New Executive Director has background in corporate law
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Ms. Sarah Emerson Helfand, former Cedars-Sina Medical Center Senior Development Officer and the sister of Rabbi Dov Emerson, the Head of School at YULA Boys High School, has taken over for Ms. Robyn Lewis as Executive Director.
Her husband, Rabbi Avi Helfand, teaches a class about religious freedom in America at both Shalhevet and YULA.
After working in a variety of different fields, Ms. Emerson said, she is happy but not surprised that both she and her brother ended up in Jewish education.
“I think it makes a lot of sense that we’re both in this line of work, just based on how we grew up and the values and priorities we saw our parents and grandparents have,” said Ms. Emerson, who comes from a large family that is strongly involved in the Jewish community in Memphis, Tenn.
“Shalhevet and YULA are both excellent educational institutions,” said Ms. Emerson, “and the city is lucky to have both of them, and I’m just excited to work here.”
After graduating from Margolin Hebrew Academy and Feinstone Yeshiva of the South, Ms. Emerson spent a year in Israel at Michlala College for Women in Jerusalem. Ms. Emerson earned a BA from Stern College for Women in New York City.
She then earned a JD from NYU School of Law and worked as a corporate tax attorney at Milbank Tweed Hadley and McCloy.
After working as a lawyer for three years, Ms. Emerson decided that she needed a change in her lifestyle and she worked as the YU Beren Campus Director for the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future. In that position, she ran a women’s leadership development program and created the professional development courses for GPATS, a masters for Advanced Gemara at Stern.
Six years ago, Ms. Emerson moved with her husband and kids to Los Angeles, where she experienced her first foray into nonprofit management, working independently as the inaugural West Coast Regional Director for YU.
However, working long distance for YU in New York City proved difficult and it was then when she applied for a job at Cedars.
Most recently, Ms. Emerson was a senior development officer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she focused on campaign management and board and leadership development.
“It was hard to leave Cedars because I really loved working there,” she said. “But I thought this was such a great opportunity to really just have a great leadership position in the Jewish community in Shalhevet, which is a school that I think is just awesome, and work with great people.”
Despite the obvious differences in staff size at Shalhevet and Cedars, Ms. Emerson said that many of the skills she used at Cedars are useful for her role at Shalhevet.
“My experience at Cedars – running this campaign, working on that team that ran huge dinners, huge galas, working on smaller gifts and larger gifts, kind of strategizing from the top- all of that translates directly over,” Ms. Emerson said.
Ms. Emerson said all of her educational and work experiences have built her as a professional, even if her current role does not require something like corporate tax knowledge.
“While I am not using the actual corporate tax knowledge that I have- which granted at this point is outdated and don’t come to me for tax advice,” Ms. Emerson jokingly added, “it really built me as a professional in terms of working in a large organization, attention to detail, working on big things, working on little things, learning to be all hands on deck, and no task is too small, no task is too large.”
She started work alongside Mrs. Lewis Nov. 17, 12 days before the annual Trustees Dinner, and will begin working solo in January.
“It was really great because I was able to jump in and just help where I could,” she said. “Questions would come up and it was great to immediately be able to help and add value.”
Even with her busy work life, Ms. Emerson still finds time to pursue hobbies such as reading World War II historical fiction novels, exercising, and exploring unique cultural opportunities around Los Angeles with her kids on weekends.
She also enjoys baking challah before Shabbat each week, attending a weekly shiur, and managing LA Shuls, an email list-serve amongst 1,100 community members that she founded.
If anyone were to ask Ms. Emerson for class suggestions in college or graduate school, her answer might come as a surprise.
“I think the most important class anyone can ever take in their lives is basic income tax,” she said. “I just think it’s a fascinating course and really very formative for your life. I know a lot of what I know from that class. I always think back to that class.”
In her mentorship from Robyn, Ms. Emerson has learned everything from what a day at work looks like to different issues- both short term and long term- that come up.
“It’s been a great way to ease into a role like this, knowing that I have a lot of support,” she said. “In the last five years, Robyn has led this team, really professionalized a lot of aspects of the school and gotten it to a really great place,” she said, “and now it’s just about the next chapter.”