Interview by Jan Zatzman Orlansky
“Tip of the iceberg!” says Susan Leff when describing her position today as the Executive Director of Jewish Communities of Vermont (JCVT), and so it is. You’ll see what she means, as you read on.
There’s an expression that if you want something done, ask a busy person. This is the case with Susan Leff, who is an incredibly productive and busy person. Yet when asked if she would take on one more demanding task, such as fundraising for Temple Sinai, she did so, with great success, on more than one occasion. Susan is also very pleasant to work with and her calm demeanor belies a very strong work ethic and an ability to get things done in a timely fashion.
Susan grew up on a farm with 10 siblings outside of Syracuse, in Cato NY, although she was born in Auburn NY. By the time she was 5, she had 3 younger sisters. Her Dad was a scientist/inventor who held 700 patents, farmed 2000 acres and had 11 children. He was also her most important influence, as an involved parent. Her mom cared for Susan by having her help with whatever she was doing, so by the time Susan was 10, there wasn’t much that she couldn’t do by herself in the house or garden. Her Dad was the biggest influence in her life. by teaching her to be a critical thinker. Whenever she asked his permission to do something he would ask her to list all the reasons it would be a good idea and all of the negatives about doing whatever it was. Then he would ask whether she thought it was a good idea. By that time, Susan would have made up her mind about what she should or shouldn’t do. But he rarely stopped her, even if her decision was somewhat risky.
With so many siblings, they had no trouble in casting and putting on plays. They wrote long plays and performed them for their parents almost weekly. During scene changes, they did silly ‘commercials’. Susan would organize all her siblings for these productions and costumed everyone. They would also organize camping trips, parties, sewing clubs, art shows and cooking contests. These siblings now live in Montreal, Boston, Seattle and various cities and towns in upstate NY. They are all either artist/engineers or engineer/artists and have at least a Bachelor or Arts and/or Science and most have graduate degrees.
Susan attended Bennington College, where she met her future husband, Rick, with whom she was married for 25 years. They had four children: Rachel, Alexander, Jay and Asher. Rachel and Alex live in S. Burlington. Rachel works for New England Federal Credit Union and is married to Scott Van Ornum, who is a chef. Alex works for Green Mountain Electric Supply. Jay is an attorney with Arnold and Porter in Washington DC and recently was offered a clerkship in South Africa’s Constitutional Court and will be moving to South Africa in February 2019. Asher is married to Rosa, who is a skilled paper cutting artist and kindergarten teacher. Asher works at the Army National Lab in Baltimore, Maryland.
When asked what brought her to Burlington, Susan replied that after marriage she and her former husband decided to check out Burlington. Within a couple of days they both found jobs and Susan has lived in the area since 1974. Ultimately Susan would like to stay in Burlington, after she retires, but, as she said, her parents are still living and at 95, her Dad is still working, so she feels she has a few more projects to accomplish and may want to start an Organizational Consulting business, before retiring. In the meantime, Susan is focused on her responsibilities at JCVT and keeping up with some interesting hobbies, such as painting, reading (both history and historical novels), traveling and gardening. She recently designed and installed a beautiful garden in the courtyard of her condominium.
The path to choosing Judaism over her Presbyterian background was a long one. As a child she read All-of-a-Kind Family and then all of Chaim Potok’s books, starting with The Chosen. When in college, she minored in history and became dismayed by the disparity of what she was taught and the appalling persecution that, supposed, Christians perpetuated on the Jews and others in the name of religion. Then she married a Jewish man and found a place in the Jewish community. Susan loves Jewish traditions and the idea that Judaism emphasizes questioning everything, while at the same time, proposing a road map for a good life. She converted when her daughter was seven and complained that she shouldn’t have to go to religious school when Susan was not even Jewish. The path that her life took from teaching in the Temple Sinai Religious School, to serving on the Board, to leading Hillel and now founding Jewish Communities of Vermont, came as a complete surprise to Susan. Other surprises were some of the unexpected perks of being Hillel Director and Director of JCVT, such as meeting writers, bands, artists and inspirational rabbis, as well as becoming friends with people like writer, Anita Diamant and spending an entire day with Elie Wiesel.
In addition to bringing well-known people to Vermont, Susan has traveled extensively, and says, “I travel whenever I can. I like to visit new places, but I also like to ‘hang out’ in New York, Paris and London. I always see new things and visit the museums when I do that, but I know the cities well enough that there is no rush and I can just do what I want. There are a few trips that really stand out: an academic trip with a class called Aesthetics and Culture with St. Michael’s College to Faenza, Italy where we spent 2 weeks learning about ceramics, learning clay skills and working on our own projects, and culminating in an exhibit of our work in Faenza’s City Hall; another trip to Jerusalem where I studied at the Pardes Institute for 3 weeks-a trip that prepared me to lead 5 UVM student trips to Arad, Israel (Burlington’s Sister City) in the years following; a trip to another of Burlington’s Sister cities, Honfleur, France with Burlington City Arts, where we were guests of the city for 5 days. I also really enjoyed a trip to Portugal to visit my son who spent a semester in law school in Lisbon. I loved Portugal and we had so much fun!”
Among her many accomplishments, Susan says that she is most proud of bringing UVM Hillel from 4 students to 800 students, which was done through endless hours of work!
When asked about the activities that she would most like to see happening at Temple Sinai, Susan said, “ I would like to see a range of age-groups with their own activities so that everyone feels that they have a peer-group but also can participate in a lot of multi-generational activities.” In the mean time, Susan has been elected to the position of 1st VP of Temple Sinai, and she may be able to realize her wishes for our congregation sooner rather than later!
We wish you the best in your many endeavors, both now and in the future, and especially thank you for taking the time to do this interview.