A conversation with Diana Zeff Anderson, Golda Meir Award recipient
Diana Zeff Anderson will be honored by JEWISHcolorado with the Golda Meir Award at Women’s Philanthropy CHOICES on October 10, 2023. This honor, named after the first woman Prime Minister of Israel and one of the founders of the Jewish state, is presented to a woman who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership, community involvement, support of JEWISHcolorado, and the ability to inspire involvement in others.
Diana has been active in the Jewish world and JEWISHcolorado since 2005. She is a past Chair of the Board of Directors of JEWISHcolorado and currently serves as the Planned Giving and Endowment Chair. The focus of her Zeff Kesher Foundation is to build connection (kesher means “connection” in Hebrew) between North America and Israel. The foundation is the lead funder of JEWISHcolorado’s Israel & Overseas Center, including the shlichim program which brings Israeli emissaries to Colorado.
In addition, the Joyce Zeff Israel Study Tour (IST), one of the few remaining community-based high school trips in the country, is named after her mother, Joyce Zeff z”l who endowed the program.
Diana serves on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) as Chair of the Shlichut Committee. She is also on the boards of the Jewish Agency for Israel-North American Council (JAFINA), the United Israel Appeal, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the Shalom Hartman Institute. She is on the National Council of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and chairs AIPAC’s local Executive Council. Her deep commitment to supporting Jewish life inspires many others in the community who call her a friend, mentor, and partner in philanthropy.
JEWISHcolorado sat down for a wide-ranging and personal conversation with Diana in advance of her upcoming award.
When you look back, when did your deep interest in Israel begin?
I have always felt connected to Israel. My father is Israeli, and I have family there. I think I had always felt more Israeli than American, so I think going to Israel was always on my mind. I moved to Israel in 1981, and I lived there until 2005. With my father as an investor, I was one of three people who brought one-hour photo machines to Israel in 1982, establishing a chain of stores. Six years later, I began importing housewares and gifts for a new chain of stores. I had four children, and my two older sons still live in Israel. When I returned to the United States, the younger two children—they were ages 6 and 3—came here with me.
You say that you “felt more Israeli than American.” What do you mean?
My parents were both very influential in our home. My mother was American and Jewish. My father was the bigger influence on the culture of the house. He had an Israeli perspective on life, more of a global eye on the world, and he set the tone. Maybe you have heard about the terms used to divide people into two categories—”Somewheres” versus “Anywheres.” The Somewheres are more locally rooted, and they attribute a large part of their identity to their place of origin. The Anywheres are globalists—they don’t live in a small box—and their identity is formed by their life experiences rather than their place of origin. I am more of an Anywhere.
Did you become active in Jewish issues and philanthropy when you moved to Israel?
Actually, no! For the 24 years I lived in Israel, I was not active in the Jewish world. I had children, marriages, work—I ran my life, I was a parent. I did not serve on any boards. Also in Israel, Judaism was in the air. You had Shabbat on Friday night because everyone had Shabbat on Friday night. I had no idea what Jewish life in America was like any more. When I came back, I realized my mother was active in the community, and so I started going to events with her.
And is that when your involvement began?
I can trace where I am today back to two life-changing events. The first board I was ever invited to join was at my children’s school, the Denver Waldorf School. That’s where I learned what it meant to be on a board—that process and consensus-building are important.
I had been raised as a daughter of an entrepreneur, where you get to do things your own way and you are not accountable to anyone. Suddenly, I was on this board with a lot of smart, caring volunteers, and it turns out you don’t always get things your way. They listened to everyone’s opinion, and they followed an honorable process with integrity, and it really changed my perspective. I saw that you could have a better outcome with more people and an inclusive process, and I respected that. It changed my life as far as what I wanted to participate in and why.
You said there were two life-changing events?
I was at a dinner for the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in a room full of active Jews, and I was talking to someone, and I asked if they had been to Israel. And they said, “No, it’s not on my radar.” It really scared me because you could have connected Jews, and Israel was not part of their Judaism.
That became the passion of my life. That is the thread running through the choices of all the boards and organizations that I am involved in. That is the path I have been on ever since—to make sure Israel is part of Jewish life in this country.
And after these two experiences, you started to take action on this passion.
When the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado was reimagined to become JEWISHcolorado, they created a committee specifically called “Israel Engagement Committee.” I realized that was exactly what I was working on. I wanted more people to engage with Israel and make it part of their Judaism. I became Chair of that committee, and I had a whole organization that wasn’t my personal organization but was on board with my goal. I got people on that committee from all sections of our community so that we could widen our reach strategically. We had not had a shaliach for two years, and nothing happened around Israel without one here, so I had the opportunity to restart that program. Nothing is more impactful than bringing an authentic Israeli here, devoting their life to connecting the people of Israel to the people in your community. That is how I became the main funder of that program.
The shlichim go back to Israel with a new perspective based on their experience here. They affect our community here, but they also return home with a better understanding of what pluralistic Jewish life can be like.
I think JEWISHcolorado connects people and gives people the opportunity to be part of a community. That is what the Federation system does, and that was foremost in my mind.
Fast forward to a couple years ago, and you funded the creation of the Israel & Overseas Center at JEWISHcolorado. Why did you see a need for this new Center?
I know all the work that JEWISHcolorado is connected to, but this Center was about getting the word out. If you donate to JEWISHcolorado, do you know that you are supporting the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is helping Ukrainian refugees get to Israel and find jobs and get health care? Do you know that you are helping Ethiopians make aliyah? That you helped build an enforced security system in a synagogue in Halle, Germany, that stopped an attacker from reaching congregants on Yom Kippur in 2019? We needed a Center that connects the dots, gets the word out, so that people know that by supporting JEWISHcolorado, they are supporting Jews in Israel and worldwide in so many ways.
What was the origin of the Zeff Kesher Foundation?
When my mother died in 2015, I established my own foundation, but I didn’t want to name it after myself. I called it the Zeff Kesher Foundation. Kesher means connection in Hebrew. It’s not about me, it’s about the impact we can make. It’s about what I am trying to achieve which is a connected Jewish people.
In addition to your foundation, you are very heavily involved in large national and international organizations.
I was afraid that I would have to have a private foundation where I had to hire staff and do my own thing, so I am glad to be able to work through larger organizations and support their work.
That goes back to my experience learning that everything does not have to be my way. I believe that big organizations need to exist so that everyone at every level—including smaller donors—can participate in Jewish life. Also, larger organizations are on the ground before an emergency, and they can respond when a crisis happens. I feel fortunate that I can have full-time participation in making a difference within existing organizations that I think are essential for the continuity, safety, security, and a connected Jewish world.
All the work that JEWISHcolorado is doing is work I would have done by myself if they could not do it, but their reach is so much bigger. It is not to be taken for granted to have a JEWISHcolorado that is, without a doubt, very Israel-centric and I appreciate that very much. That is why JEWISHcolorado is my home.
Your mother’s legacy lives on—a true testimony to L’dor V’dor—through the Joyce Zeff Israel Study Tour.
All my three siblings went on IST. It connects to our passion for Israel. The fact that the trips are full every year is a reflection of all the other work we do with the shlichim connecting people to Israel. The trip reinforces that connection, and it builds a connected Jewish community here in Colorado. Those kids, after having an amazing experience in Israel, are connected to each other. I think it’s a good legacy.
Recently, as part of your work with the Jewish Agency, you traveled to Ukraine on a fact-finding mission. What were your take-aways from that trip?
The Jewish Agency is the engine of Jewish identity in the region, including Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Belarus, and Russia. We need to support the Jewish Agency because their work is vital for creating Jewish identity and connected Jewish community.
The war is not over. Ukrainians are very loyal to their country. They want to be empowered to help themselves. They are terribly traumatized, but they are working hard to help one another. The men who are fighting are heroes in their own right. Even though the women may not be on the front lines, they have to do everything by themselves and are also heroic.
The children have not been in school for four years because of the pandemic and then the war. They are desperate for normalcy. They need to be able to see a future so they can move forward. What the Jewish Agency is doing—shelters for after-school programs, day schools, Sunday schools—this is critical work.
When we were there, people asked us, “Do you support Russia?” The very fact that they needed to ask that question told us how alone they feel. Going there showed them that there are people who care. They are going to fight the war, but they need to get strength from us, knowing we are with them.
What does the Golda Award mean to you?
I am very honored to be honored, but I don’t do this work for awards. The beauty of philanthropy is you get more than you give. No one makes you volunteer. It’s a privilege.
What I like about this work is being part of a team, making things happen, and that is very rewarding. I don’t do anything to be thanked. I am thanked when I see the impact.
You are far from considering your legacy, but at this point, what would you like your legacy to be?
I would like Israel to be part of people’s Jewish life here in Colorado. When I go to a dinner for the JCC and ask someone about traveling to Israel, I would like them to say, “I am dying to go to Israel. I just can’t wait to get there.”