Mazel Tov to a Woman for the World: Annie Sandler is first JDC vice president from Tidewater

by | Feb 27, 2020 | Other News

Annie Sandler lights a lantern at Magen Avoth Synagogue in Alibaug, India, an ancient Jewish area where the Benei Israel, one of the lost tribes, landed 2000 years ago.

As a young married woman living in Virginia Beach, Annie Sandler began to build a rare and rewarding Jewish communal life. Powerful influences include husband Art Sandler; in-laws, Reba and Sam Sandler; Dr. Zvi Feine, and various female leaders on national United Jewish Appeal and United Jewish Communities (UJC), now the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), boards, including her local mentor Karen Lombart. Inspired by these role models, Sandler immersed herself in the field work necessary to co-create templates for self-sustaining Jewish communities around the world.

Today, Sandler continues to hone her skills as a leader, mentor, fundraiser, and trusted advisor who holds long-term board positions with national Jewish agencies such as American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, Hadassah Brandeis Institute, and 14 years on the National Women’s Philanthropy Board. She always enjoys hearing worldwide Jewish speakers with an eye on returning home to enrich the community with new insights.

In every role, Sandler’s views are filtered through the lens of a world traveler whose site visits to Israel, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, India, and Manila are a weapon of mass education. In her eight years as chairperson of the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, the premier applied social research institute in Israel, for example, Sandler helped set policy and work with the deputy directors of all five ministries.

“It took participation on many missions to Israel to understand in depth the impact of social research and outcome-based evaluations on the many programs financed by Diaspora Jewry,” says Sandler. “Questions like: Why were school children out of school so early in the afternoon? What do their academic accomplishments look like compared to other groups within Israel? What’s the matriculation level in each community? Do they participate in the IDF? What does care for the elderly look like? When you do site visits to different programs in Israel, the background and outcomes are critical. Serving on the board requires me to answer these questions with quantitative data and intense first-hand field work insight.”

Art Sandler’s wife—and the mother of their four children, Leyla, Jessica, Max, and Dylan—wasn’t born Jewish. Annie Laurie Hebson met and married Sandler, a Virginia Beach-based philanthropist and global Jewish community leader. In preparation for conversion, Sandler studied with Rabbi Joseph Goldman, who presented a historical perspective of Judaism that made sense to her. She fell in love again. This time it was with Judaism and Art’s community. “Judaism permeated my heart. Jewish values, practices, and its peoplehood were the foundation that sparked my love affair.

“Art is the strongest example I have of passion and dedication,” says Sandler. “He stands behind everything he asks of others. He’s all action, few words.”

In 2020, Mark Sisisky, newly elected JDC president, chose Annie Sandler as JDC vice president. JDC is also known as the Joint. The American Joint Distribution Committee was founded in 1914 as the first Jewish organization in the United States to dispense large scale funding for international relief. Sandler is the first person in Tidewater chosen to join the JDC’s prestigious leadership circle as vice president.

“My new role as vice president is a senior position that recognizes my contribution to Israeli society, as well as my history as a trusted senior advisor to Mark Sisisky, who I am beyond excited to work with in moving the JDC agenda ahead. I look forward to expanding opportunities for more JDC board members. My goal is to encourage inclusivity and participation on committees, and to promote the development of better ambassadors for JDC.”

JDC’s enduring mission addresses critical needs globally with vision, transparency, integrity, kindness. Its power to ‘partner up’ with government agencies and philanthropic funders, and transform communities hasn’t slowed down in 100 years and gets stronger because of people like Annie Sandler who came to this role with eight years of proven board leadership, enthusiasm, mega project readiness, and relevant expertise, particularly her work with the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute in Israel.

Annie Sandler with the Edible Gardens Initiative, green schoolyards for outdoor learning.

Decades of field work attending and leading Federation missions in Haiti, Ethiopia, Romania, and by serving multiple roles on numerous boards has only deepened her love of Judaism. Sandler got hooked on JDC through Dr. Zvi Feine’s introduction to Romania. JDC revived a virtually depleted Jewish community by developing leadership and educational skills, and transforming it into a self-sustaining community. The JDC model: ‘We’re going help you and develop your community so you can help yourself.’

Recognition as a JDC leader takes more than money. “Here’s what I learned about JDC. You have to be enthusiastic and willing to work really hard, and people have to trust you. You also have to be encouraging and get other people to participate,” says Sandler.

“Annie is a trusted advisor who possesses a deep reservoir of knowledge about JDC and our work around the world. In Israel, Annie is deeply respected and loved for her empathy, grasp of important issues and her invaluable strength of listening, and furthering her collaboration with our outstanding professionals,” says Sisisky. “By all measures, Annie is a seasoned, proven leader and philanthropist in the Jewish world, and I am honored to have her by my side at JDC.”

Sandler’s extensive portfolio at JDC includes past Board Engagement co-chair; Annual Board Fund co-chair; chair of the Ralph Goldman Fellowship; Resource Development Committee; Human Resources Committee; Global Planning Committee; Africa-Asia Committee; Executive Committee; Nominating Committee, and CEO Search Committee.

“While I was on the ground in places like Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania and saw what was happening at Camp Svarvas in Hungary, JDC revealed itself as an agency with heart and soul. The JDC assistance model sinks deeply into my soul and who I am as a participant and leader,” says Sandler.

Romania was Sandler’s first love. Helping to rewrite its story, and witnessing the transformation is a personal highlight among many. “I rode in on Art’s coattails back when he was the JDC chairman of East Europe,” she says. “I don’t know what it was. Romania spoke to me. Some of the site visits were heart wrenching but I saw potential for renewal, one of the pillars JDC stands on.

“Kids would go through their parents’ things and find out they’re Jewish. There was nothing in the way of a Jewish identity. When we got there, it was like an 1870s throwback,” says Sandler, referring to a funky building outside of Bucharest. “Nobody knew how to do Shabbos. There was no Jewish family structure. They cooked in the basement barely scraping things together.

“In Romania, I saw that I could participate and make a difference.”

So, the Sandlers got the ball rolling. They took a building on some property outside Bucharest, returned to the community by the Claims Conference, and re-imagined it as a dynamic year-round Jewish center that draws people to the community.

Camp Cristian supports itself today and hasn’t had the need for JDC funds in two years.

“What they have built since, I’m in awe,” says Sandler. Camp Cristian brought the community together and added a new element of volunteerism that never existed before.

As the new JDC vice president, Sandler recalls the impact of Camp Szarvas on kids from all over the world, including her own children who visited and participated on different occasions. It was the catalyst for Camp Cristian. “At Szarvas, kids were introduced to Judaism. They were excited about their Jewish roots, but when the camp session was over, Romanian children had nothing to come back to.”

Camp Cristian enabled Jewish children and teens to come back to Romania and continue their own Jewish education—and educate their parents. Today there is a center that hums with activity. The teens have built a network from all over Romania through their camp experience.

“It’s a whole program with music clubs, programs for the elderly, early childhood, just like our JCC,” says Sandler.

JDC is one of Tidewater’s main overseas partners.

“I would love for our community to know that their fingerprints are all over these renewals. Taking members of the Tidewater community to Camp Cristian and experiencing Shabbos together was so powerful to me. There is a real foundation now. Unless things go nuts with anti-Semitism or something, that trend should continue.”

Being chosen as the first person in Tidewater to hold the JDC VP position has special meaning to Sandler. “UJFT doesn’t realize how much it is respected for its status as an overseas community. This means we commit to Jews wherever they are, no matter what the circumstances. It’s kind of crazy to be in meetings and hear people talk about ‘midsize’ communities and then use Tidewater as an example in the overseas arena.”

– Lisa Richmon