After 20 years at the helm, Barbara Zemel and Jay Bycer are taking a step back as co-presidents of American Friends of Magen David Adom’s Phoenix chapter.
“Twenty years is a long time chairing an organization,” Zemel said. “We’re tired. We’re in our 70s and it’s dayenu, as we say. We’re proud of what we’ve done and it’s time to pass the torch.”
Phoenix is the only remaining city with an AFMDA chapter. The organization will now transition to a different structure to match what exists in other states.
Catherine Reed, CEO of AFMDA, said the organization changed its chapter structure to one of regional boards in 2014, but Zemel and Bycer were doing such great work that the organization left Phoenix unchanged.
The organization’s primary role is to raise money for Magen David Adom, Israel’s national ambulance, blood-services and disaster-relief organization, as well as Israel’s representative to the International Red Cross. MDA is the only organization mandated by the Israeli government to serve in this role, but it is not a government agency and it relies on donors for funding.
Zemel and Bycer have been dedicated to raising awareness about MDA. They led educational and fundraising events, creating award-winning programs, such as Partners for Life, where more than 1,000 children in grades K-8 were taught what MDA does to help their Israeli brothers and sisters. The curriculum they developed became the model for the national program.
In 2006, Zemel and Bycer created the Judaic Cultural Orchestra, which brought local musicians – Jewish and non-Jewish – together to play Jewish music.
“We raised a lot of money with both of those things. But we also brought this community together. We did things to strengthen our community, but at the same time, help Israel,” Bycer said.
Zemel and Bycer took over leading the organization in 2001 from Zemel’s parents, Irving and Frances Horn.
The Horns had been involved with the organization for 15 years. Zemel said it was mostly “elderly run” and they collected dues from existing members and tried to get more members. Her dad started a raffle, which helped with fundraising.
In 2001, AFMDA wanted to change the way the chapter was run to make it a “friends group with fundraising events,” Zemel said, but it was beyond the scope of what her parents could do. “They knew that, but they so inspired me that I couldn’t say no when I was asked.”
Bycer was passionate about helping the Jewish community grow and strengthening its institutions, and he was drawn to MDA’s mission and operations. He, too, couldn’t say no when asked for help by the national group 20 years ago.
One of Bycer’s greatest pleasures was serving on AFMDA’s National Board of Directors for several years, where he was asked to travel the country to help other chapters create similar programs for their communities.
In their 20 years as co-presidents, Zemel and Bycer raised $1 million for MDA, including sending four ambulances to Israel (one of them being the Murray and Sabina Zemel Ambulance), and increased their donor base from 200 to 2,000 people.
“It might not appear to be a lot, but here we are, a volunteer organization with no staff, no budget, nothing,” Bycer said. “We’re just doing it from our houses.”
Reed said the national group has examined its reach over the past year, and identified Arizona as a state with even more potential.
“There is a wonderfully engaged Jewish community,” Reed said of Arizona. And while AFMDA is already well known in Phoenix and Scottsdale, there is still opportunity to raise awareness and increase the donor base outside of those communities, she said. Arizona also has a fast-growing Jewish population — mirroring its general population growth.
In 2002, there were roughly 44,000 Jewish households in the area, according to Arizona State University’s 2002 Greater Phoenix Jewish Community Study. In 2019, there were roughly 98,750 Jews, according to ASU’s 2019 Jewish Community Survey. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona has experienced the third-highest population growth nationally since 2010, and Phoenix is the nation’s fastest growing city.
The Phoenix chapter of AFMDA will become part of a new Southwest regional board, led by Elana Michael, who joined the organization last May. Reed said Michael has spent the last year “really understanding the community” in Arizona as well as in New Mexico and San Diego.
Reed said the regional board structure gives more people an opportunity to participate and be engaged in a way that allows each volunteer the most flexibility. Those who are able and want to volunteer more frequently can, while others can participate with “whatever is most comfortable for them.” It’s a structure that works well for ensuring the longevity of the organization, she said, as it will help to find and grow future lay leaders.
The board structure also does away with monthly chapter meetings. “People are not as interested in having monthly chapter meetings, particularly during COVID,” Reed said.
There were approximately 30 local chapters around the country before AFMDA transitioned to the board structure in 2014. Now there are about 15 regional boards.
Reed said one of the first things the people in Greater Phoenix can look forward to from the regional board is training on what to do in a crisis situation. AFMDA will be reaching out to synagogues, churches and Jewish community centers to bring a program that will both educate people about MDA and provide emergency skills.
Zemel and Bycer will stay involved as board members.
“We took something that really didn't have visibility in the community, and over these 20 years, we've created a very positive image of it,” Bycer said. “We need some younger leadership. We need to mentor some people – and that’s in all things in Arizona. We need to get younger people involved on boards and get excited about their community and about Israel.”
Zemel said she is looking forward to taking a step back but still participating in the board.
“It's been a part of me for 20 years. It's going to be different, but I feel very good about it and all our accomplishments,” she said. JN
AFMDA is hosting a musical celebration Jan. 30 to honor Zemel and Bycer at Beth El Congregation. For more information and to register, visit afmda.org/az/. JN