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Jewish Journal

Traveling Salesman

Jerry Lasensky makes an annual trek to 50 cities with small Jewish populations to help foster Jewish identity.

by Tom Tugend

September 7, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Jerry Lasensky leaves his territory long enough to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Jerry Lasensky leaves his territory long enough to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Gerald "Jerry" C. Lasensky describes himself as the Jewish community's traveling salesman, road warrior and itinerant emissary.

For a more formal title, Lasensky, whose round face and white beard lend him a touch of the leprechaun, is the Western regional director of the United Jewish Communities Network of Independent Communities.Not for him the glittering black-tie fundraisers in Los Angeles or New York, studded with Hollywood celebrities and addressed by an Israeli prime minister or an American vice president.

Rather, his job is to make the rounds of small Western towns and cities with too few Jewish inhabitants to warrant an organized, professional federation structure. He makes sure, for instance, that the few dozen Jews in Victorville, Calif. don't fall off organized American Jewry's radar screen or miss the opportunity to contribute their monetary share to the common good in Israel and the Diaspora.

No old-time circuit-riding rabbi or Jewish peddler came close to covering Lasensky's territory. He makes the rounds of 50 nonfederated communities in the 13 Western states, and his beat extends from Texas to Hawaii, and north to Alaska.

He recalls one memorable trip, which took him from Puerto Rico to Santa Fe, N.M., to Los Angeles and on to Honolulu. In a normal year, Lasensky figures, he logs more than 100,000 air and road miles.

Jewish populations in the towns on Lasensky's circuit range from less than 100 to 5,000, and the attitudes he encounters toward Jewish identity and communal responsibility vary widely.

In some places, their small numbers draw the Jews close together into a kind of shtetl bond, with a concomitant responsibility for each other's welfare. Lasensky cites one small Texas town, in which 14 out of 16 Jewish families contribute to the annual fund drive.

In other towns, the lack of Jewish partners and social bonds results in an unusually high intermarriage rate, even by American standards.

"The main product I'm selling is Jewish continuity by fostering Jewish identity," declares Lasensky. "First comes the friendraising, then the fundraising."

He sees his task as a two-way street, encouraging Jews in the hinterlands to support organized American Jewry and vice versa.

For instance, when fires recently ravaged the area around Los Alamos, N.M., Lasensky figured out the loss to Jewish families and institutions and then lobbied for assistance from big city federations.

Appropriately, the future emissary to small-town America was born 61 years ago in Sioux City, Iowa, then home to 1,500 Jews, where his Russian immigrant father worked as a cattle dealer. On a rough calculation, Lasensky figures he has raised, directly and indirectly, some $500 million for Jewish causes.Lasensky, the constant traveler, yoked to his cell phone and laptop computer, cherishes his close family ties. He and his wife Dorothy have three adult children and look forward to grandparenthood next February.

His persistence in pursuing his goals can be gauged by an incident a few years ago. At the time, he was in Honolulu attending the annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of Hawaii when he read that President Clinton was coming for a private vacation, following his 1996 reelection.

The Sunday federation dinner in a hotel was well under way when someone reported that Clinton and his entourage were standing in a nearby hallway.

Lasensky dashed out and somehow managed to get close enough to invite Clinton to break bread with a group of Hawaiian Jews. "Bring 'em over," responded Clinton, and then cordially shook hands and chatted with every one of the 64 guests.

"You've got to be prepared at all times," concludes Lasensky. "You never know who you're going to meet next."

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