Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Powerhouse Susan Bierman chosen for Human Service Award

"With her ever-present beaming smile and cheerful enthusiasm, Susan Bierman has been a pivotal force in the dynamic growth of Orlando's Jewish community," wrote Bierman's nominator for the Heritage Human Service Award. That opening sentence in the nomination entry said it all.

Bierman is packaged dynamite in a tiny frame. As Mark Cooper, Federation president from 1984-1986, said, "It was incredible to see someone so small in stature be so enormous in achievements!"

Her "can do" attitude, mixed with a brighten-anyone's-day laugh, got a lot of things accomplished in this Jewish community-all within a short 50 years, too.

That is why the Heritage is pleased to announce that Susan Bierman is the recipient of 2016's Heritage Human Service Award.

"I can't believe we've been here 50 years," Bierman reflected. "We've lived here longer than we've lived any place else."

Bierman landed in Orlando in 1966, but didn't immediately jump into volunteer work for the Jewish community. She was busy doing the most important volunteer work: raising her three daughters, Lisa, Sarah and Karen.

She and her husband, Dr. Arnold Bierman, and "one and two-thirds children," (16-month-old Lisa and 6-months-in-the-oven Sarah) and a puppy, traveled from New Haven, Conn., where Arnold just finished his residency at Yale, to Kansas City, Bierman's hometown. This was the beginning of their adventure that ended up (eventually) in Orlando.

"We drove out of New Haven onto the Pennsylvania turnpike, where the traffic was backed up for miles," Bierman recalled. "The temperature was 105, and here we were with a baby and a puppy."

They ended up having to stay in a little town that had "a garage to fix things on one end and a car dealership on the other." She laughed.

In New Haven they had a boat, which they sold before moving. That boat money bought a used engine to get them back on the road.

Because this was the era of the Viet Nam conflict, young men either signed up for service or risked being drafted. So Arnold chose to serve in the Air Force after his residency and left Susan, Lisa, and Sarah in Kansas City with her family while he went to Texas for basic training.

The Biermans almost didn't come to Orlando, which would have been the City Beautiful's greatest loss. Originally, they wanted to go in England, but the person stationing Arnold was finishing his own rotation and chose that location for himself. They spent one year in Miami, then were stationed in Orlando at the Air Force Base (later to become the Naval Training Center). It was here that the Biermans met Dr. Ed Zissman and Dr. Steve Albert.

The family planned to live here only two years and then return to the University of Missouri, Bierman's alma mater and where Arnold had a position waiting for him.

"I wasn't going to put any roots down here because I hate to put down roots and then get up and leave," Bierman said. However, she did join the Sisterhood at Congregation Ohev Shalom. "It was right after Rudy [Rabbi Rudolph Adler] became rabbi. Rabbi Adler and Rose-such a wonderful, wonderful couple."

At this point in the interview, Bierman's phone rang. She checked to see who was calling. "I'm just waiting to hear from my grandson. It may take all afternoon."

Her grandson, Tony Moreno, was in New York auditioning for a Broadway Dreams Foundation part.

"It's nerve racking," she said. "It's much harder for me to sit and wait then it is for him to audition!" Again, her bubbly laughter filled the room.

Bragging a bit more on Tony, who recently won the Broadway League Foundation Applause Award, Bierman said "My very Jewish grandson sang 'Oh Holy Night' at the Gaylord Palms Ice Show when he was still a soprano!"

This proud and devoted grandmother has also been equally devoted to the Jewish community. Bierman became one of the few women presidents of the Jewish Federation, and the only one to serve as president twice-from 1986-1988 and 1994-1995. In 1984, before she began her first term as president, she took on the role of interim director. No one else has served in both positions at the same time.

"It's difficult to be both because they have different goals and attributes. It was tough," Bierman recalled.

"She took on an enormous task," said Cooper, who was Federation president the year before her. "She did it all for free while also taking care of her family, and did it really well."

Roz Fuchs shared her thoughts of that time. "When I moved back to Orlando, I think Susan was the acting Federation executive director. It was immediately apparent to me that this transplant from Kansas City truly loved my hometown (Orlando) and had invested herself completely into building a better community for everyone."

While she was filling both positions, the Federation was trying to come out of a very difficult period because they had not raised enough money to build a campus, but they went ahead and built it.

"A lot of people were not happy that we did that and a lot of people took their money and said 'bye.'"

In 1987, Jordan (Jody) Harburger became the executive director of the Federation and Bierman could finally just wear the one hat as president.

In addition to her tremendous involvement with JFGO, Bierman has volunteered her time to numerous local, national and international organizations. She is a past president of Central Florida Hillel Council, a past chair of the Tampa-Orlando-Pinellas Jewish Foundation, first president of the Seminole chapter of Women's American ORT-"Sadly, there are no local chapters left," she commented, "You know, when mothers started going back to work many organizations fell apart. Women working hurt these organization."

Bierman served on the board of the Congregation of Reform Judaism and the Hebrew Day School, now the Jewish Academy of Orlando, where her daughter Karen and all three grandchildren attended-"Some people don't understand how good a school it is. They say, 'but it's just Jewish.' No it's not 'just Jewish!' It has a wonderful reputation. I mean, look at how many have graduated from there and done wonderful things."

Bierman was the Orlando community chairman for the Israel Bonds Campaign and was a national regional chairman of the United Jewish Appeal National Young Women's Leadership Cabinet. It was through UJA Young Leadership Mission that Bierman took her first trip (of many) to Israel in 1975.

"What a wonderful experience it was. I loved being on the cabinet and I would hope to get more local people involved in the cabinets."

Bierman was the first to establish a Lion of Judah Endowment (LOJE) in the Orlando community, and went on the serve as LOJE co-chair in 2004.

Ina Porth, who was Federation president from 1990-1991, told the Heritage, "Susie cares deeply for our community and therefore has given so much of herself to it. Wherever she sees a need, Susie steps in to help fill it. She has been a blessing to our Orlando Jewish community."

Arnold Bierman is the proudest of his energetic wife and explained the reason for her involvement in all the organizations she has volunteered for is because of "her concern and interest in perpetrating these Jewish institutions. She has risen to lead these organizations because of her leadership abilities and dogged persistence to get the job done."

One of her proudest endeavors was to serve as a Seeds of Peace Board member. This nonprofit organization, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1993, brings together youth in communities divided by conflict. Their first group comprised 46 Israeli and Palestinian youths. Today their network has over 6,000 alumni throughout the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, and the United States who are uniquely positioned to lead change.

Bierman co-chaired the local Seeds of Peace "Hope Happens" gala.

"We wanted to build a bridge between local Palestinians, Jews and Israelis at the adult level. We had Queen Noor of Jordan as our guest speaker. The Jewish community really did try to build bridges. It was very difficult though. A few people from the Arab community were there, but a lot of them walked away," she said, adding "too bad."

In addition to her service to the Jewish community, Bierman was also very involved in the Orlando community. She served on the boards of the Drug Abuse Council of Central Florida; served on the Board of Trustees for the Orlando Opera and the Orlando Philharmonic, and was president and Board of Trustees member for the John Young Museum, now the Orlando Science Center-"Oh, John Young was not happy when they changed the name," she said; and served on the Orange County Council on Aging commissioned by Mayor Buddy Dyer.

And on top of all this, she was also a Brownie/Girl Scout leader. "All through school I was involved in Girl Scouts and my mom was my leader all the way through. So I wanted to do it for my kids. I always get my toe in somewhere!"

"It's been 50 years. I really have to slow down," Bierman said. "The Federation needs new, young thoughts and ideas and people to take up the banner and do what I did for all those years."

Bierman is limiting herself. "I have to pick and chose very carefully what I want to do."

Right now, she is involved in Kehillah: A Century of Jewish Life in Greater Orlando.

"I don't want to do nothing because that leads to brain dead. You gotta do something or you end up looking inward too much. I have to find a good canasta game." She laughs hardily.

Jeff Gaeser, publisher of The Heritage, will present the award to Susie at the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando Annual Meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 7 p.m. at The Roth Family JCC. Since the Biermans will be in Tuscany, Italy, visiting with Alan Ginsburg, Susie has arranged to have a video made of her acceptance speech. All are welcome to come and see Susie via video.


Reader Comments(2)

Karencarasik writes:

Enjoyed working with Susan on Seeds for Peace.

pauljeser writes: