By Martie Thompson
With her career largely in the fundraising sector of the non profit industry, Mariam Feist brings her considerable expertise to her new position as CEO of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Northeast Florida. She was born and raised in Cherry Hill, NJ and said her family, which included two older brothers, was always very involved with the Jewish community. She said that her synagogue’s youth group and overnight camp helped form her Jewish identity. She first visited Israel in 1973 and was there at the start of the Yom Kippur War, which she called a huge influence on her passion and commitment to Israel. After college, she worked in multiple leadership positions with various non profits, but always found herself coming back to the organization of the Jewish Federation system. She and her husband Bob have two grown sons and now share their home with two rescue dogs, Archie and Hawkeye.
Q: How did you come to work in the nonprofit sector?
A: I earned a degree in social psychology from Goucher College in Maryland and upon graduation decided to be a buyer for Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s. My father said he didn’t send me to college to go into that business and so I became a youth director at the local Jewish Community Center. Eventually, I worked while going to grad school at Yeshiva University in New York City. After earning my master’s in social work, I had the opportunity to return to Cherry Hill and work for a Jewish Federation.
Q: How did you meet your husband?
A: My father’s wishes came true while I was working in Cherry Hill. My now husband, Bob, was getting his master’s in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and he worked in the building. There were a couple of older women I worked with who also wanted me to get married, and they made sure he came by our office regularly. We just celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary.
Q: What made you decide to move to Jacksonville?
A: I most recently worked for the past 10 years as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. During this time, three natural disasters, one of which was COVID, made me reassess my priorities. Our children were grown and I knew I didn’t want to end my career in Dallas. I missed being in the same time zone as my children and I missed the water. We actually never considered Florida, but as soon as we got to Jacksonville, it didn’t feel like “Florida” to us, but rather more like Cherry Hill, with its sense of community.
Q: Can you give some insight into exactly what the Jewish Federation and Foundation does?
A: There are 147 Federations in North America. I used to explain it to people by saying we are kind of like United Way … and then found out that United Way was actually formed 18 years after the Jewish Federation. So now I say that the United Way is like us. We fundraise and then disburse funds in this community and also in Israel and around the world. We also convene community leadership and development programs. We work with many agencies to help people get the services they need. Our role is to work at representing all of the community, just the Jewish community. We are not a political or religious organization.
Q: What do you like best about visiting Israel?
A: I call it the “magic of Israel.” It’s hard to explain, but I love seeing how it’s flourished and grown over the many years that I have been visiting. I love the people and the food. I think Israel is so critically important for the survival of Jewish people and I believe that in order for Northeast Florida to be vibrant and strong, so does Israel.
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
A: I love football; I’m a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan and also a Mizzou Tigers fan. I love to walk, eat, watch movies and spend time with my family. I also just started taking golf lessons.
[Editor’s Note: Visit www.jewishjacksonville.org for more information about the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Northeast Florida and how you can help.]
Photo courtesy Jewish Federation & Foundation of Northeast Florida