New Leader to Follow in the Footsteps, but Chart Out a Path for Greater Growth

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An artist’s rendering of the Grand Hall in the soon to open Convention Center.

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: Even as the clock ticks away the moments towards the end of his tenure, the perfectionist in him won’t let him rest till the crowning task of his career at Interfaith Ministries is completed. “I have my work cut out for me as I make sure that the new Conference Center is finished,” said Elliot Gershenson, referring to the new building that will be opening soon.

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Outgoing CEO & President Elliot Gershenson.

A man with a short stature but a powerful determination to leave an indelible mark on his adopted city, Gershenson, 65, will step down as CEO and President of Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston in early July, paving the path for his successor, Martin Cominsky, to take over the helm of the venerable 60-year-old institution that has come to symbolize the harmony of different faiths in tackling hunger, isolation and rehabilitation in the Bayou City.

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New CEO & President Martin Cominsky

During his tenure, Gershenson made many inroads to people of other faiths, reaching out to the leadership in their respective communities, and to integrate their ideas into the goals outlined for IM. Flexibility and change has been the organization’s key to longevity and renown in the city, as it transformed itself from the Protestant-based Houston Council of Churches Church Welfare Bureau to include Jewish groups; emerge as the Houston Metropolitan Ministries in 1969 and be renamed the Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston in 1992.

Gershenson took over the reins in 2003 and immediately fanned out to include even more faiths over the years; bringing in from the South Asian community Fatima Mawji, Ajit Giani, Shaukat Zakaria, Nizar Charania, Swatantra Jain, Sushma Mahajan, Jasmeeta Singh and Shahnaz Waliany, all of whom are still on the Board of Directors.

“It has been a tremendous blessing being with IM,” reflected Gershenson as he took a Friday afternoon off. “It has been a wonderful journey meeting people of different faiths. I had worked in my Jewish world and was happy in my bubble. IM has broadened my ideas and I have learnt how much faiths have in common.”

This backdrop has provided Cominsky with some ideas for further outreach in service, and will likely further broaden IM’s Board. Like Gershenson, he has a long history of involvement in building tolerance in the city. A native Houstonian, he has been the Regional Director for the Southwest with the Anti-Defamation League in Houston for the past 16 years and created its “No Place for Hate” school program which is operation in 450 Texas schools.

Cominsky, 57, has worked with law enforcement tracking the activities of extremist groups and helped stop defamation of Jewish people and crimes against them. He started his career as an Assistant to the Chancellor at the University of Houston, moving on to become the National Director for the Business Volunteers for the Arts and later founding the Serve Houston Youth Corps, an after-school program of AmeriCorps in low-income neighborhoods.

Cominsky is excited about his transition from advocacy to helping people and has short-terms goals to expand the IM’s Meals on Wheels program to 10,000 meals daily from the current 4,000 and promote the use of the soon-to-open 200-seat Convention Center to further foster interfaith dialogues.

His exposure to the South Asian community has been limited to his neighbors, attending an occasional function like the International Festival featuring India and giving the Civil Rights Hero award to UH President and Chancellor Renu Khator in November 2014. An impressionable memory was learning that his father had met Mahatma Gandhi around 1944 in India while he stationed in the US Army there, yet Cominsky himself has never been to India.

“I want to lead with the precepts of Gandhi and make sure the community is well-served,” Cominsky said of his new role. I hope to get Indians involved in iLead, a Youth Leadership program of the IM.” For the next 18 months, Cominsky will have assistance from Gershenson who will be President-Emeritus, though not full-time.

“It still hasn’t sunk in yet,” shared Gershenson who was previously the philanthropy director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston and the executive director of the Dallas Congregation Shearith Israel before joining IM.

His grandfather was from Russia and Gershenson is fascinated by the experience of first generation immigrants as they go through the same integration process other communities have experienced. He has plans to become a consultant to non-profits, but first wants to take time to be with his wife of 43 years, Alyson, two children and 5 grandchildren. “I want to be busy,” he quipped, “but just busy enough.”