.