After 40 years in Tucson, Israel beckons Karsches

Carol Karsch has wanted to live in Israel since she was 10 years old, when she began learning about the Jewish state at a synagogue in the small town of Norristown, Pa. Now Karsch, who will step down next month after 23 years at the helm of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, is about to live her dream: she and her husband, Dan, a retired physician, will make aliyah in November.

Carol Karsch, who is retiring after 23 years as executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, with her husband, Dan, at the Foundation’s 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Endowment Book of Life on Feb. 7. (Martha Lochert)

Karsch’s achievements at the Foundation are remarkable — she helped create the Endowment Book of Life, a model for encouraging legacy planning now used in more than 40 Jewish communities across North America, and oversaw the Foundation’s growth from $11 million in assets in 1991 to more than $64 million today.

But Karsch’s Jewish community involvement goes back even further. She and Dan moved here with their three children in 1972, when Dan, who’d been drafted as a physician, was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. When the Yom Kippur War began, Karsch dropped her children off at a playgroup and walked into the Jewish Federation. “I said, ‘What can I do? You must need help,’” she told the AJP. Karsch raised money for Israel during the war, she says, noting that she and Dan were both active in the Federation campaign “from the minute we arrived.”

Karsch also became involved in public affairs. Jack Sarver, who started the Desert Caucus, a bipartisan pro-Israel political action committee, and was chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council, appointed her to head an Israel Task Force to increase political support for Israel.

In the early ’80s, she worked with Boris Kozolchyk, a law professor at the University of Arizona, to combat anti-Israel propaganda that was flowing into the public schools.

Kozolchyk explains that at the time, a new nonprofit Middle Eastern studies center at the UA, funded largely by oil companies and Saudi foundations, along with

congressional appropriations, was disseminating materials to local high schools “portraying Israelis basically as neo-Nazis with regard to the Palestinians.” High school students had come home deeply upset by the lessons.

He and Karsch put together a team of educators and attorneys to review the materials and presented a report to the university president and the head of the Middle Eastern studies department. When that effort failed, says Kozolchyk, Karsch brought the data to contacts she had in the Tucson Unified School District, and TUSD decided to suspend the program. Karsch and Kozolchyk also went to Washington, D.C., to present their findings to the secretary and deputy secretary of education, who agreed to withdraw the Reagan administration’s support for the program.

“Carol has been the best organizer of community actions, frankly, that I’ve met in my life,” says Kozolchyk, praising her “great intelligence and ability to synthesize things and to pass a very effective course of action.” Her many successes, he says, result from a combination “of mind and heart, because her heart is so much in it.”

By 1989 Karsch had chaired the Federation campaign and the JCRC. She’d also been the first woman to serve as president of the Federation. At the behest of Louis Pozez, then president of the Foundation, she switched “from being a full-time volunteer to being a full-time director of the Foundation,” she says.

Pozez, she says, knew that to have a Jewish community that was really strong, “we needed endowments.”

“To me it seemed like a natural thing for people to leave money behind in their wills,” says Karsch, who’d read academic studies claiming most people would, if asked, leave money to support causes they held dear.

But few did, because it was too complicated. Karsch saw that “what the community needs to do is set up a shop where all the barriers are removed.” The Foundation brought in experts to help people plan endowments for both Jewish and secular causes — a process, she notes, that now typically takes only two meetings.

“Our primary goal is to be sure that every member of the Jewish community has the opportunity to sit down and make a legacy plan,” she says. While the Foundation is not limited to Jewish donors and has many non-Jewish clients, “we don’t seek them,” says Karsch, adding that Tucson also has the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona.

The Endowment Book of Life, which people sign as a pledge to leave something to the Jewish community, is merely a wonderful symbol, she explains. The real program, she says, is the legacy planning process.

A member of the Foundation’s marketing committee suggested that donors not only sign the book but include their stories — an idea that came at a time when there “was no meaningful approach to legacy,” no websites, only dull brochures. The idea turned out to have tremendous appeal locally and nationally, and the Foundation paid for Karsch to visit at least 25 other communities to help them set up similar programs. From the start, the Foundation attracted “very smart, very dedicated” lay leaders, emphasizes Karsch, including several Fortune 500 company executives.

Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Federation, says Karsch took the Foundation “from its infancy to one of the most well-respected Jewish community foundations in the country. She helped put Tucson on the map.

“She helped people understand the power of what we do as a community, the power of what an individual can do when it’s viewed in the context of the sacredness of our commitment to our values,” Mellan told the AJP. Whether with the Endowment Book of Life or other endeavors, such as creating the JCRC’s first interfaith mission to Israel and helping found the Tucson chapter of the America-Israel Friendship League, he says, “What permeated everything she did over 40 years was this sense of clarity and commitment to creating a rich Jewish community.”

Speaking at the Foundation’s 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Endowment Book of Life on Feb. 7, where Karsch was honored, Mellan joked that he refused to believe rumors that Carol and Dan were leaving town. “How can I possibly accept that their extraordinary force-of-nature role in this community will be absent?”

From their first days in Tucson, in addition to fundraising for the Federation campaign, Dan was involved with Congregation Anshei Israel, serving as president in 1981. He also served on the boards of the Tucson Hebrew Academy and Jewish Education Committee, the precursor to JFSA’s Coalition for Jewish Education. “It was the first time Federation actually made allocations to educational institutions, and started the Hebrew high school,” Dan told the AJP. He also served on the Federation’s first committee to allocate grants for innovative programming, now known as Compelling Needs Grants.

More recently, he helped found the Israel Action Network, which encourages more engagement with Israel within the Jewish community, and reaches out to the non-Jewish community to provide information and “create allies for Israel,” he says. Working in conjunction with the Weintraub Israel Center — which Dan has co-chaired for the past seven years — and the JCRC, the IAN has held parlor meetings for Jewish and non-Jewish groups, he says, and attempted to counter a program billed as a community dialogue on the Middle East that, he says, “turned out to be a very one-sided, propagandistic attack on Israel.”

Dan, who is the current president of the Desert Caucus, retired from his medical practice at Old Pueblo Urology in 2006, but has continued to work part-time as medical director of an assisted living home.

After he and Carol make aliyah and attend a Hebrew-language ulpan (immersion course) — a necessity for both despite their many trips to Israel — he’ll volunteer with a political public relations group, similar to his current work here.

His devotion to Judaism and Israel began with growing up in an observant Jewish home “in which Israel was very important,” says Dan, who remembers his mother anticipating the 1947 United Nations vote on Israel, though he was too young to fully understand what was happening. Jewish summer camp also had a huge impact on him, he adds, “Judaically but also in values of life.”

Karsch, who sees the continuity of the Jewish people as an ongoing challenge, plans to work with Israeli organizations to promote the legacy concept to their North American supporters. The idea hasn’t caught on yet in Israel, she says, but is important for the thousands of Israeli nonprofits.

The couple will settle in Modi’in, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where their daughter Hannah and her family live. They plan frequent visits to the United States to visit their sons in Connecticut and California, as well as other family and friends. And they expect many friends to visit them in Israel.

Keri Silvyn, current president of the Foundation, credits Karsch with creating the “incredibly successful” agency as we know it today. A nationwide search for Karsch’s successor is underway. One of the challenges for that person, says Silvyn, “is stepping into a position where there’s been strong internal executive director leadership and visionary leadership for 23 years. Carol’s shoes are big shoes to fill, for sure.”

Karsch sees enormous opportunities for the new executive director, citing areas such as family philanthropy, creative coalitions, giving circles and utilizing social media. With legacy firmly established as “the community culture,” she says, “I think the Foundation is ready and ripe to move on.”

For herself, she says, “It’s been a beautiful ride.”