Janet Weinstein Mercadante: The value of giving

by | Jan 11, 2013 | Uncategorized

Janet Weinstein Mercadante on the balcony of Hotel Parque Central in Havana, Cuba.

Janet Weinstein Mercadante on the balcony of Hotel Parque Central in Havana, Cuba.

As an investment advisor and partner with the firm, The Alcaraz Mercadante West Investment Group of Wells Fargo Advisors, Janet Mercadante takes the responsibility of investing her clients’ money very seriously. For 22 years, she has helped people plan for their retirements by managing their personal wealth portfolios and consulting with businesses about their corporate retirement plans. Her mother, Grace W. Weinstein, a pioneer in the finance industry, was a freelance writer, a member of the Consumer Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Board, a columnist for the Financial Times and Investor’s Business Daily, editor of Money Matters newsletter and the author of more than a dozen books. She balanced family, work and community involvement, inspiring her daughter to do the same.

Beyond work, Mercadante’s life passions include her family, friends and the Jewish community. Her daughter, Samantha, is a junior at Washington University in St. Louis and will spend the spring semester as a State Department intern at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Her 16-year-old son, Jared, spent a month in Israel last summer and hopes to do the same again this year.

When first new to Tidewater, Mercadante’s community involvement was defined by her gift to the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s annual campaign. “I received the Super Sunday phone call, and gave my obligatory pledge. I thought that I was doing enough until I realized that my gift felt empty,” she admits.

Wanting to feel connected, Mercadante began to volunteer. As her involvement increased, so did her understating of the Jewish community. “In time, the value of my gift became evident. I could clearly see the richness of the Jewish community’s infrastructure and the many compelling reasons to give,” she says.

Growing up Jewish was easy in Teaneck, N. J. in a community of 40,000 people with six synagogues. “I was enveloped in a world where everyone felt like family,” Mercadante says. “As a young girl,” she continues, “I loved going to Friday night and Saturday morning services at Congregation Beth Sholom. I spent a lot of time socializing with my friends. Our lives were intertwined because we spent our days together in secular school and then Hebrew school two days a week and Sunday school and services on the weekends.”

“My parents were very practical and arranged my Bat Mitzvah in the spring so that we could have an outdoor party even though my birthday was in February,” Mercadante laughs. Her simcha turned out to be a milestone for the Conservative temple when she became the first female to have a Saturday morning ceremony.

In 1987, Mercadante married her college boyfriend from University of Rochester, where they both studied. From Randolph, Mass., Rick Mercadante was brought up in an Italian, Catholic home, in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Willing to raise their children in a Jewish environment, he needed the reassurance that their experience would be more than just a trip to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Mercadante still remembers her husband’s one poignant question, “Why is it so important to you?”

She knew the answer immediately. Mercadante wanted to give her children the same sense of extended family that she had experienced. She wanted them to know the strength of shared communal values and the joy of Jewish celebration.

When the couple moved to Tidewater, she shopped for a synagogue until her husband suggested it was time to select a “home.” Mercadante felt most comfortable at Temple Emanuel because it was welcoming and intimate. To this day, she and her family are happy with her decision.

When she was asked to become a board member in 2004, Mercadante took the position with her husband’s encouragement. Sitting on the synagogue board for five years, she became finance chair and a member of the executive committee. Mercadante also served as the United Hebrew School’s president. She admits, “It’s not easy for children to attend classes after they finish a full day of school. I learned, ironically, it is the parents’ responsibility to demonstrate the right attitude, because ultimately it shapes the behavior of their children. I hope the depth of my commitment was evident to my children when they saw me volunteering. I feel fortunate that they received their education in a school setting.”

Shortly after her presidency in 2009, the UJFT women’s campaign arranged a leadership trip to Richmond’s Virginia Holocaust Museum. Honored to be asked to participate, Mercadante thought that it might be interesting to spend the day with other women passionate about Jewish community.

She enjoyed the diverse group who talked intimately about their volunteerism. “We came with different familial backgrounds, from varying neighborhoods, and from multiple synagogue affiliations, and yet we could all feel the strength of our community. It was the commonality between us that was more powerful than the differences,” Mercadante emphasizes. For that reason alone, she knew she had spent her time well.

The women told stories about their involvement with the Federation affiliated agencies. Everyone enjoyed the bus conversations, the laughter, the meals and the museum tour, which provided experiential learning, quite different from Washington, DC’s Holocaust Museum.

Just a year later, she was asked to be a member of UJFT’s Women’s Campaign Cabinet. She had already learned that her past perception of the group’s exclusivity, proved to be a myth. “I quickly came to realize that the Federation volunteers ask for money because they are dedicated to the wellbeing of the Jewish community and it is that commitment which bonds them. They work hard to inspire others and they give of their time,” she says.

“Through my own solicitations, I have found it extremely challenging to translate a firsthand experience into a conversation that resonates with another donor,” Mercadante admits. That is one of the reasons why she is excited about the new Jewish Women’s Salon, a program of 614 eZine in Tidewater. She loves the fact that the community is willing to bring together a diverse group of women to participate in relevant and controversial conversations. The program offers participants a common experience such as watching a movie or reading an article and then a forum to engage in a meaningful dialogue. Skilled at listening, Mercadante was one of the seminar leaders for the showing of the film, Miss Representation, and its subsequent dialogue.

After a four-day UJFT women’s mission to Cuba, Mercadante’s perception of the Jewish world has taken on new meaning. “When I witnessed Cuba’s Jewish vibrancy, I was awed to find out that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was able to reassemble it from the rubble left by Communism and to this day, continues to look after it. In front of us stood a grateful community that overtly clings to its heritage by relying on the kindness and generosity of Jews outside of Havana,” she explains. “The Jewish experience flourishes because the JDC astutely provides bus transportation from the outlying neighborhoods to the synagogue. I came back to the States with a mental image of the pride and happiness on the community members’ faces.”

Coincidently, several of her friends from the trip are also participants in UJFT’s Business and Legal Affinity Group, a newly formed association. Mercadante serves on its committee and often describes the events, as “a backstage pass to many wonderful speakers and presentations catering to its members’ interests.”

When she thinks of all the things that she has experienced, she points to the sign above her kitchen door given to her by a friend several years ago, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

With her brilliant smile she adds, “You know everyone has his or her challenges, but it is important to find the courage to walk through those moments, realize where they fit into the big picture and then put them behind you.” With her genuine radiance, her unwavering positive attitude and her desire to live life to its fullest, Mercadante turns each day into an asset and weaves her life purpose and the richness of her relationships into the fabric of her life.

by Karen Lombart