Penny Blumenstein is a renowned international philanthropic and Jewish leader. She’s the president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Vice Chair of the Community Foundation of Southeastern Michigan, and a recipient of the George Romney Award for Lifetime Achievement in Volunteerism.
I’ve long admired Penny’s commitment to service and the important work she does with JDC. I’m so honored to have such an inspiring leader share her thoughts with us. Let’s get to know Penny and learn from her.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a Midwesterner – born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. When my husband and I are not traveling internationally – which we love to do with our wonderful grandchildren – we divide our time between our homes in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and Palm Beach, Florida.
My work has mirrored that journey and I have long focused on bettering the lives of people in need locally and overseas, strengthening Israel, and supporting cultural pursuits, especially classical music and educational institutions.
In essence, I believe that we share a common humanity and civilization, perhaps more so now than ever before—and to positively change one life in one place can set off a ripple effect of positive impact in places we never dreamed possible.
How do you connect to Judaism?
We belong to Congregation Shaarey Zedek, a wonderful synagogue community that fosters the Jewish spirit and sense of connectedness to our deep and abiding tradition.
Beyond those walls, I’ve always been deeply involved in the wider Jewish community as well, from my leadership at the Detroit Federation and the Weitzmann Institute to active roles in the Community Foundation of Southeastern Michigan and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and of course, as President of JDC. This role has enabled me to put into action – on the widest global scale – the notion that every Jew is responsible for one another.
It’s an old-fashioned ideal, I know, but in the last year alone, I have seen that Talmudic precept take on real-time meaning from Israel to Ukraine to France. Saving Jewish lives, ensuring a Jewish future, aiding Israel’s most vulnerable citizens at times of strife – that is my greatest connection to my faith and my people.
How do you prepare to host people for a holiday meal or celebration?
I always have a plan. I keep the menus and the shopping lists for each holiday in a folder in my computer. It saves me so much time (and angst). I prepare some things ahead of time and freeze them and I accept the offers of my guests to bring things too. It makes them feel better and it makes life easier for me.
How does the ideal holiday celebration look and feel to you?
For each holiday, I have ceremonial traditions that I do year after year. I try to make them inclusive of my guests, from everyone lighting candles to each reading from the Haggadah.
Leading up to, during, and after the holidays, how do you reconnect with yourself?
I always have so much to do that I don’t really think about myself before or during. After, I find I’m tired but happy because I was able to gather family and friends together and that’s what life should always be about.
What is one of your most memorable holiday experiences?
When my husband and I became engaged, my mother invited his entire family to Passover Seder. It was the first holiday of many that we shared together. Our traditions became blended and it made every holiday special. Seeing our two large families at one very long table meant there would be no divisions for us. There is nothing like a multi-course meal with something for everyone to love to eat to bond two families. So the room was very noisy but filled with love and we all pushed back our chairs feeling truly satisfied in every way.
What’s your absolute favorite holiday dish?
Holidays to me mean brisket and potatoes. I’ve been making it just like my mother did for more than 50 years. I also make chopped liver with real calves liver twice a year, Rosh Hashanah and Pesach. I would never eat it or serve it any other time.
Do you have any nontraditional holiday rituals or habits?
Not really, but in all my travels I have experienced traditions and foods of Jewish communities that may seem out of the ordinary to those of us in the U.S. Our JDC Global Kitchen, an online resource for recipes from Jewish communities around the world, highlights this wonderful diversity. Our most recent edition for Passover had recipes from Tunisia, Greece, Ukraine, and Poland.
What was something that your mother (or another influential figure) shared with you about the holidays that has stuck with you?
You always have room for one more at your table.
What’s your number one tip or trick you’ve discovered that makes the holidays smoother, more positive and meaningful for you?
Don’t get hung up with the small stuff! Enjoy!!
Penny, thank you for sharing. Your story about your first Passover Seder with your (now) husband’s family was so touching, and I have a similar philosophy about always having “room for one more at your table.”
This post is part of our Chag Notebook series where we interview inspiring women and men about their approach to the holidays.
Food for thought: What most inspires you about Penny’s philosophy and work?