by Vivian Henoch

As anyone who has ever worked for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit knows, it’s not just a job. It’s a calling.

Three years ago, when Herb Hanson joined the marketing team of the Jewish Federation, he took a leap of faith with confidence that his contribution as a web developer would help build the organization’s donor base and improve the experience for Federation’s visitors online.

And, indeed, he was right.

A freelancer for 12 years before coming to Federation, Herb brings to work a wealth of technical experience as well as his business savvy. From the start, his skills and work ethic have made a noticeable difference in Federation’s “touch points” on the web: in ease of access to the community calendar, online registration forms for events, reservations for mission travel, donor payments and data management.

A gentle soul with a sweet demeanor that belies the intensity of his focus, Herb describes his job as a relentless search to take every project to the next level – to re-imagine Federation’s online activity.  And in Herb’s words: “My job is to improve the work – as well as the workplace.”

Herb Hanson Receives the Pappas Award
Herb receives the 2016 Norm and Susie Pappas Award for Innovative Ideas

“I didn’t know anything about Federation before I took the job,” Herb admits, “But I knew I wanted to work for a Jewish organization.” Standing 6 foot 2 at a podium, a gifted speaker and storyteller, Herb describes his winding path to Federation – and finding it a perfect fit for his spiritual philosophy.  “I have been a Sabbath-keeper for years. I observe the Jewish holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. One of the reasons I chose to work as a freelancer for so many years was that I wanted the freedom and flexibility to have time off for the Jewish holidays without issues in the workplace. I’m not talking about a miracle here, but when the opportunity at Federation opened up to me, I felt like it was beshert — definitely something working in the atmosphere.”

There’s Herb the web developer writing code by day (and sometimes through the night) and then there’s Herb the apprentice pastor, writing and delivering sermons on the weekends at the Church of God International in Southfield where he will be ordained. “It was not my plan,” he says, “but our Young Adult Ministry needed speakers. One thing led to another, and here I am, at 39, studying to become an elder of my church.”

Talk about life work balance, Herb is unabashedly a family man first, passionately devoted to his wife Anika and four young children, Brea, 9, Anika,7, Herbert Daniel, 3, and Michael Joseph, 1. “I want everyone to know that Federation is a fantastic place to work,” he shares, “And, it has to be for me to leave my family every morning. The ability to work here is a wonderful blessing.”

Q & A with Herb Hanson

Five words that describe your work ethic:

“Always looking for an upgrade.”

Do you think that mindset comes from having been in business for yourself?

I think so. Because when you are in business, you’ve got to stay current, with new technology and new programs as they come out, and you need to evaluate and adapt to changes all the time. It’s not just about my skill set; it’s about keeping Federation ahead of the game as well. One thing we often talk about is taking the lead in web development to the point where we can share it with other federations or nonprofit agencies.

How did you gain your skills in web development?

It started as a nice little hobby — all self-taught.  I’m a 1999 graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in Journalism and Sports Management and, as part of the curriculum, I’ve taken about two weeks of actual classes in Web Design.  In college, I was plugged into journalism as a career. That was the path I had in mind.

When did you go pro in web development?

In 2002, after graduation, I moved to Washington to be with Anika, who was my girlfriend at the time. I was still living at home when I applied for a position with The Washington Post and actually got a call back. Ironically, I missed that call because the only phone line in the house was through a dial-up modem! I ended up working as a web producer for – a fantasy sports company where  I started dabbling in code and web design because it seemed more interesting to me.

When the company was sold, I really didn’t have the experience in line with those competing for jobs in web development in other large companies. So, I decided to go out and build websites on my own. And for 11 years, that’s what I did . . . until Anika and I moved our family back to Detroit and I started actively searching for work here.

In English, describe what a coder does all day

Coding is taking a digital language that very few people understand and presenting it in a format everyone can use. People don’t have to understand what’s under the hood of a car to drive it. In much the same way, you don’t need to understand Java Script or html to read a Facebook page. Essentially, I’m a translator.

And do you ever find translating code tedious?

Oh, I always find it tedious– and challenging.  It can be a little like writer’s block when you get stuck on a problem, but then there’s this breakthrough, when something you’ve never tried before suddenly works . . . it feels very much like writing poetry.

Herb Hanson
Herb with his daughter at Federation’s Take Your Child to Work Day.

Can you describe your typical day?

There is no typical day. Because whatever I may have in mind the day before – never goes exactly according to plan.

My day usually starts making sure that everything I did the previous day works where I left off. Things change, stuff happens. I don’t start anything new without checking first that there’s nothing missing, needs fixing, or left outstanding from the day before.

What web development at Federation makes you most proud?

The online donation form for Federation’s new Payment Plan. In response to customer demand, Federation’s goal was to upgrade the donor experience using the web for automated monthly payments towards pledges to the Annual Campaign. The project took us about five months to develop and program, another four to fully test. But the end result is a better, faster accounting system, not only from the donors’ standpoint, but also for the staff. And because we designed it ourselves, we’ve saved Federation thousands of dollars in outside vendor costs. It’s been a win-win-win.

On a personal note, how did you get from the path of web development to the clergy?

I’ll start by saying that my grandfather was a Baptist minister in Louisiana for over 50 years before he passed away. And, without knowing me, people will sometimes ask if I’m a pastor, so I suppose there’s something about my upbringing that makes people respond to me in that way.

But going into the ministry was never my plan . . . until I moved back to Detroit.

My religious background was in the Baptist Church. It was Anika who first took me to a Festival of Tabernacles and introduced me to her religious tradition. Then I started keeping the Sabbath, celebrating the holidays prescribed in the Five Books of Moses, and giving up some of those delicious foods like barbeque pork ribs and shrimp.

My first “sermon” was somewhat unintentional at my dad’s funeral, shortly after we moved back to Detroit. My mom asked me to speak. I wrote notes for a three-minute eulogy, and then lost the document the night before. So, when I got up to speak, instead of going for the three minutes as planned, I spoke for about 15 minutes – even used some scriptures that popped into my head. The pastor –  a good a friend of the family –  who was there to officiate –  came up to me after that and I’ve never forgotten his words, “I’ve heard you speak, it’s in you, you’ve been chosen for this.” That was almost six years ago and sometime within the next year or two, I hope to be ordained as an elder of the Church.

Finally, please share two things your colleagues might not know about you

  • Ironically, for a “computer nerd” – I choose to stay off the grid as much as possible: I don’t own a cell phone, don’t use social media and don’t subscribe to cable.
  • Besides God, my church and family (and my job?)  I deeply love Pat Benatar.

About the Pappas Award: Q & A with Norm and Susie Pappas

Susie and Norm Pappas
Susie and Norm Pappas

Married 45 years, recognized as longtime Federation leaders, Norm and Susie Pappas have a remarkable history of service to the Jewish community in their capacity as volunteers, philanthropists, fundraisers and agency board members. President and Founder of Pappas Financial, Norm is a Past President of the United Jewish Foundation, a member of Federation’s Board and a past officer of The Jewish Fund. A Past President of Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy, Susie is a current member of the boards of Hebrew Free Loan and Federation, and continues to be an active volunteer and supporter of numerous Jewish organizations and charitable causes in the community.

In its 19th year with the support of Norm and Susie Pappas, the Pappas Award recognizes a Federation staff member for creativity and innovation in work that has a positive impact on the organization. In a recent conversation with myJewishDetroit, Norm and Susie share their reflections on the purpose and impact of bestowing the Award to members of Federation’s staff over the years.

myJewishDetroit: Why the Pappas Award?  What inspired you to start it?

Norm: Years ago, when I first got involved with Federation as a member of the Board, it occurred to me that there are many on the Federation staff who bring their creativity and great ideas to work every day and they deserve our recognition as well.

Susie: With the Pappas Award, we saw an opportunity to look around, review the work of the Federation staff and really zero in on what was special for the year. And it’s interesting: when we started, there were just a handful of ideas nominated. This year, we had pages of recommendation for top-notch ideas.  As the Award has evolved, I think that the staff is more tuned in to what their “work” peers are doing and what can be seen as an innovative idea.

Describe the process of selection

N: The award is peer-driven and peer-selected. The committee consists of all the past winners and everyone gets a vote. The criterion is the most impactful idea – and sometimes it takes a couple of years to evaluate an idea to see how it comes to fruition. So we start with a review of the nominees from the previous year.

S: The voting is kept secret, so there’s always an element of pleasant surprise among the staff. Once it’s decided who the awardee with be, Norm does the interview.

N: One of the great pleasures for Susie and me in bestowing this award is getting to know more about outstanding people on Federation’s staff – I always do a little bio – covering their family background and education and finding little-known and humorous things about them. It’s a great opportunity to bring someone out into the limelight. After all, how many people get “This is Your Life” in review in front of peers? We do it because it sends the message to the whole staff that they don’t have to be a Federation employee for 20 years to be recognized for their value to the community. 

How has the award changed over the years?

S: As the years have gone by, we’ve seen a big difference in the way the nomination and selection process plays out. The Award now makes staff more thoughtful about what ideas their peers have, what projects might qualify and who they can nominate for the idea of the year.

N: If you look at the list of awardees over the years, it reads almost like a retrospective of Federation’s accomplishments — raising the bar on community programming, missions, fundraising and the internal workings of the staff itself. I think with each year, we are challenged to do more and, with this year, we’ve raised the mindset of where Federation is going in its technical capacity and accessibility online.

Past Pappas Awardees

1998                 Joe Imberman, Grant Makers Mission

1999                Linda Blumberg, ElderLink

2000                Susan Cassels Kamin, Board of Govenors Meetings

2001                Bernice Herd, Brown Bag Lunch Series

2002                David Contorer and Allan “Geli Gelfond, (Russian Jewish Community)

2003                Jon Taylor, Online Management & Upgrade

2004                Andrew Echt,  Roundtable Forum

2005                Tova Dorfman and Naomi Rockowitz, Fisher Mission

2006                Kari Alterman, The Jewish Entrepreneurs Network

2007                Michael Benghiat, No Family Stands Alone Campaign

2008                Scott Kaufman, Israel at 60 Celebrations

2009                Gail Greenberg, Passover Productions

2010                Jennifer Levine, Adam & Jodi Becker YAD All Star Mission

2011                Harvey Leven, CSI2: Congregational School Initiative

2012                Lisa Cutler and Ted Cohen, Step Forward Marketing Campaign

2013                Daniel Greenberg, Centennial Recognition Plan

2014                Gary Sikorski, School & Camp Security Program

2015                Jeffrey Lasday, The Formation of JEdI

2016                Herb Hanson, Reimagining Federation’s Online Activity