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Leader is a builder of consensus

Meredith Dragon was in her young 20s, living in Israel and studying Hebrew when a presentation from an English visitor changed her career path.

The guest speaker saw great potential in Dragon and asked if she wanted to move to a different part of the country to work with the Joint Israel Appeal, working with donors, showing them how their gifts were having an impact in Israel. The work began to open Dragon’s eyes to the activities of Jewish community agencies.

“Where I grew up on the east end of Long Island, there was a very small Jewish community, and our community life really only centered around synagogues,” says Dragon, 45. “When I started doing this work in Israel it really showed me the great work that Jewish agencies do. It led me into this new career I never knew I would have.”

Now, after stops in Jacksonville, Fla., and western Massachusetts to work in Jewish agencies, that path has brought Dragon here. In April she became the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester, succeeding the retiring Lawrence Fine.

Dragon says she is ready to bring her more than two decades of working in Jewish communal agencies to the position here. She has plans to extend the organization’s reach in the community while creating new fundraising connections and leading the federation on a new strategic planning process.

Dragon also has been getting more deeply involved with the mission of the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester, which focuses on enriching the lives of Jews in Rochester as well as those in Israel and across the world. Locally, the organization sponsors programs that serve families and children in the Jewish community, interfaith programs and those benefiting the entire community.

The agency, which employs 21 people, also allocates funds to other agencies, including Jewish Family Service of Rochester Inc. and the Jewish Community Center.

Dragon sees great potential for the organization.

“This is really such a generous and tight-knit community,” she says. “I’m so excited to get started.”

Background
Dragon’s original career plans did not include Jewish community organizations, she says. She received a degree in sociology and environmental land use planning from Bowdoin College in Maine and had ideas of using it to develop environmentally sustainable communities.

“That background actually ended up forming the foundation of my work with Jewish federations because they really are about community building,” she says.

After working as a volunteer coordinator for the Joint Israel Appeal within Israel, Dragon had a chance to return to the United States and take a position as assistant executive director of the Jewish Federation of Jacksonville.

“They really took a chance on me, and I just fell in love with the work and had a passion for everything they were trying to accomplish,” she says. “Even though I kind of entered Jewish service through a back door, and it wasn’t in my original ideas of where my career would go, I felt like I found my calling there.”

Dragon spent 13 years in the position, but said as her family grew she began looking for something different. With a husband and three young children—and having exhausted the work she was able to do in an assistant executive director position—Dragon took a job in western Massachusetts, where she could serve as director of a Jewish federation and be closer to family she had in the Northeast.

Though the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts was a smaller organization than the one in Jacksonville, Dragon says it gave her a chance to spread her wings and take on new responsibilities.

“I really had my hand in everything there,” she says. “I had a great opportunity to do some innovative work, and it was the first time as executive director that I really had a chance to run my own shop.”

She was not looking for a new opportunity, but when the search committee at the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester approached her about the vacancy that would come with Fine’s retirement, she says she had to listen.

“This is a place with such a great reputation in the Jewish communal world,” Dragon says. “It’s a place with great volunteerism and great donors and such a vibrant and healthy Jewish community. When they came knocking, it would have been foolish for me not to answer.”

Rochester had several advantages built in, Dragon says. As a larger organization than the one she led in Massachusetts, Rochester would have the staff and resources to allow her to tackle plans she had been unable to before.

The federation here also had a strong foundation laid by years of work by Fine, Dragon adds.

“I had known Larry for a while through the Jewish Federations of North America, where we served on a committee together,” she says. “I’ve always had a great relationship with him, and to follow someone with such a long and great career is an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. It’s really an honor to be able to follow Larry and build on the work that he has done.”

Meeting stakeholders
In her first few weeks on the job, Dragon thinks she may have seen the inside of every restaurant in the Greater Rochester area.

As a newcomer to the region, she has made an effort to connect with every donor, stakeholder and community leader to discuss the work that lies ahead for her. That has meant breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings.

“I pride myself on being a good listener, and I think my job is to start listening as much as possible while processing everything I’m hearing to create a vision,” she says. “Everyone has been so happy to share with me.

“I’m using that opportunity to meet with our great donors and see their vision for the community, and I’m starting to synthesize what I’ve heard from them with pieces I’ve heard from our leadership to start to think about setting some strategic goals.”

Fine has been an excellent resource as well, Dragon says.

“When I first arrived, Larry took the week off and said he would be here for whatever I needed,” she says. “He’s been so supportive and helpful. I can’t ask more of someone who is retiring. He’s given me a lot of honest answers to questions I have, giving me what I need to know and also helping understand what the pitfalls are.”

Dragon says there will be more work in meeting people, especially the leaders of local community agencies and synagogues.

Listening to different stakeholders and incorporating their views and desires into a cohesive path forward is a particular strength of Dragon, says Susan Klein, former board chairwoman at the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. Dragon gained a reputation as a consensus builder during her time there, Klein notes.

“She had a wonderful ability to listen to everyone, taking in a number of different viewpoints and coming up with a path that everyone supported and everyone felt like they were part of,” Klein says.

Her work so far in connecting with leaders of the Jewish community and the Rochester community at large has been impressive, says Leslie Crane, the organization’s chairwoman.

“She really has hit the ground running,” Crane says. “It’s clear that she’s very excited to be in Rochester and has been such a good listener to the needs and potential of the Jewish Federation. She’s been great at really listening to different people and diverse views and starting to fit it all together.”

Dragon says the work so far has energized her.

“It’s been a busy few weeks, but I’m really having a great time so far,” she says. “As I get in the car every morning to drive down East Avenue for work I’m always really excited to do it.”

Dragon also has taken the time to get acclimated to the Rochester community. She has been exploring the local arts scene and is impressed with the depth of the community.

“Growing up in the New York and Long Island area, everything was very New York and Long Island-centered,” she says. “I had a different idea of what Rochester was than what it really is, and I feel a little guilty that I didn’t know it was as interesting as it is. I’ve been so pleasantly surprised about the arts and cultural scene and all there is to do here.”

Dragon plans to put deeper roots in the area soon. She has been living in an apartment in Rochester but is looking to buy a home where her husband and three children will join her in a few weeks when the school year ends and they leave Massachusetts.

“It’s been a busy time traveling from Rochester to Massachusetts, but my husband has been so great in taking care of all of it in wrapping up everything there,” she says. “He really deserves husband of the year.”

Dragon also is hoping to take advantage of the warming weather to get outside.

“I’m an avid cyclist and runner, but I’ve been a bit too busy to get out yet,” she says.

Planning ahead
Things within the Jewish Federation will be getting busier as well, Dragon says. As she continues meeting with stakeholders, Dragon has been putting together plans for the future that include introducing a program she spearheaded in Western Massachusetts.

In her previous post, Dragon implemented a leadership development program that helped connect the Jewish Federation to what would become the next generation of community leaders. She would like to do the same thing in Rochester.

“This engaged with local agencies and synagogues to give the next generation of leaders some enriching, meaningful experiences so they can take over leadership positions if they want to,” she says. “We made it so they could frame what they were doing and what they wanted to get out of the experience. One thing I learned is that you can’t just give it to them and say, ‘This is what we’re doing for you.’ You’ve got to do it in partnership with them so they can take ownership of their experiences.”

Dragon also has plans to better streamline the organization internally and take a deeper look at fundraising to make sure it is being done as efficiently as possible. The work will culminate with the creation of a new strategic plan, Dragon says.

Like her first few weeks in the job, this is a process that will need the input of the community, she says.

“We want the community to have a voice in that so we make sure we’re all on the same track and headed in the same direction,” she says. “Involving people and figuring out that strategy is exciting work, and we think that engaging the community is key to everything we do moving forward. We have such a great community here, and we want them all to feel like they’re part of our future.”

Meredith Dragon
Position: CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester
Age: 45
Education: B.S. in sociology and environmental studies, Bowdoin College, Portland, Maine, 1993
Family: Husband Zeev; sons Matan, Ori and Etai
Residence: Rochester
Activities: Cycling, running, gardening, knitting
Quote: “We want the community to have a voice in that so we make sure we’re all on the same track and headed in the same direction. Involving people and figuring out that strategy is exciting work, and we think that engaging the community is key to everything we do moving forward. We have such a great community here, and we want them all to feel like they’re part of our future.”

5/20/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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