Leon Wahba will serve as chair of the 2016 Federation Campaign and he knows he has a big job ahead of him that involves recruiting a strong team of volunteers to help him.
Keren Benabou and Laurence Nibur have stepped up and will chair the Young Adult Division; and Wahba is talking with other community leaders to ensure this year’s Campaign team has the depth, strength and commitment it needs.
“I know from my past experience on the Planning and Allocations Committee that the needs of our community far exceed what we have been able to allocate,” Wahba said. He’d like to raise enough money to increase funding for education and to send more money to Israel.
He also sees a real need for additional funding for the Jewish Community of Louisville. He highlighted some of the varied resources the agency provides for the community including all the programming at the Jewish Community Center, from teen programming like Teen Connection and BBYO to summer camp and the Senior Adult nutrition program.
The Jewish Community Relations Council is close to Wahba’s heart, as he is a former chair of the group that serves as an advocate for the interests of the Jewish community and Israel and the interface for the Jewish community with other faith communities and the general community. The JCRC, he said, is a critical program that deserves full funding.
Another program that Wahba believes needs greater support is Hillel, the place where Jewish students at the University of Louisville, Bellarmine University and other metroversity campuses can be comfortable being Jewish, meet other Jews and deal with issues that affect them as Jews that they encounter on campus.
He also anticipates an influx of refugees as the United States steps up to help with the crisis in Europe today, and Wahba knows Jewish Family & Career Services will be in the forefront of Louisville’s resettlement effort. It takes the entire community working as a team, because we are “stronger together,” he said, emphasizing the 2016 Campaign theme.
Wahba plans to build on some of the successful elements Doug Gordon, who chaired the last two year’s Campaigns, introduced. “We do want to replicate the Million Dollar Dinner and the Week of Giving,” he said. By focusing the Campaign effort on the Week of Giving, he pointed out, the community raised half of its goal before the end of the year and then was able to celebrate at the dinner.
The key to making this happen is volunteers, he said, and he’s eager to welcome everyone who would like to be part of the team. He’s already talking with past Campaign chairs and other community leaders, and he’s looking for new team members who are ready to step up and make a difference.
Ed Cohen, Ralph Green, Doug Gordon, Bob Sachs and Ben Vaughan have already stepped forward and agreed to help. Wahba is counting on many more to help as well.
He is also excited about working with JCL President and CEO Sara Klein Wagner. Her depth of experience, energy and enthusiasm will be great assets to the 2016 Campaign.
Wahba is a member of the JCL Board of Directors and served on the steering committee for the Israel@60 celebration. He also served as treasurer of the Jewish Community Federation.
One of his strongest interests is the JCRC. In addition to his service as JCRC Chair, Wahba has chaired the Jewish community’s participation in the Community Hunger Walk, worked on improving Muslim/Jewish relations. He is also a passionate advocate for Israel and actively supports Yom Ha-atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) activities and the Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) community commemoration..
Wahba is truly a success story for the Louisville Jewish community. He was born in Egypt to a Sephardic family with roots that stretch back generations. When the State of Israel was established, “it became very uncomfortable for Jews to remain in Egypt” or in any other country in the Arab world, he explained.
Nearly a million Jews fled from Arab lands, making new homes in many places around the world. Wahba’s family scattered to Israel, Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Belgium, France, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay and the United States.
With HIAS’ (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) help, Wahba’s family obtained a visa and was sponsored by Louisville’s Conference of Jewish Organizations (a predecessor to the Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Community of Louisville). They arrived at the L&N Station in October 1959, where the family of four, his parents, Marcel and Rebecca, Leon, and his sister, Arlette, were met by National Council of Jewish Women representatives Selma Kling, Claire Judd and Frances Wolff.
Conference Director Al Erlen, Jewish Vocational Service Director David Dobson, Boris Pressma and Mrs. Kleinman were also very helpful.
“The first few weeks we were here, they were so kind and attentive,” Wahba said. “We had no idea what to expect.” The family was given a small furnished apartment on Sherwood Ave., and a refrigerator full of food.
Within a month, Wahba’s father found a job as an accountant for Universal Container. “It was the one and only job he ever held in America,” Wahba said. His mother, although she spoke no English, worked in the perfume department at Stewarts.
Wahba attended Seneca High School, was active in Rauch AZA, and, with his family, belonged to Anshei Sfard. Wahba also singled out Rauch adviser Phil Schechter and Mrs. Kleinman as being very influential in his life.
He went on to the University of Louisville and graduated with a degree in business in 1967, then enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany.
In 1970, he returned to Louisville and got into international banking. That led to an assignment in Brussels, Belgium and later to a job with a bigger bank in Cleveland.
“Somewhere in between,” Wahba continued, “I got married to wonderful a young lady, Helen Wirth, from New Albany, IN, who was a nurse in intensive care unit at Jewish Hospital.”
After working in international banking for 35 years and traveling overseas extensively, he retired as head of the International Department at Sun Trust in April 2005 and headed back to Louisville, to be closer to Helen’s family and where they could enjoy the more temperate weather.
Wahba still maintains some ties with the Egyptian Jewish community, too, which now numbers less than 30. All of those who remain are elderly women, he said.
Helen Wahba is a member of NCJW and volunteers with Jewish Family & Career Service.
The Wahbas have two adult children, Marcie Wahba, married to Josh Eppert, and Jeffrey Wahba and his significant other, Rachel Parks.