Southwest Jewish Congress: Building Bridges in DFW

Story and Photos by Jan Osborn

Southwest Jewish Congress (SWJC) is an 11-year-old membership organization, open to all, that welcomes diversity and builds bridges throughout the community. SWJC has expanded their outreach by joining with other non-profits and universities to provide educational programs free and open to the community. SWJC’s Texas Sized Event recognizes women, men, and young adults who have been diligent in the pursuit of positive social change. In the last 2 years, SWJC Building Bridges Grant Initiative has presented $28,000 in grants to other local non-profit organizations in the DFW area.

Susie Salfield Avnery is the President of SWJC and Susan Myers is the Executive Director. We recently had the opportunity to visit with both women and learn more about SWJC and the upcoming Texas Sized Event to be held on September 22. 2022. 

Susie Salfield Avnery, President, and Susan Myers, Executive Director.

Tell us about where you grew up and how giving back was a part of your family dynamic.

Susie:  I grew up in Dallas, and was a first generation American. My parents were German Jews who were able to leave Germany right before the war. They were always grateful and proud to be American citizens.They volunteered to help the Dallas community as long as I can remember through a wide variety of ways.They were comfortable, but not wealthy, so they volunteered their time through several organizations. Their duties included driving Meals On Wheels, taking people to doctors and grocery stores, organizing a resale shop, making countless phone calls and stuffing thousands of envelopes.  My mother was active in Hadassah, eventually becoming president in the 1980’s, with my father’s support. My father was president of Self Help in the 1960’s. This group of German Jews in Dallas were all adjusting to American life with young families. Both my parents felt an American education was very important and helped with school board campaigns. My father wrote many letters to the editor, both to complain and compliment. My parents said paying taxes was their duty, and they didn’t complain. They felt they owed it to live in America and reap the benefits of our lifestyle. 

Susan:  I grew up in Bosque County on a Polled Herford cattle ranch between Kopperl and Morgan. We went to school in Kopperl but got our mail in Morgan. Both towns were very small (there were 7 in my graduating class) and my dad served on the school board and my mom helped with school functions. Everyone knew everyone and helped when there was a need.

When did you first encounter the world of social justice?

Susie:  When I was about 8, my mother took me to serve lunch at a small Dallas preschool in Rhodes Terrace, very low income apartments near Fair Park.  She explained that our temple sisterhood was supplying lunch and volunteers to these very young children. I asked why they needed our help just to bring and serve lunch, and she explained as best she could, that these black children came from poor families, with no sure path to a good future, and this little bit of time at this program would be really beneficial. In the 1960’s, as a child in Dallas, I didn’t see black and white together.  So I never forgot this.  I think she arranged her volunteer times on the days when I didn’t have school. 

Susan:  When I was very young, I remember being in the grocery store in Morgan and my Dad arranging for groceries to be sent to the one black family in town and him saying “Make sure nobody knows about this.” The movie “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” changed my life. It made me question the color issue. What someone of color could accomplish.

Would you share how SWJC got started and how it has grown?

Susie: SWJC started after Bernie Madoff took money from so many organizations in 2009, including American Jewish Congress.  Rather than fold completely, the AJC board formed a new organization called SWJC, and it has been in existence ever since.  We don’t support a national organization and have built local connections.

Susan:  Our Board was part of a national organization. Bernie Madoff stole their money and members of our Board resigned from the national organization. I lost my job. Instead of going home they started a new non-profit called Southwest Jewish Congress in 2009. SWJC is open to everyone so our membership consists of Jews and non-Jews, hawks and doves, conservatives and liberals — and everything in-between.

Tell us about the different programs at SWJC and how people are empowered through these services.

Susie:  Our programs are top quality, educational and free.  We provide speakers about human rights, civil rights, Israel’s innovations in medicine, technology, water and more. We show the importance of Israel to the world.  Our attendees can contact our speakers and they can get involved in those causes.  At our Texas Sized Event, we honor 15 people from a wide variety of non-profit Dallas humanitarian organizations. We hope the friends and families attending will make some great connections and Build Bridges Within our Community.  

Susan:  The Executive Director of SWJC when it first started was Gil Elan who was a former Israel Defense Forces soldier whose family was one of the many that worked for the State of Israel to come into existence. He gave regular briefings on Israel and the Middle East educating the public on the history and complexity of the Middle East. We provided free educational programming on many topics and through our Texas Sized Event have continued to build bridges between cultures, religions, and ethnicities.

SWJC’s grant initiative empowers local organizations that focus on specific community needs. Who is eligible to apply for this grant?

Susie:  Any DFW area non-profit that deals in humanitarian needs may apply.  They must specify what the $2500 grant will be used for.

Susan:  Any local non-profit can apply for a SWJC Building Bridges Grant Initiative. SWJC makes a difference in our area by empowering local organizations which focus on our community’s specific needs. Consequently, SWJC is pleased to again offer grants to local nonprofits, thus enabling them to accomplish their goals. This year there will be several grants of $2,500 each, to be awarded during our Texas Sized Event on September 22, 2022. Please note that we prefer specific projects over donations into general operating funds. The project should be consistent with, or in furtherance of, the organization’s stated goals and purposes. The application could include a request for items to purchase or for construction, funding of certain services, or anything the organization may plan. Finally, the grant funds could be used toward an ongoing or a new project. The deadline for submission of grant applications to SWJC is August 5, 2022.

What stories have impacted you during your time working with SWJC?

Susie:  I’ve learned about some very important non-profits through the Grants Program. When the pandemic started, one of our Grants was able to fund Gas Cards for women who were leaving abusers.  Another grant provided dental care for women who escaped sexual trafficking. Our Feeding Heroes Feeding Neighbors program during the pandemic made me feel like we were still relevant at a time when so many organizations stopped functioning.   We provided 500 meals to Fire, Police and Medical personnel, plus neighbors in need. 

Susan:  In 2011 on Columbus Day, Peggy Larney, an American Indian, posted on Facebook that it was sad that Columbus Day was being observed in DISD but there was no recognition of American Indians. I could not believe that there was no recognition of American Indians in Texas! I contacted her and we began to work with their community to get legislation passed. A law firm donated their services, a member of the Texas legislature got behind the bill and we were off and running. (see attached DMN article) American Indian Heritage Day in Texas, a state law, was founded in May of 2013, that every last Friday in September be recognized by the state of Texas to celebrate American Indian heritage and culture across the public and private sector.

What did SWJC do during the pandemic?

Susan: Under the leadership of SWJC Vice President Cindy Ray, we started a humanitarian effort that ran for 1 year. The effort was called the SWJC Building Bridges Feeding Heroes and Neighbors. Over $50,000 was raised and all the funds were used solely to deliver over 5,300 meals to first responders, homeless shelters, families in need, etc. across the DFW metroplex.

SWJC Texas Sized Event is scheduled for September 22, 2022. At this event, you honor inspiring women and men of action in our community. Could you explain the event and how the honorees are selected?

Susan: We have honored women from the beginning, but we began to recognize men in 2016. We combined these two efforts into the Texas Sized Event. Nominations can be made by anyone. After nominations are received a committee meets to select the recipients. We try to cover different disciplines, cultures, different efforts in the community, etc. Before the pandemic we met in person, but this year we met via Zoom. This is the first event since 2019 and it is a year of firsts. This is the first time we have honored “our own”, Nelda Golden and Ken Glaser. It is the first time we have honored a couple, Fonda and Jay Arbetter.

What is the best way for our readers to get involved with SWJC?

Susie:  We receive nominations from past Honorees and area residents.  We have a committee which selects Honorees that do great work and represent a variety of areas.  We know the needs are great in Dallas, and countless agencies are addressing them.  We strive to bring these different organizations and their hardest workers together for one night, and celebrate them and the difference they make.

Susan:  To become a member of the organization. To serve on our Programming Committee helping to plan our programming. To become a Board member. To serve on the Grant Committee. To volunteer with the Texas Sized Event.

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