Neighborhood Interfaith Movement leadership in transition

A month after Rabbi George Stern stepped down from his position as director of the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement (NIM); he received an unusual indication of how his time at the helm had been received in the Northwest.

At last Thursday’s “Cookin’ With Who?” fundraiser held at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), nine community “chefs” – three each from NIM, LTSP, and East Mt. Airy Neighbors – who cooked their favorite recipes for the delectation of the patrons. Stern was one of the NIM representatives and cooked brisket of beef, potato pancakes, and curried sweet potatoes, which he usually makes for Hanukah. It was voted most popular by the attendees, and Stern was presented the first-ever “Mt. Airy Platinum Spatula.”

“It was a great event,” he said in a later interview. “I was struck by the number of people who came early and then hung around and socialized. It’s the kind of thing that helps make the Northwest the kind of community it is.”

Stern left the directorship in October for “personal reasons – it was time,” he said.

He became director of the Northwest Interfaith Movement, as it was still known then, in 2002. He and his family had moved back to Philadelphia – he is a native of Mt. Airy – when his wife took a job here. He applied for the position after longtime director Rev. Richard Fernandez retired.

It was a difficult period for religious relations, not long after the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“It was a time of growing tension toward Muslims in the community,” he said, “so we reached out to Muslims and got the first mosques to join NIM.”

During his tenure the organization has changed its name, expanded its programs and its reach, and moved to a more visible location. It’s been at 7047 Germantown Avenue for more than five years.

One reason for the move, said Stern, is that “I wanted a visible reminder that religion can be a positive force for good in the community.”

A representation of that positive force is the “Walking Together” mural on the side of the building, said NIM Interim Director Bessie Jordan-Byrd, “It’s symbolic of a number of things. It’s got the faith aspect, it’s got racial justice, and a plaque for the 58 member organizations … it’s a more public engagement.”

NIM now supports a wide variety of programs. One example is its Early Childhood Alliance.

“When I got here,” said Stern, “the emphasis was about meeting state standards for education. But it needed more. We’ve added health, mental health and environmental training.”

NIM Early Childhood Specialists now offers state-approved training and technical assistance in a number of areas to over 1,500 child care providers and families each year. It has opened a second Early Learning Resource Center in West Philadelphia patterned after the center at 7051 Germantown Avenue.

“We have new programs,” said Stern, “but always with one eye out to see if they could be expanded and handed off to someone else in other neighborhoods.” That outlook is one reason that NIM changed its name from Northwest to Neighborhood Interfaith Movement – it’s no longer simply about the Northwest.

The annual budget to support NIM programs – which include its “55+” resources for older adults and its Ombudsman advocacy for residents of long-term care and nursing homes, among others – is about $2 million, according to Jordan-Byrd. NIM’s financial support comes a mixture of state funding and donations from private and non-profit sources and while the resource stream has been stable despite the economic climate of the last few years, she said, the balance between the two has shifted. “That’s one of my first challenges,” she said, “to bring that into balance.”

Jordan-Byrd is a member of Second Baptist Church of Germantown, where she has chaired many committees. She has worked both with non-profits and in the corporate world at GlaxoSmithKline on strategic planning and human resources. She joined NIM’s board in 2006 and became chair in 2008, stepping down to serve as interim director when Stern retired.

Regarding a new director, she said, “The board will appoint a search committee … whether or not the new director will have a local tie I can’t say at this moment.”

On November 16, at 10 a.m., NIM will celebrate its partnership with children’s book illustrator E.B. Lewis by hosting local early childcare programs for a reading by Lewis at the first E.B. Lewis Reading Corner in NIM’s Early Learning Resource Center, 7051 Germantown Avenue. NIM will open next month a second E.B. Lewis Reading Corner at its West Philadelphia Resource Center at 4117 Lancaster Avenue with plans to follow up with another in Northeast Philadelphia upon completion of its third Resource Center. Lewis is a five-time Coretta Scott King Honor recipient and has illustrated more than 50 books for children. For more information call NIM at 215-843-5600.

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