When I came to the United States as a foreign student in 1978, one of the first expressions I learned was “mensch,” a Yiddish word used to describe a person of integrity and honor. Sitting down to share lunch with Michael Rassler, who is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara, I quickly realize that he embodies this sentiment.
“I’m innately optimistic,” he admits, pondering simultaneously about his job at the federation and his life in general. “I’m always looking ahead. I like to see the good in people and in life, and anticipate that people are going to do the right thing. Look at what’s going on in the world — life is full, and I channel my optimism towards that.”
He expands about the many challenges that he faces at work but also the challenges faced by our region, the country, and the world. “We are all being challenged whether we acknowledge it or not — the pace and totality of life, the issues and the demands on our time, on our mental capacity, on our ability to empathize with one another,” he reflects. “One of the beautiful things…is the opportunity for engagement that the Jewish Federation provides.”
Through philanthropy, education, and cultural, recreational, and social services, the federation builds community while working with hundreds of local, national, and international agencies. Their mission is to transform lives and deliver hope, dignity, and comfort to millions of people here at home, but also in Israel and around the world.
“Ten thousand people walk through our doors,” says Michael, who’s been the executive director for a decade. “They feel the warmth and the compassion. They know they will be taken care of and respected. We might be a Jewish community center, but think of that as one-third Jewish and two-thirds community center.”
Originally from Cleveland, Michael “escaped” to Rochester, New York at the age of three. He graduated from Miami University of Ohio in 1981 with a business degree, and then moved to Israel to attend the World Union of Jewish Students International Graduate Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies for eight months. “I wanted to spend time overseas,” he recalls. “This trip had a transformative effect in my life.”
Upon completing the program, he remained in the country to volunteer for another eight months with the Jewish Agency for Israel in Eilat. “I worked with 14 families with different issues,” he explains. “They were immigrants from Morocco, Ethiopia, and Russia living in a high-rise. I helped the families acclimate to living in Israel.” It was a very tumultuous time, but he learned first-hand how one person can make a difference. “I knew I wanted to work in the Jewish world,” he says.
He returned to Miami of Ohio to get an MBA, and met the director of a Jewish federation, who explained that these organizations were doing many of the things that Michael was passionate about. Michael then applied for Federation Executive Recruitment and Education Program, and was one of six people in the country selected that year.
Michael embarked on a rigorous double-degree program, attending both the University of Maryland for a Masters in social work and the Baltimore Hebrew College for a Masters in art and Jewish studies. He completed both in two years.
In 1986, Michael started working for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation in 1986, then became associate executive director for the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County in Boca Raton, Florida in 1991. He moved west in 1997, becoming CEO of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Greater Long Beach and West Orange County. In 2004, he became the CEO of the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County. In each place, he stayed for at least five years, understanding that was the minimum time needed to accomplish something meaningful.
But his longest tenure is Santa Barbara. “It’s been everything and more than we’ve ever imagined,” he says. “Besides, I want to keep our season passes to Mammoth.”
His wife Ruth is a speech and language pathologist working with the Santa Barbara Unified School District, and both of his sons are UCSB graduates. “It’s become our home,” Michael declares. “Santa Barbara is a warm and engaging community. The quality of life and the people are outstanding.”
Michael is incredibly proud of the team that Santa Barbara’s Jewish Federation has pulled together. “There are so many programs, services, conversations, and people in need,” he explains, noting that their terrific Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its five year anniversary in March 2020. “We serve the entire Santa Barbara community, and that’s something we’re very proud of.”
It’s been a wonderful life. “My vocation and my avocation are the same,” he confesses.
Michael S. Rassler answers the Proust Questionnaire.
On what occasion do you lie?
Ostensibly, to protect someone, or to prevent an abuse or injustice from occurring.
Who do you most admire?
My father, because of his ethics, sense of loyalty, love of family, and his never quit/never give up approach to life.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Integrity and independence.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
What do you like most about your job?
My colleagues and the opportunity to positively impact peoples’ lives while “building community.” Knowing that we are making a difference.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
What is your greatest fear?
Letting my family down.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Season passes at Mammoth.
What is your current state of mind?
Peaceful. Optimistic. Challenged.
What do you most value in friends?
Their love and support.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Which talent would you most like to have?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My wife would tell you that I should be more stylish.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Where would you most like to live?
Right here…or in Israel.
What is your most treasured possession?
My dad’s watch.
Who makes you laugh the most?
Our sons, Jared and Ari.
What is your motto?
Work hard. Play hard.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Moses Ben Maimon, aka Maimonides.