Barry Shrage is the president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, one of the state’s largest nonprofit organizations. A Bronx native, he ran a Jewish community center in New York and worked for the Jewish Federation in Cleveland before moving to Boston in 1987. Since Shrage assumed leadership of CJP in 1989, the group has grown dramatically, and has $1.36 billion in assets under management. Shrage recently spoke with Globe reporter Dan Adams. Here’s what he found out:
1Shrage grew up in the Bronx and attended a Jewish day school there. By his own admission, he wasn’t much of a student. But the experience sparked a slow-burning interest in spirituality that eventually put faith near the center of his life.
“Everything they wanted me to learn, I wasn’t that good at it. My Hebrew is still lousy. But what seeped into my soul as a kid is the idea that there’s meaning and purpose in the world. That has followed me and motivated me ever since.”
2As a City College student in the mid-1960s, Shrage joined in the social and political activism of the day, eventually chairing the school’s antiwar committee.
“When I first showed up for college in 1964, I didn’t know anything about Vietnam except that it was a place I didn’t want to go. But I watched everything change by 1968. I saw that you really could make the world a better place in a relatively short period of time.”
3Shrage said he drifted away from Judaism while attending the Bronx High School of Science, where teachers told him, “If you believe in God, you’re a complete fool.” But Shrage was inspired to reconnect with his Jewish identity by the black power movement of the 1960s.
“We went from having an assimilationist culture to this burst of ethnic pride and identity. Being who you are became important, and all of a sudden, if you wanted to be Jewish, you could be Jewish. I realized I was alienated from my own traditions. It forced me to integrate a perspective that included my commitment to social justice but also the betterment of my own people.”
4In the late 1960s, Shrage studied social work at Boston University. As part of his field work, he visited the infamous Belchertown State School, where disabled patients lived in squalid conditions. Outraged, Shrage vowed to take action, and he did: CJP’s many long-running programs for the disabled are a direct outgrowth of that experience.
“It was human insanity. There are laws against treating animals like that. Naked people screaming, feces on the wall — you’re talking about the bottom of hell. It was incomprehensible. I couldn’t stop crying. But it felt like a solvable problem and I knew I needed to do something about it.”
5Asked what he does for fun, Shrage hesitated — at 67, he still works long hours six days a week. Any time left is spent with his family.
“Golf wouldn’t be half as much fun as what I do every day. CJP gives me so much freedom to innovate and take chances. But I do take vacations in the winter and summer, which is when I get reintroduced to my wife.”
6Shrage was coy about whom he supported in the recent gubernatorial election, but said he expects big things from Governor-elect Charlie Baker.
“I’ve known Charlie Baker a little since the [former Massachusetts governor William] Weld days. I think he’ll fix the administrative problems. Anyone who can look at a bureaucracy with a keen eye and simplify it is good. And I know he’s interested in fostering a deep economic connection between the Commonwealth and Israel.”
7CJP has become a large, $1 billion-plus operation under Shrage’s leadership. But he said he still nurtures his 1960s idealism.
“If you forget who you are and what this is all about, the money doesn’t mean anything. The financial stuff is nice and it enables us to do great things, but if you confuse the raising of money with the purpose of using money, you’re going down a very dark road.”