How October 7 Led This Former CEO of Federation Back To His Roots

Joe Roberts grew up with a Christmas tree in his Dayton Ohio home, with an abundance of gifts to open the morning of December 25. He didn’t celebrate Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah or Passover. While he knew he was Jewish, Judaism didn’t have an active presence in his house.

He comes from a line of secular American Jews, yet one with a difficult past. He tweeted about the history of his maternal grandmother. She grew up poor and at the age of six years old, she was sent to a children’s home with her older sister where they were terribly abused. “They were berated and bullied by both adults and other children simply because they were Jewish,” he writes.

His great aunt decided to hide her Jewish identity after that, never speaking of it, but his grandmother still embraced it. She was proud amidst the sadness.

Something about her pride and desire to cling to her Jewish identity was passed down to Joe. Despite not having Judaism at the forefront of his upbringing, when he got to college at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, away from family and friends, he felt the instant urge for community and looked for it within his Jewish identity. 

He Googled to find a synagogue in Fairbanks and showed up one Friday night. He never looked back. Throughout his college experience, he got very involved. While it was a small shul, it was a close-knit community. “I don’t think there was a single Friday night that I didn’t have an invite to Shabbat dinner,” he says. The community was diverse — it was mostly reform but he even met one of his closest friends who was an Israeli guy serving in the U.S. army. He also taught kids at the Hebrew school affiliated with the community. 

His passion for Judaism continued post-college. Initially, he started to work in politics and ran for Congress in 2010 but lost. He was stuck and unsure of what to do next. When he spoke with his grandmother, she said, “Well, what do you care about?” He decided the Jewish community was at the top of the list. 

He took a job at the Jewish Federation in Boston and built his career there working in Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio as well. In 2018, he decided to move to London, Ontario to run the Federation there. Now, he is the Managing Director of Defense and Foreign Affairs for Winston Wilmont, a public affairs consultancy firm.

The shock of October 7 rippled through Roberts’ veins and that of his family — he is now married and has two young children. Before, he loved being Jewish but turned away from most of the religious aspects of it. He decisively chose to not wear a kippah at Federation functions to send the message that there are many different types of Jews, for example.

Since October 7 however, he started wrapping Tefillin every day. Giving his children the religious Jewish understanding that he didn’t have is crucial to him now. “[The events of October 7] created this instant trauma with all of the horror,” Roberts explains. “This feeling of Jewish connectivity took on a different form for me after that. It felt like the Klal Yisrael that came about had a Divine purpose to it in a different way. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

Roberts’ politics have almost shifted 180-degrees in the last few years as well. He wrote an article in May 2021 for Canadian Dimension with the headline, “I am a former Jewish Federation CEO — and I oppose Israel’s actions against Palestinians.” He says he doesn’t even recognize the person who wrote that article now.

“I can’t even imagine having put those words on paper…I ask myself every day, ‘Did some of my actions contribute to damage in this conversation?’ It keeps me up at night, I think about it a lot,” Roberts notes.

He and his wife are completely aligned in their revitalized connection to Judaism. He met her in 2019 in Canada. She comes from a similar background but one with more Jews around while she was growing up. She works as a software engineer but completed her graduate studies focusing on Ketuvim, which are the “writings” in the Torah. 

They’ve seen people they had in their home for Shabbat dinner come out saying things like “righteous resistance” post-October 7. “It made us both rethink a lot of our perspectives on the world,” Roberts says.

Now, the two speak about keeping a kosher home, becoming more strictly Shabbat-observant and how to approach Jewish topics with their kids. Ultimately, their children having that religious connection is what is most important to them.

Now, the Roberts family feels blessed in the smaller Canadian town that they live in. The woman who runs a playgroup their kids go to isn’t Jewish, but a self-proclaimed ally. Another non-Jewish neighbor has an “I stand with Israel” bumper sticker on his car. Their daycare operator isn’t Jewish either but has become determined to go out of her way to learn more about it so she can incorporate things into the lessons she’s teaching and Roberts’ son can be included. 

While there aren’t a ton of Jews in their town, they’ve continued to meet more and more. Since October 7, a Facebook group has even started to connect. They meet up for Shabbat dinners, Chanukah parties and other events. 

In America, we often view Canada as a peaceful, idyllic place to live, and that does seem to be the case for the most part in Roberts’ world. However, he says that antisemitism is actually way worse than America in Canadian cities. He notes a few examples of microaggressions he’s experienced in the past. He actually put those thoughts into an article earlier this month. 

While Roberts has contemplated aliyah, for now he’s staying put, but not without a voice. He’s active on Twitter (now, X) sharing his thoughts and vital information on the war Israel is fighting. While he doesn’t know what the future holds, he does know where he is putting his energy moving forward.

“I’ve spent a lot of my professional life in the Jewish community,” he says. “There was a time not too long ago where I wanted to get away from it but now, the only thing that feels important is the community and cohesion of the Jewish people.”

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