In December 2010, a forest fire erupted on the outskirts of Haifa, Israel, and quickly spread, ravaging 12,000 acres in a matter of hours, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and claiming 44 lives, including that of a teenage volunteer firefighter.
For 28 years, Haifa has been Boston’s “sister city,” with some 100 active joint social welfare projects binding the two municipalities. Hearing the news, Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, did what he is known to do when he learns people are hurting:
Finding some way to ease the hurt, regardless of the toll it takes on his own hectic life, one marked by legendary sleep deprivation.
Shrage canceled his appointments, hopped a plane to Israel while the fire’s ashes were still smoking and set about visiting grieving families, holding their hands, sitting and crying with them. Then he hurled himself into meetings to figure out which schools and which community centers needed what help — who needed counseling, who needed buildings rebuilt, who needed interrupted programs restored.
And then he raised the money for it all, by phone, by email, by text message, before hopping back on a return flight to Boston, where he is consumed full time with figuring out ways to help those in need.
This week’s announcement that the 69-year-old Shrage will retire after 30 years as head of CJP, Massachusetts’ largest nonprofit, was a jolt not just to Boston’s Jewish community, but to the community at large.
With more than 160 employees and hundreds of volunteers, CJP under Shrage’s leadership has become a nationally recognized force for social good, conceiving and funding programs that touch virtually every segment of society: refugees, the elderly, the sick, the poor, the young and the hungry. It partners with organizations across the spectrum of Boston’s civic life.
Two days before he announced his retirement, Shrage was feverishly hitting the phones drumming up support for one of his newest initiatives: a collaboration with Catholic Charities to organize volunteer lawyers to counsel Boston’s immigrant population.
The Jewish community that Shrage leads is famously passionate, with an array of interests that clash and reconcile, rage and subside. Shrage fields the endless inquiries and demands with a gentleness borne of a love of people that complements his love of humanity.
“Luckiest guy alive!” he replies to those who ask him how he puts up with all of it.
Turns out, we’ve been the lucky ones.
Jeff Robbins, a former U.S. delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, is an attorney in Boston.
This tribute first appeared in the Boston Herald.