Leni Sweet President of the NCJW

[Archived from May 22, 2009]

[by Phyllis Shaikun]

When Leni Sweet assumed the presidency of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Louisville Section at their annual installation luncheon at the Napa River Grill on Monday, May 18, she was more than prepared to take on the challenge of leading the 1,000 plus-member group. Active with NCJW since 1993, and a dues-paying member for many years before that, Sweet came up through the various leadership “chairs” and seems relatively undaunted by the task before her.

Perhaps Sweet’s calm demeanor stems from her small town upbringing in Richmond, IN, or maybe from the firm grasp of organizational principles she gained as a dental hygienist and teacher? She actually helped launch a college-level dental hygiene program in the Netherlands, learned Dutch and taught there for two years before returning to America to accept a teaching position at Vanderbilt University. While there, she met Vandy’s development director, Bernard Sweet, and they married in 1974. That same year they relocated to Louisville to take over an Arby’s restaurant her father had opened on Dixie Highway (it the first Arby’s in the state) seven years before.

“Bernie went from PR to sesame seeds,” says Sweet with a laugh. Meanwhile she worked on curriculum for a traveling dental hygiene clinic until their twin sons, Adam and Steve, joined the family in 1975. She stayed home to take care of the boys and became a member of NCJW.

At the time, Jean Frank had a program for volunteer probation officers that required a six-week training period. Sweet volunteered and was assigned to work with a truant teenager. She remembers it as rewarding, but lots of work, especially with two babies.

During the next decade or so, she took over bookkeeping duties for the family business and did not really become active with NCJW until Betty Pohn assumed the section’s presidency in 1993.

Sweet chaired the education committee and began holding forums on public school reform. Linda Engel, who was then the vice president of public affairs, tapped her to become state public affairs chairperson, a three-year appointment made by the national NCJW president. She remembers going through a steep learning curve and acting as both a liaison with the Washington office and an informational resource for the local section. She kept the job for nine years. For the past two years, she has been the section’s treasurer.

Sweet speaks in terms of visions as she looks toward forming goals for her presidency. She hopes to develop a job description or behavioral objective of sorts for each leadership position in the organization so everyone has a clear picture of what is expected. “I’ve always considered behavioral objectives significant for any job I’ve done,” says Sweet, “and I’d like to help us develop those for our officers so there can be a smoother transition when they pass the reins of leadership off to others.

She feels this is critical now when the section is trying to develop or expand a community service project with a strong advocacy element. Study groups will be held to assess the needs in the community and the section will look for something unique to fill an identified void. Membership involvement combined with advocacy will allow the section to develop such a program and make it strong.

She believes having a clear picture of the whole and how the parts fit into it will encourage others to take part. To make it happen, she said, “We might need to do some spring cleaning,” to look at NCJW’s programs across the board to be sure they are relevant and cost-effective.

“I feel this is an amazing organization,” says Sweet. “I have spent the past 15-16 years working for NCJW along with some wonderful, dynamic and intelligent women who are a part of it. Our organization has survived the test of time because it has something for everyone: community service, advocacy, events for fun and events for a purpose.”

For more information about NCJW and the Louisville Section, please talk with Jamie at the office, 458-5566.

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