Serena Oberstein, longtime community leader and former president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, is set to become the new executive director of Jewish World Watch (JWW), the L.A.-based nonprofit that fights genocide and mass atrocities worldwide through advocacy, education and programs.
Oberstein will take up her new position on Aug. 3, replacing current Executive Director Susan Freudenheim, who is retiring from the position she has held since 2016. Freudenheim, a former executive editor of the Jewish Journal, will be on hand to assist in the transition through Aug. 15.
“I am thrilled to pass the mantle to Serena, whose heartfelt and proven commitment to making the world better for all people is at the core of JWW’s mission,” Freudenheim said in a statement.
“I want to build on the great work JWW has already done,” Oberstein told the Journal in a joint Zoom interview with Freudenheim. “Susan created stability in the organization. I want to be more strategic and systematic … about the growth of the organization as a whole.”
Oberstein grew up in the San Fernando Valley and said she “had the opportunity to be part of really pivotal movements of the trajectory of this organization.” She expressed admiration for JWW and its co-founders, the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis and Janice Kamenir-Reznik. “To be able to help grow their legacy and marry it with the trajectory of my own life feels so nourishing and so exciting,” Oberstein said.
With nearly two decades of experience creating solutions at the local, state and federal level in the nonprofit and public sectors, Oberstein’s resume includes work as Southern California regional director of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice and as the founding Southwest regional director of J Street. During former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s second term from 2009, she helped shape social policy and served as the vice president to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission from 2015-2018 and as president for four months in 2018, until she resigned.
JWW’s current projects include COVID-19 education and health interventions for Rohingya genocide survivors now living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, and survivors of mass atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Also in the Congo, JWW is working with local partners to help survivors of rape in remote areas and to rescue child soldiers. In Chad, JWW is helping to abate food insecurity among Darfuri survivors in refugee camps and supplying desperately needed medical supplies to doctors inside war-torn Syria.
“We’re best known for the programs on the ground, but equally important is our advocacy and educating people to support our projects and become advocates,” Freudenheim said. “In the last few years, we’ve pivoted to be much more global than we were.”
Recently, JWW helped to get the bipartisan Uighur Human Rights Policy Act passed in the Senate and signed into federal law by President Donald Trump on behalf of the Uighurs, a Chinese Muslim minority community “who have been, by the millions, put in [reeducation] concentration camps inside China,” Freudenheim said.
“I want to build on the great work JWW has already done. Susan created stability in the organization. I want to be more strategic and systematic … about the growth of the organization as a whole.” — Serena Oberstein
During these pandemic times, JWW’s priorities have shifted to filling emergency needs, Oberstein said, including feeding and housing people at a time when many regions are experiencing food insecurity. In the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, JWW is distributing food and information about the coronavirus, Freudenheim said. In the DRC, it is distributing food at the Congo Peace School, a site of previous JWW-funded nutrition and health projects, and supplying food and aid to rescued child soldiers in transit camps who are unable to reunite with their families.
Freudenheim said JWW supporters understand and are responding to the need.
“It’s really made clear to people how connected the world is,” she said. “We’re all suffering and we all need help and it’s important to include survivor communities in your giving, and people have responded to that.”
“Anti-Semitism feels so big so scary and so rampant in the U.S. and it’s easy in this moment for us to turn inward and only talk about ourselves,” Oberstein added. “But it’s even more important to step outside ourselves and band together and help other communities with similar experiences but not similar ethnic upbringings. There couldn’t be a more important moment for Jews to stand at the front of this issue.”
Oberstein’s ideas include creating an inter-ethnic council with Diaspora community leaders of survivors of genocide and congressional action teams to build support for advocacy issues and develop ongoing relationships with local leaders. Oberstein also shared her intent to “create a through line” of advocacy for young people, starting with JWW’s b’nai mitzvah tzedakah projects and Teen Ambassador Program, until it becomes “something that’s not just a moment in time but becomes a lifelong cause for them.”
JWW’s anti-genocide work also can mitigate anti-Semitism, Freudenheim said. “It’s a really important aspect of what we do. We don’t do it for that reason specifically … but we are showing a different face of who Jews are than what’s in the newspaper or what they might hear about through Facebook.”
In April, JWW’s annual Walk to End Genocide, which draws thousands to rally on behalf of survivors and raises awareness and funds to power JWW’s work, had to be placed on hold. Instead, JWW held a webinar featuring one of its partners in the DRC. Freudenheim said two events are in the planning stages to replace the 2020 walk: a series of conversations in conjunction with the Center for the Study of Law and Genocide at Loyola Law School, the USC Shoah Foundation and the Promise Institute for Human Rights at the UCLA School of Law and sponsored by a grant from the Diane and Guilford Glazer Philanthropies, and something more participatory with a virtual aspect in late October or November.
Ultimately, Oberstein will be seeing these programs to fruition, and she welcomes the challenge. “I look forward taking something that is so strong, in large part because of Susan’s leadership,” she said, “taking this already international organization to more and more states and regions so that the voices fighting to mitigate genocide and end mass atrocity are even louder.”