Navigating Challenges and Embracing Hope

This month marks my fifth year with Action-PSJ and my fourth as its first full-time Executive Director. Action-PSJ will soon be marking its fifty years in service.

As the leader of a legacy organization born from the grassroots movement for Soviet Jewry, I find myself reflecting on the past five years with a mix of pride, resilience, and determination. The organization’s history and values have been consistent throughout its work and impact.

When I became involved in 2019, my task was straightforward: modernize the organization’s operations, re-engage long-time supporters, involve the next generation, and increase our impact and capacity to meet the needs of the people and communities we serve in the Former Soviet Union. Stay true to the founding values of the organization.

The board voted me in as the full-time Executive Director at the beginning of March 2020.

We knew the challenge of a leadership transition would be significant for the organization. Judy Patkin was retiring after being with the organization from its beginning. This type of change is significant for an organization by itself.
We did not know the immediately following years would be marked by unprecedented challenges, including leadership transitions in Ukraine, a global pandemic, a war with Russia, as well as Oct. 7th, with the aftermath of increased global antisemitism. Even as I write these words and even though I worked through each crisis, it is still unreal that these global events have occurred one after the other.

Our small yet mighty organization has persevered, adapted, and remained steadfast in its mission. I am proud of its impact then and now and of our plans for the future.
Here are five reflections to mark my fifth anniversary:

Emergency Planning on Steroids: Leading an organization through a whirlwind of crises, from a sudden leadership change to the upheaval caused by a global pandemic, an unexpected war ongoing with Russia, and now Oct.7th has been akin to emergency planning on steroids. Each challenge tested our resilience, resourcefulness, and ability to navigate uncertainty. Yet, through careful planning, swift decision-making, and unwavering determination, we have weathered the storms and emerged stronger and more united as an organization. It has been essential to lean in on advisors, such as Action-PSJ’s Executive Committee, and reach out to mentors and consultants who can help guide and advise.

Embracing Change Amidst Uncertainty: The world around us can change rapidly and unexpectedly, but the most significant barrier to organizational change often lies within ourselves. As leaders, we must confront our own resistance to change and cultivate a mindset of adaptability, flexibility, and openness to new ideas. Embracing change is not always easy, but it is essential for organizational growth and sustainability in an ever-evolving landscape. Change within an organization can be a challenge Even positive change can cause anxiety. Action-PSJ faced concentric circles of change in the organization’s inner workings and the world around us, which was also changing rapidly and unexpectedly. This operational cognitive dissonance, between wanting to hold on to the inherent muscle memory of the historical work of the organization and the rapidly and unpredictable emerging needs, creates an enduring tension. This is often where the resistance to change is found.

Understanding Our History to Shape the Future: Understanding our organization’s history becomes paramount in times of uncertainty and upheaval. By delving into our past, we gain valuable insights into what has shaped us, the challenges we have overcome, and the principles we hold dear. Armed with this knowledge, we can make informed decisions about the present and chart a positive course for the future, mindful of the lessons learned from our history. It is essential to distinguish between the values, purpose, and actual work. Often, the what will change however, the why will stay consistent. Action-PSJ why has been steadfast– To meet unmet needs. How we have done this has changed over the years, but meeting people’s needs that other organizations have not fully met is at the core of what Action has done since 1974.

The Power of Relationships: Our organization’s heart lies in our relationships with our stakeholders, partners, and the communities we serve. These relationships form the bedrock of our work, weaving a web of support, solidarity, and collaboration that sustains us through the toughest times. With our new database, I can see that many supporters have supported Action’s work since the beginning. There are three turning points for the organization. Founders– who have supported Action since its days as a refusenik organization. Those who came on in the early 1990s to help rebuild Jewish life in the former Soviet States. And most of those of you who have recently joined to support our work.

The organization’s strength comes from your philanthropic support, your generosity of time, spirit, and care.

These relationships build the organization’s foundation for meaningful change and impact.

Hope is our most powerful ally in the face of adversity. The light guides us through the darkest days, the fuel that propels us forward when the path ahead seems uncertain. As we reflect on the past five years and look toward the future, let us hold onto hope for a brighter tomorrow, peace and stability, and hope for a world where justice, compassion, and unity prevail.

There is a very famous saying from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), Chapter 2:16; He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it;

While this text may not seem as hopeful as it reads, I like to interrupt it, as even when the goal seems unachievable, you should stretch yourself to do your best. This means acknowledging the work, identifying what you think are your limits, and trying to push yourself a little further. Do this with full knowledge that you will not complete the task but with the hope that you can move the needle a little bit and that others will come forward and take on the cause, building from your impact. Continuing to do the work through every challenge is the nexus of the Action-PSJ community. We do not look away. We support each other, and we continue to bring light and hope.

You are all my hope.
The Action-PSJ Board is my hope.

My colleagues in Ukraine are my hope– who today are sitting in darkness and without water due to Russia’s most recent missile attacks against Ukraine.

May this Shabbat and this Purim let in light and hope to the darkness of war.

Action for Post-Soviet Jewry

About the Author
Debbie Kardon is the Executive Director of Action-PSJ. She holds degrees from Syracuse University and Hebrew Union College in Social Work and Jewish Education. Debbie’s journey in the Jewish community began during her college years when she started teaching part-time at a local congregation. Following her graduation, Debbie dedicated many years of her career to working with homeless and at-risk teenagers. Throughout this time, she maintained a part-time involvement in the Jewish community, showing her commitment to both causes. After a period focusing on raising her three children, Debbie returned to the workforce, taking on leadership roles within Jewish non-profit organizations. Debbie’s reputation as a change agent and organizational leader is well-established. She has been instrumental in establishing innovative programs, securing funding, and leading the design and implementation of these initiatives. Her passion for Israel, yoga, teaching about the Holocaust, and spending quality time with her now-adult children are integral aspects of her life.