Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!by Brie Stimson August 27, 2018
“I just celebrated a really big birthday on Saturday and I threw a party for myself,” Marsha Berkson begins at the start of our conversation. “And I was surrounded by all these people in the community that are my San Diego family and that I’ve connected to through the Jewish community.”
Marsha has been involved with a number of San Diego Jewish organizations since she moved here from Chicago 25 years ago: She’s on the board of the San Diego Jewish Academy, Jewish Family Service and the Women’s Division of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County. She also founded the Hand Up Youth Food Pantry at JFS.
“I said to them,” she continues, “listen, you all know that I do strength coaching, and I got into this by accident, but it was the best journey for me.” Through belief and connectedness, Marsha says she’s found meaning and purpose in her life.
Her work in the community hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2011, she was named a “San Diego Women Who Mean Business” nominee and a year later, she was nominated for “San Diego Woman of the Year.” More recently, she was one of eight women named a 2018 Mitzvah Honoree at JFS’ Centennial Gala for her work on the food pantry and she was one of the 2018 “Women of Valor” at the 25th Annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival.
She is an organizational development specialist and Gallup-certified strengths coach, and she uses her skills to frequently work with the Jewish community. “I’m in the Jewish community with the coaching that I’m doing, but it’s even more national because I’m speaking on Monday to the Western Region leaders of Hillel, “ she tells me.
A decade ago, Marsha founded JFS’ Hand Up Youth Food Pantry that is still successful today. Her children were attending San Diego Jewish Academy at the time. “I wanted to put together a social action program at the Jewish Academy with a few other mothers,” she says. “We took these kids that were in high school and junior high to Seacrest to do a Purim carnival and to underprivileged preschools to read to the kids.” Soon, she was approached by Jill Borg Spitzer, the CEO of JFS at the time. “They used to be in this little tiny building in Hillcrest, but they were going to go and build a new building on Balboa Avenue,” Marsha explains. “She showed me the food pantry, and I said to her ‘have you ever thought of having this food pantry run by kids, by students?’” Marsha took the lead in organizing the program. “JFS was amazing,” she adds, “because they gave me internal people to work on it, and that’s why the program still thrives today. It’s an important part of who they are and what they do and really even the core of all their food programs really came from that strong initial Hand Up program.”
After running a successful music venue in downtown San Diego, “I started to figure out what I was going to do, like ‘What now?’ ‘What next?’ I was working with Susan G. Komen, and I was asked to facilitate their retreat,” she says. At the time, she was doing strategic planning with the breast cancer research nonprofit. Marsha called up her strength coach for advice and was directed to Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, an online personality assessment that helps people focus their skills. She used what she learned from StrengthsFinder with Susan G. Komen. “I facilitated the retreat,” she continues, “and the women that were a part of … the organization really learned a lot about how they operate, how they execute things, how they build relationships with each other, how they strategically think and they became a way more high performance team.”
After the retreat, Marsha started to take the workshop given by StrenthsFinder. “What we understand about our strengths,” she says, “is they describe us. They influence our choices, they help us filter the world and they also tell us why we’re good at certain things and not good at others. And because it’s strength, it’s all framed in a positive way.”
Soon after, she was approached by JFS CEO Michael Hopkins. “He said, ‘Marsha, you get certified and you’re going to do strength for JFS because I love strength,’” she says.
She now helps with JFS’ car donation program amid her other projects with organizations like Hillel and the San Diego Jewish Academy.
“There’s lots of Jewish organizations that I’m doing work for,” she says. “I’m helping people tap into how to be the best version of themselves because our strengths are natural to us and they’re innate to us. When you understand them, then you understand why and you can move forward with a greater understanding as to how to be more productive and how to be more collaborative.”
She says in all her work she strives simply to make a contribution and impact in the community. “I feel blessed and privileged that I am a part of this community and was embraced when I moved here from Chicago about 25 years ago and given that opportunity,” she adds. “What the recipients of the food pantry have gotten out of the program and the kids that participated, that is what’s fueling to me.”
She says strength is a gift of self-awareness. “When people feel that they have that in their life, in the professional Jewish world when you feel that somebody cares about your development, you’re going to be more engaged in what you do.”
Marsha continues to work with both local and national Jewish organizations and is always looking ahead. “How I’m moving forward in the future is really important to me,” she adds, “And exciting to me as well.”