By Susan Josephs
When she was 18, Meryl Frank confessed to her future husband that she wanted to be the United Nations ambassador who specializes in women’s issues. “That was my dream,” she says.
Some 33 years later, Frank, 51, now sits between Tanzania and Zambia when she attends U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meetings. Officially appointed by President Obama last year, the former mayor of Highland Park, N.J., serves as ambassador and deputy U.S. representative to the Commission on the Status of Women. Traveling to New York and Washington, D.C., for meetings, she says her dream job “is mostly about establishing relationships with people from all over the world while moving the U.S. agenda forward.” Passionate about encouraging women’s leadership in politics and preventing violence against female political leaders, Frank also works as a master trainer with Women’s Campaign International (WCI), an organization that promotes female political participation in emerging democracies and post-conflict zones.
“Lacking the confidence and the resources to run for office is a common obstacle for women who may consider running for office…it’s just as common in New Jersey as it is in Africa,” she says. Frank uses her experience as an elected official to connect with and to inspire women’s political participation worldwide.
A stay-at-home mom for 12 years, Frank became the mayor of Highland Park in 2000 despite her status as a political outsider and earned a reputation as a tireless reformer of government corruption during her 10 years in office. She also became New Jersey’s first “green” mayor when she launched Highland Park 2020, an initiative that promoted environmental and economic sustainability in her community.
“It was a 24/7 job, and I would sleep with my cell phone,” she says. “But being a Jewish mother turned out to be the best preparation I had to be the mayor. I knew how to take care of people, to listen, to advise and to lovingly nudge them in the right direction. Raised in Ocean Township, N.J., Frank grew up with a deep awareness of the Holocaust and was the kind of teenager who, she says, “organized events like World Hunger Day in school.” She credits one of her aunts for instilling in her a passion for Jewish history and political activism. “My Aunt Mollie would tell me all these stories about my family in Vilna. She was a smart, passionate and independent thinker and because of her, I became politically active, and the family historian,” she says.
After earning her undergraduate degree in history from Rutgers University, Frank went on to earn graduate degrees in public health, international relations and political science from Yale University. She worked for the World Health Organization in Copenhagen and became one of the key activists responsible for getting the Family and Medical Leave Act signed into law by President Clinton in 1993.
“I always wanted to make a difference, and I wanted my work to matter,” says Frank. “It also goes back to my family and my Jewish upbringing. My Aunt Mollie made it very clear to me and to my sisters that we, as Jews, had a responsibility to help fix the world.”
A longtime activist for women’s causes, Frank served as president of the American Jewish Congress’ Women’s Division and on the board of the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Leadership Forum. She also has served on the board of her local Jewish Federation and made it a priority to give her four children, now between the ages of 15 and 23, the formal Jewish education she never received as a child.
“My kids always put me right back in my place when I come home from the U.N. or meetings with women in Afghanistan or Malawi,” she says, laughing. “They bring me right back to earth. To them I’m simply their mom, and they remind me, each and every day, how lucky I am.”
Being a Jewish mother turned out to be the best preparation I had to be the mayor.