It was a simple New York Times ad that set Sandra Divack Moss ’83 on a decades-long path to help nonprofits launch, grow, and thrive.
A student at Columbia’s Teachers College, Divack Moss responded to an ad to coordinate a program at the Jewish Theological Seminary that connected students with the elderly in service programs throughout the city. “I was swept away by the number of people who were so isolated and in need,” Divack Moss recalls. “It changed my life.”
Her interest was soon reinforced by another serendipitous opportunity: to live, rent-free, with the poet Babette Deutsch, then a retired Barnard professor who was very frail and needed company in the evenings. Coupled with her next part-time job studying the urban elderly for the Citizens Committee for New York City, these early experiences catalyzed Divack Moss to join several other Columbia University graduate students to launch a nonprofit devoted to helping this vulnerable population. “I really felt like I had a mission,” says Divack Moss.
For the next 10 years, Divack Moss built Dorot, which means “generations” in Hebrew, into the first community service program focused on fostering intergenerational friendships between volunteers and the elderly. In serving as Dorot’s founding executive director, Divack Moss realized that she needed a much stronger skill set — so she attended Columbia Business School’s Executive MBA Program (then called the Master’s Degree Program for Executives). “The program taught me tremendous skills that meant I wasn’t just going with my gut,” Divack Moss says. Forty years after Divack Moss led its humble beginnings, Dorot remains the largest network of volunteers devoted to helping the elderly.
“What gets you excited? What floats your boat? You’re going to go to work every day, so you should get great satisfaction out of the work that you’re doing. Find something that you love.”
Equipped with the confidence and expertise that come from building an organization from the ground up, Divack Moss next set up her own consultancy with a niche focus: helping nonprofits implement strategies for growth. Over the next 23 years, she empowered such organizations as the Jewish Federations of North America, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the American Jewish World Service. Another client was the Lower East Side’s Eldridge Street Synagogue, founded by immigrants from Russia and Poland in 1887. When Divack Moss visited the synagogue in the 1980s, it was nearly in ruins. Passionate to preserve its extraordinary history, she helped to create a public education program that showcased the Jewish immigrant experience. “Pretty quickly we had about 10,000 public school students coming each year,” she says. “That was a critical element in advancing the synagogue as a cultural institution for the city of New York.” Eldridge Street Synagogue was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.
Inspired by the challenge of turning a nonprofit around, and an itch to return to leading an organization from the inside, Divack Moss next joined the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a New York City reform temple near Lincoln Center, as executive director in 2009. It was months after the stock market crash and the synagogue was in a financially tenuous position. Within a few years, Divack Moss stabilized its finances, and, in collaboration with the senior rabbi and cantor, more than doubled its members. “To see this community come together in this big city where people can feel anonymous, and build ties to one another and take pride in their heritage — that just feels great,” Divack Moss says.
“Looking back, I think I’ve stayed in the nonprofit space for so long because I feel that I’m really making a difference and making the world a better place. For me, that’s important.”