Speeding up just when others are slowing down

"My life is enriched. Aliya is one of the best decisions my wife and I ever made.”

Richard Corman (photo credit: DAVID CORMAN)
Richard Corman
(photo credit: DAVID CORMAN)
At 17, Richard Corman was already a Jewish leader. His first experience in Israel was with a USY summer trip, during which he took responsibility for a friend who was blind from birth. Rather than feeling cheated by having to take care of someone else, Corman recalled, “It enhanced my experience. Even though he couldn’t see, he felt and was able to experience Israel with all the senses other than sight and I was going along for the ride. He forced me to see Israel in a different way.”
Corman’s next visit was for a political science course he took at Hebrew University. The first month they spent in classrooms; the second month, they went on field trips to explore the places they studied. Corman’s class visited sites that are off-limits to Israelis today, including the Egyptian city Sharm El Sheikh, the Gulf of Suez at the northern tip of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.
“When I think back to these experiences, they were really incredible,” Corman reminisced.
After three meaningful trips in his youth, Corman continued visiting Israel. Although being married and having young children got in the way of being able to travel freely, a bar mitzva trip planned by their local Federation was a great time for Richard and his wife Jean to bring their two sons, then 11 and 13, for their first trip to Israel.
The Corman sons, Ari and David, came to Israel independently on USY trips and again during college. Eventually, both sons and their spouses made aliya. A brother-in-law and his wife’s parents, who made aliya from Florida at 81 and 91, helped the Cormans make the decision to come themselves.
“We were such a Zionist family. After visiting three times in a year, we gave notice at work at the height of our careers to join our families. As grandchildren were being born, it became hard to say goodbye.” The Cormans made aliya from New Jersey to Jerusalem in 2011.
In a real way, this was the fulfillment of their own long-delayed plans. Decades earlier, they had met with an aliya shaliach (emissary) in Philadelphia. In the end, they “didn’t have the guts to leave family,” but, Corman laughed, “our kids didn’t have the same compunction.”
On the professional front, Corman’s accomplishments were extensive. He was the executive director of a full-service Jewish Community Center in central New Jersey for 21 years. He oversaw programs ranging from preschool to a summer camp with 900 campers to senior adult programming. “Everyone expected me to retire from that job,” Corman said.
Instead, he resigned and took a job as the CEO of the Manhattan Jewish Experience, which specialized in programs that strengthened the Jewish identity of singles. A few years later, he was the executive director of the International Sefardic Education Foundation, founded by Edmond Safra, for whom Jerusalem’s Safra Square was named. The ISEF’s primary mission is to help Sefardic Jews get ahead in Israel. The foundation provides 600 scholarships a year for undergraduate students in Israel and 35 to 40 scholarships for advanced study overseas.
At the same, Corman served as the lay president of the Board of Hillel at Rutgers University during a $12 million capital campaign to build a new Hillel facility. With 7,000 Jewish students on campus, Rutgers has the largest Hillel in the United States and is the school that, according to Corman, recruits more students to attend Birthright Israel programs than any other college.
Astonishingly, Corman left all that success behind when he in landed in North Talpiot. He spent his first year as an ulpan student at Beit HaAm. After 12 months, he said to himself, “There has to be more to life in Israel than ulpan.”
So he set out to volunteer. He identified three organizations he thought highly of and went exploring to see if there was an opportunity that would resonate with him. As a result of his impeccable track record, he was offered a full-time job with one of the organizations, but declined in order to pursue his goal of volunteering.
One of the places on Corman’s shortlist was the Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs where, he said, “The chemistry was good.” He began his volunteer stint writing grants and coordinating parlor meetings.
Eventually, he accepted a part-time job with StandWithUs and has been their development director since 2012.
“Because of my age, I was also a mentor to the staff, 90% of whom are in their 20s and 30s. I help them with writing, coaching and being a sounding board.” Corman continues to work in the office four days a week.
For most people Corman’s age, the job at StandWithUs would be a meaningful capstone to a long and productive career.
But then he almost died during a sudden medical emergency.
“It really shook me up – literally and figuratively. I went through a soul-searching journey. I thought that maybe this was a message that I have some additional ability to give.” So Corman started looked for what else he was supposed to be doing with his life.
After a series of related occurrences, he understood that he was being pointed to The Lone Soldier Center.
“I realized this was definitely an area that I needed to step up.” So he made an appointment to see if he could volunteer in some way. This was unusual in itself because most of the Center’s volunteers are young people, often former soldiers.
Drawing on his extensive skills and contacts in fundraising, Corman now wears multiple hats at the Lone Soldier Center. He is most proud of his ability to get friends and colleagues to support the center’s many programs and activities.
“If we couldn’t give service as soldiers, we can give in another way,” he explained. “I’m a real activist and I want to empower others to roll up their sleeves and make a difference.”
Sounds like a full plate already for someone nearing retirement age. But for Richard Corman, there’s yet one more organization that benefits from his direct involvement.
Inspired by the vision of Naomi Tsur, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Corman partnered with her in 2015 to establish a non-profit organization called Jerusalem Green Fund. Their goal is “to clean up Jerusalem by changing its culture and making it more environmentally friendly.”
“I kept hearing so many friends complain that Jerusalem is a dirty city. People would complain about all the trash. Now I’m on the streets of Jerusalem from 5 to 7 a.m. cleaning different neighborhoods.”
He uses his early morning cleaning assignments “to engage with people. I tell them I’m a volunteer and I ask them to join the effort.” Using his network, Corman secured a $300,000 donation for this venture.
“We’ll be doing some creative things to make a difference – one neighborhood at a time,” he asserted.
On a personal level, Corman is exceptionally proud of being “Saba Sababa” to six grandchildren, all born and living in Jerusalem.
“In the States, I was always the director, always the person in charge. Here, I was willing to experience new things, go with the flow and see where things would take me. If anyone had told me seven years ago, I’d be doing what I’m doing in 2017, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ My life is enriched. Aliya is one of the best decisions my wife and I ever made.”