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By: Ellen Geller Kamaras

 “Everything that drives me is a contribution to society”

Meet Sarina Roffé, a multi-faceted and dynamic woman born in the Syrian Jewish enclave of Bensonhurst.

Sarina is a journalist, a prolific published writer, a distinguished Toastmaster, a community advocate, a business consultant and strategist, a genealogist specializing in the Syrian Jews in America, and is the president of the Sephardic Heritage Project.  In 2018 Sarina expects to release her second cookbook, Backyard Kitchen: The Main Course, featuring the recipes of her maternal grandmother, Esterina Cohen Salem, the first caterer in the Syrian Jewish community.  Sarina has held leadership positions in companies dealing with communications, marketing and public relations, government, and the not-for-profit and profit sectors.

After 15 years of research, Sarina completed Branching Out From Sepharad, the first and only recorded history of the U.S. Syrian Jewish community (August 2017).  Her passion for Sephardic history led Sarina to become an internationally recognized expert in the history of Syrian Jews in America. In her book, she outlines the global journey of selected rabbinic families (Kassin, Hedaya, and Labaton) from Iberia to Syria to the Americas. 

Rabbi Sam Kassin highlights the unique contributions of Sarina’s book:

“She…provides historical context, genealogical information, and links the Kassin family with other rabbinic families…over many centuries. The families have…spread all over the world…into a global community. This work shows insight into the personal side of rabbinic families and humanizes them.  Sarina Roffé  has provided Sephardic Jewish communities…with the foundation for their own family history.”

Sarina’s Roots

To understand the varied facets of Sarina’s extensive skills and talents, let’s travel back to the heart of the Syrian community of Brooklyn circa 1955-1975.  Sarina was raised in a traditional Syrian home.  Her parents, Renee and Abe Missry, born in the U.S., were the first in their families to graduate high school.  Sarina’s fraternal and maternal grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Syria in the early 1900’s.  Sarina attended public school, since at that time daughters were generally not sent to yeshivot.

Sarina learned her strong work ethic from her parents, who owned retail businesses. She speaks fondly of working alongside with her mother and siblings in their summer resort store in Rhode Island.  While her mother was running their summer store, her father was in the city taking care of their other year-round establishments.  Sarina shared, “We worked for everything we had. I knew how to make change for a $20 when I was five.” Many of her current skills and talents, including project and business management and strategy, originated from her responsibilities in her youth. Sarina also credits her grandmother Esterina, who ran her catering business from her home garage, for being an outstanding role model.

When asked to describe herself using five words, Sarina chose: high achiever, productive, determined, objective, and grounded in tradition.  Her professional trajectory described below demonstrates her desire and tenacity to grow and achieve her goals.  Her objectivity is a must in her role as a historian and genealogist. 

Sarina’s weekly Sunday visits to her grandparents inspired her to document not only her own family tree but those of many Syrian families.  She is passionate about keeping traditions and “ensuring future generations are grounded in past generations.”  Sarina therefore created a non-profit called The Sephardic Heritage Project,whose goal is to identify, translate, and database records that provide access for those interested in genealogical research.  Syrian Brit Milah records from 1868-1945, as well as marriage and cemetery records from all over the world are available online on SephardicGen.com.

Marriage, Family, and Career

Sarina was 19 when she married David Roffé.  About a year later, the young couple moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Sarina gave birth to their first child, Simon.  Simon was born deaf.  Sarina explained, “A large part of my early marriage was devoted to Simon and his development…it’s a whole other story…an important piece of who I am.” 

Her determined nature kicked in to get Simon the best possible language development program.  Fortunately, he was diagnosed at eight months, versus the average age of two- and-a-half.  Simon received hearing aids, and his parents followed the school’s guidance.  Simon, however, had trouble communicating, and after a year the school recommended he learn sign language.  Sarina was concerned about the low literacy rates for deaf children who are raised using sign language.  When Simon was three-and-a-half, he had the language skills of an 18-month-old.  After struggling with sign language, Sarina was thrilled to stumble upon an alternative system called “Cued Speech.”  Cued Speech is a visual communication system using mouth movements of speech combined with “cues” to make all the sounds of spoken language look different.

Sarina exclaimed, “Cued Speech was literally a miracle.”  Simon made terrific progress with Cued Speech, and within 22 months he made a five year leap in language skills.  Within a year, Simon was talking in sentences, and within two years his language skills were age appropriate. Simon tested in the 99th percentile on his third grade reading tests. 

Sarina wanted to share her experiences with Cued Speech and bring the program to other children.  She eventually became a national advocate and spokesperson for the National CuedSpeech Association (NCSA).

Sarina realized that in order to be regarded with credibility she needed to get an education before she could write and share her lessons learned.

Six years after Simon was born, Sarina gave birth to her daughter Harriet, and then another six years later to her son Abraham.  She started college after Abraham’s birth, 16 years after graduating high school.  Sarina had to overcome many challenges in getting her bachelor’s degree in journalism.  During that four year period, her husband moved back to NY for his job, and she was left raising three children. She commuted an hour each way, five days a week, to the University of Maryland. Sarina’s determined and productive nature helped her persevere and stay focused on her goals of obtaining a college degree, and helping parents of deaf children.  Sarina is still active in deaf education and Cued Speech.

Sarina’s career took off after graduating college.

After leaving Maryland, Sarina worked for three years as a journalist and editor in NYC (Nassau Herald and Queens Tribune) and also taught English writing and communications in undergraduate and graduate school, respectively.

In 1996, Sarina became the Director of Public Relations at the NYC Department of Juvenile Justice.  After making her mark there, she moved to the Jewish National Fund for three years in 2002, serving as Director of Communications and Government Relations. Then Sarina moved to ORT America, as Director of Communications and Marketing from 2005 to 2008.  Sarina was also president of the NCSA from 2002 through 2008.  From 2008 to 2010 she was the chief operating officer for C & A Marketing, a multi-million online retail company.

Sarina started her own multi-service management consulting firm in 2011, which specializes in non-profit management, and performs a niche service that no one else does. My client list reads like a who’s who of the community.”

Throughout her career, and while her children were still at home, Sarina continued to pursue her education, obtaining a graduate degree in Jewish Studies at Touro College and an MBA.

Sarina’s Greatest Accomplishments and Challenges

When Sarina is asked what her proudest achievement is, she immediately answers, “Family!”  Following closely is going to school while raising her children.  Her recent book Branching Out From Sepharad is high on her list of accomplishments.

While Serena was studying journalism, completing her writing assignments demanded more time and creativity, compared to her younger peers.  Sarina couldn’t cover campus events for the school newspaper since she had to rush home to her children.  Sarina explained, “The first thing a journalist has to do is go above and beyond to get a story.”  She covered a 3am mock takedown by the fire department, and her article appeared on the front page of the Gaithersburg Gazette.

Sarina is gratified that she was able to sit down with her children to a home cooked dinner every evening, even when she was in school and her husband was working in NYC.

Another challenge Sarina overcame was making her mark as a credible historian even though she does not know Hebrew.

Work-Life Balance

Sarina strongly believes in practicing a healthy work-life balance.  She especially enjoys her family trips in the U.S. and abroad.  Sarina has been to 46 out of the 50 states.  Her children and grandchildren have greatly benefited from their travels.  Sarina is grateful to her husband David for his consistent and loving support of her career goals, and for their family’s overall growth. 

Sarina’s Secret Sauce and Work Ethic

Sarina’s secret to success and advice to young men and women is to set goals and create a plan to realize them.  Also, ensure you have the necessary credentials to achieve your goals.  Her children saw how hard she worked and that, “If you put your mind to it…you can achieve whatever you want.”

What’s Next?

Sarina is collaborating with genealogists and researchers in different countries to compile a global 100-year history of Syrian communities.

“I probably have about ten more books in my head.”

You can connect with Sarina at sarina@roffe.com.

Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach.  Her coaching specialties include life, career, and dating coaching. Ellen can be contacted at ellen@lifecoachellen.com(www.lifecoachellen.com).