By Michael Sudhalter
As Igor Alterman reflects upon a complex first year of transforming the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas (JFGD), it’s a straightforward decorative sign in his office that reminds the 39-year-old Federation president/CEO of his purpose.
It reads “Work Hard and Be Nice to People.”
“That sign has traveled with me from place to place, and people respond to it,” Alterman said.
He said there’s been a lot of progress so far this year and there’s a lot left to be done, but the foundation is built upon a culture of dedication, empathy and kindness.
“With Ken Goldberg as chair of the campaign, we raised more money and faster than we had done in the past, but we are shifting the narrative from ‘only fundraising’ to being driven by our mission and impact in the community,” Alterman said.
He added, “I want to see us as the headquarters of Jewish innovation in Dallas. I am blessed to have a supportive board that is willing to challenge the status quo. I am incredibly proud of the people I work with, and the quality of the people is what makes a community.”
Bill Finkelstein served as board chair and Dot Haymann was installed as the new chair on Tuesday, June 6.
Alterman previously worked for Hillel International in a variety of roles for 12 years. He was most recently the executive director at the University of Miami Braman Miller Center for Jewish Life.
“My wife and I were intentional in moving to Dallas,” Alterman said. “We were searching for a place that has a robust Jewish community. Dallas has one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the country.”
The Altermans are proud parents of two Ann & Nate Levine Academy students.
When he arrived in Dallas, Alterman made an extended “listening tour” an immediate priority.
“I wanted to meet as many people as I could in the community,” Alterman said. “Through that process, we were able to identify three priorities — collaboration between departments, staff engagement and partnerships that were essential to the health of the organization.”
There are approximately 35 employees on the payroll, but the number of regular volunteers raises that number to well over 200.
Alterman wanted to ensure the Federation was a satisfying place to work. That is especially important in a metropolitan area in a strong economy, where employees have options.
“We previously had a lot of staff turnover so we wanted to strategize and meet the needs of our community,” Alterman said.
The evaluation period led to a restructuring of the Federation last February, with three divisions: Advancement; Impact; and Culture & Operations.
The Advancement Division works with fundraising, marketing and donor services, generating dollars on behalf of Jewish Dallas.
The Impact Division includes community investment, community security, community relations and public affairs and Jewish education.
Culture & Operations ensures the internal well-being of the organization.
“Without culture, no matter what you do internally, you cannot move things forward,” Alterman said.
One of the main internal programs is modernizing and utilizing technology. Alterman said when he arrived, many of the processes were done via paper, rather than electronically. Culture & Operations moved quickly to start a “digital transformation.”
Journey from Russia
Alterman was born in a small Russian town near the borders of Ukraine and Belarus. He was in elementary school when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
“I remember it vividly as a very turbulent time — you didn’t know what the next day would bring,” he said.
Alterman said he remembers experiencing antisemitism in Russia as a child. While many of his fellow Russian Jews made aliyah to Israel or relocated to the United States or Canada, the Altermans stayed in Russia.
Alterman said in the late 1990s and very early 2000s he was hopeful for democracy in Russia. That hope was dashed only a few years later and, by 2008, Alterman and his wife moved to the United States for the vibrant Jewish life and more opportunities. Both of his children were born in the U.S.
His parents and in-laws stayed behind but, last year, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they made aliyah.
While Federations across the country have been instrumental in providing aid to the Ukrainian Jewish community, Alterman said it’s intensely personal.
The Altermans had friends and relatives in Ukraine. He compared the proximity to living in Buffalo, New York, and having friends across the border in Toronto.
“When you’re an immigrant, you choose to make your home,” said Alterman, who speaks Russian, English and Hebrew. “Russian-speaking Jews are about 10% of American Jewry. We are underrepresented in leadership roles. I am proud to be one of the few Russian-speaking Jews to lead a Federation.”
Strengthening the Federation, community security and support for Israel
Alterman said he believes “in bringing the community together in a very intentional way.”
The Federation hosted a gala dinner for major donors, which included James Beard Award Winner Michael Solomonov, an Israeli chef.
Alterman was proud of an event chaired by Shiva Beck and Sherry Goldberg called “Newish & Jewish,” which helped families new to Dallas so they could make meaningful connections.
“Those who attended saw that people were interested and invested in their success in Dallas,” Alterman said.
He noted that Dallas recently hosted three flagship Jewish conferences — Hillel in December, BBYO’s international convention in February and the Network of Jewish Human Resources in March.
“We co-sponsored the events and had a presence at each one,” Alterman said. “Dallas is a spot [where] many Jewish organizations choose to have their conferences.”
Alterman said the Federation leadership and the board has a “laser focus on security” in light of a rise of antisemitism and antisemitic violence across the world and nation.
“We are living in unprecedented times and the need for increased security is reflected in our budget,” he said. “We are constantly doing security assessments for Jewish agencies. This year alone, we received a $1.2 million grant for nine agencies to enhance security.”
Alterman has placed a strong emphasis on Israel-related programs for the Federation.
“We’ve reintroduced Community Mission to Israel and key leaders traveled to Israel and Dubai on a smaller mission,” he said, referencing the 2020 normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The Federation celebrated Israel Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut) and Israel Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron), with approximately 300 people attending the Yom HaZikaron event in Plano.
“We ensured that 40 teens from the area were able to go to Israel for three weeks, in partnership with BBYO,” Alterman said. “That is a true impact and I’m proud of it.”