I recently sat down with Neil Sass, the president of the Mobile Area Jewish Federation and a member of the Synagogue, for an interview.
We talked about many different subjects: his life and work, the Mobile Area Jewish Federation, and more.
“I like to say that, in my life, I have done ‘a lot of stuff,’” Mr. Sass says. “For most of my working life, I have been on call 24/7. I’ve worn various hats over the years: military, public health services, disaster relief. Some people say that I’ve had too much education, but I’ve just never stopped learning. One of the biggest downsides is that I have never learned how to say, ‘No,’ so I’m busier now that I am retired than when I was working.” Concerning his retirement plans, Mr. Sass says that his goal after leaving the FDA in Washington was to retire to Dauphin Island and run the sea lab. However, after retiring from the federal workforce, he began working for the state of Alabama in public health in Montgomery. He remained at that job for ten years before finally retiring to Dauphin Island.
Mr. Sass grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and was raised Orthodox. His family kept kosher and observed all holidays. Mr. Sass laughingly noted that his family drove on Shabbat, but they were not allowed to turn on the radio. After leaving home, he attended Wake Forest, a Baptist school, where he was one of six Jews. (Today, there are 380 Jewish students enrolled at Wake Forest.) While there, Mr. Sass became conservative and has remained conservative since.
He was involved with the Jewish Federation in Montgomery and also served as president of the synagogue in the state capital.
According to Mr. Sass, the Mobile Area Jewish Federation’s basic mission is to serve the entire Jewish community and act as the principal fundraiser in the area for causes related to the State of Israel.
The MAJF makes donations to the Jewish Agency in Israel, which distributes funds to Israeli organizations as needed. Some of the funds support the Hadassah Hospital, which is a major research hospital and provides care to anyone who needs it. Hadassah is also one of the premier trauma hospitals in the world.
Another function of the MAJF is to bring young Israelis to Mobile to serve as ambassadors between Jewish communities in Israel and the United States. These shalichas or shalichams are usually 21 to 23 year olds who have completed their required military service in Israel and passed a strict screening process. This year’s shalicha is Ofir and she was recently featured on the blog. Her mission is multifaceted: about twenty percent of her time is devoted to working with Rabbi Kaplan at the Temple and about twenty percent is devoted to working with Rabbi Silverman at the Synagogue. Ofir spends the rest of her time in the community promoting causes related to Israel.
The MAJF is funded solely by donations to its annual campaign. Mr. Sass says that the MAJF raised about $120,000 in Mobile last year, compared to the Jewish Federation in Montgomery--which has a smaller Jewish population--that raised $400,000. The Jewish Federation allocates the money raised to worthy organizations who seek financial aid from the Federation after they provide justification for their purposes. One of the organizations is Hillel, which is a collegiate level organization at UA and Auburn. Jewish Welfare Services derives all of its funding from the Jewish Federation. Money is also given to the Gulf Coast Holocaust Center to help train primarily non-Jews in educating people about the Holocaust. The Christian-Jewish dialogue, which has since expanded to include Muslims, receives support from the MAJF. Interestingly, Mobile’s Christian-Jewish dialogue was the first in the United States, having subsequently spread to the rest of the country. Today, religious leaders of the area’s Jewish, Christian, and Muslim populations gather to discuss common theological themes and subjects from their unique perspectives.
The MAJF also sponsor many events in Mobile, including the Int
ernational Mobile Film Festival. The festival, which features mostly non-Jewish attendees, is typically held in January. Films are screened prior to their showings at the Temple, the Synagogue, in Fairhope, and at the University of South Alabama campus. The MAJF also sponsors the Israeli Room at the Mobile International Festival. At this festival, Mr. Sass usually spends most of the day with the shaliach or shalicham writing out name-tags with visitor’s names in Hebrew. A lot of trinkets are given away to visitors, as well as information about Israel. The MAJF also provides scholarship money to kids who want to go to Israel for first time. The MAJF also funds the rabbi’s Tzedakah funds that provide financial assistance to people in need.
I hope Mr. Sass will be able to speak at a Friday night service at the Temple in the near future.