An Intrepid pioneer takes the helm

An Intrepid pioneer takes the helm

Carrier becomes calling for a JCC stalwart

The Intrepid

The aircraft carrier USS Intrepid is huge.

That’s the first and most obvious thing about it. It hulks in the Hudson at 46th Street, dwarfing the sailboats that glide behind it, darkening the river, swallowing the water’s sparkle. It is a behemoth.

It was commissioned 70 years ago, in August 1943, and has brought Navy and Air Force troops and their fighter planes to both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, from World War II to Vietnam. It was home to many thousands of servicemen until it was decommissioned in 1974, and is now home to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum.

Susan Marenoff-Zausner welcomes the space shuttle Enterprise to the Intrepid.

And a Jewish woman from Tenafly is at its helm.

The sailors who staffed the Intrepid during its time as a U.S. Navy vessel were drafted or enlisted and then assigned to it, but Susan Marenoff-Zausner came to her job in a much less direct way.

Marenoff-Zausner, 48, grew up in Monsey, the daughter of active Conservative Jews. She was always a serious athlete. Like many teenage girls, she was in love with animals in general and horses in particular; she rode and then taught horseback riding, and she longed to become a large-animal veterinarian so she could treat them. “Then, the first time I saw a horse getting a shot, I said no,” she said.

Time to reconsider.

Marenoff-Zausner also was attracted to business, she said, so after she graduated from Spring Valley High School, she headed off to the school that was then SUNY Binghamton, now Binghamton University, for a degree in business management. Her father, Jerry Marenoff, an accountant, already had held “some pretty serious positions in business” when he began his own company. Her mother, Judy Marenoff, a dental hygienist, “is such a people person that she knows more about her patients than their own relatives probably do.” Her own approach to business combines her father’s acumen with her mother’s warmth and genuine interest in people, Marenoff-Zausner said.

Her first job after college was with Banker’s Trust; she was recruited for it, but “I did not love it,” Marenoff-Zausner said, so she was ripe for a change in 1988, when “I ran into a friend of mine, who said there was a job opening at Madison Square Garden, and she asked me if I would be interested in becoming a supervisor for subscription sales for the Knicks and the Rangers.”

Marenoff-Zausner got the job, which combined her love of sports and of business. Needless to say, it was perfect. She was there for eight years; by the time she left, she had become the youngest woman to be made vice president.

She learned much there that she has found useful throughout her career. “I was definitely navigating a man’s world,” she said, but she used skills stereotypically associated with women to steer around the shoals. “There is an adage that what seems sexy on the outside definitely is real work on the inside,” she said. She worked with season ticket holders, who often felt that their happiness depended on their team winning. “They could leave feeling distraught if their team lost,” she said.

That victory, however, was something she could not deliver. “My job was making sure that people were satisfied, when they were spending a lot of their disposable income on a product that we had no control over,” she said. She headed a group of about a dozen people.

“We were a client services division,” she continued. “It was my job, and my team’s, to make sure that we made the clients happy to be a part of the team, and to spend money in the venue.”

How do you make people feel good if their beloved team comes up short? Sports fans become deeply connected emotionally to their clubs, and peg their own moods to their club’s fortunes in ways that are mysterious and inexplicable to non-fans. Given that truth, how can the club’s back office employee make those fans feel better? “It takes people skills,” Marenoff-Zausner said. “It takes empathy, and always trying to see somebody else’s point of view. It takes working hard to make sure that any problem that has been brought to your attention has been resolved before you move on.

“It takes paying attention to them. Everyone deserves having attention paid, no matter who they are or what they do.”

She remembered a specific situation. “In 1990 or so, the Garden was renovated,” she said. “It meant that the people who had owned their seats, thousands of people, had to be relocated. They had to be as happy in their new seats as they had been in the old ones.” There were no computers available for such problems then, “so we were doing it with index cards and bulletin boards and thumb tacks.” Yes, that is a First World problem, but it is a real one, familiar to many synagogues’ High Holy Days seating committees, and solving it demands resourcefulness, patience, insight, and kindness.

“We had to hand-hold, and to address each situation and each person, one at a time,” she said. “We had to let them know that the company cares about them.

“It was about taking a massive organization, known for large sexy events, and personalizing it.”

Next, Marenoff-Zausner was recruited by the Women’s World Cup to be the venue director for Giants Stadium for the 1999 championship games.

It was the right time to be in women’s soccer. In fact, “it was an amazing time,” Marenoff-Zausner said. Women’s soccer was reaching white heat; Marenoff-Zausner was working for a woman whose office was on the West Coast, so she both had a role model and a lot of freedom. She also appreciated the chance to provide role models for girls. It was a confusing time for young women, with the rise of such celebrities as Britney Spears, with her peculiar mixture of little-girl mannerisms and blatant adult sexuality. The athletes were much healthier role models.

Marenoff-Zausner’s next job was as external marketing director for the Women’s Tennis Association. From there, she became the general manager for the New York Power, the local team for the first female soccer league in the United States.

Marenoff-Zausner was both moved and inspired by her work with women athletes. “Watching the impact these women had on young girls was so significant,” she said. “We would do clinics in schools, and the fathers and mothers would say that their daughters didn’t have self-confidence, or thought they weren’t pretty, so watching these intelligent, gifted women interact with these school kids truly motivated me to think about how you can use your assets to try to motivate other people.”

After three years, the soccer league folded. “The business model just didn’t sustain itself,” Marenoff-Zausner said. She decided to take some time to decompress and figure out what to do next, when her phone rang.

“I got a call from a headhunter about the Intrepid,” she said. The foundation was looking for a chief marketing officer and executive vice president of business development. “I didn’t understand why they called me. My background had been in sports. And then this very wise headhunter outlined the job, function by function and piece by piece, and soon it was clear that the job was about building a business. It was about building your brand, assessing the business infrastructure, understanding the physical structure, and managing a team of professionals. She aligned it, skill set by skill set, to show how it applied to the Intrepid.

“I was lukewarm about it, but came in to interview.

“And then I immediately found a passion about this place that I had never experienced before, in any of my jobs.

“It’s been 10 years” – during the course of those years she moved up to become executive director, and then held on to that title while becoming president, as well – “and every year offers something unique and different.”

Marenoff-Zausner is the first woman to be president of the Intrepid.

The carrier-turned-museum is now a private nonprofit institution, a 501c3, and it is also on the list of national historic landmarks. It has a dual purpose; “it is both an educational institution and a place to honor our heroes,” Marenoff-Zausner said. “It has a family atmosphere, and one of the challenges was to grow the business but maintain the family feeling. It was also to analyze and assess where things had to change. It’s hard to be a change agent; it also comes with a lot of gratification.”

The first month of her job at the Intrepid saw Marenoff-Zausner flying to London to bring the decommissioned Concorde to the Intrepid; its arrival, years in the planning, ushered in a spike in museum visitors.

“Every year since then, it’s been something else,” Marenoff-Zausner said. It was during her tenure that the ship was towed away for renovation, after a dramatic attempt at moving it failed because of the decades of river mud in which it was mired. As the ship was refitted inside and out, the exhibits also were overhauled. “We wanted to make sure that there was a fluid history of the ship, honoring those who served and showing the artifacts that showcase our core – history and leadership,” she said.

The ship’s flight deck is filled with fighter planes, and it also has one of the four remaining space shuttles and space capsules in which astronauts and cosmonauts shot up into space and then fell back down into the sea. They are tiny; the contrast between the claustrophobic interior and the vast deck and huge river is sharp.

The fighter planes look fierce; the spy planes look spooky; the Concorde looks oddly ungainly, and the space shuttle hangs from the ceiling like the great blue whale in the American Museum of Natural History, looking oddly and touchingly goofy.

All of it is astounding, and demands that an onlooker explore her own reservoirs of courage. Could she fly in such a device? Um, no…

To honor the men – they all were men back then – who lived aboard the Intrepid, whose courage defined them, the museum’s entrance exhibit shows some of the artifacts of their lives; a timeline, divided between what is called Hardware and Humanity, details the men’s daily lives and also the larger history into which they fit.

The Intrepid’s other core mission is education. “Two hundred thousand kids a year are educated here, whether they’re walking around, or listening, or going through our formal programs,” Marenoff-Zausner said. “Thirty-seven thousand of them, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, go through our formal programs in science, technology, engineering, math, and history, and our proprietary leadership programs. We follow New York City educational guidelines, and deliver about 800 programs a year.

Sixty percent of the programming is aimed at underserved communities, and the museum’s fundraising supports it.

“Part of our strategic plan was to see how we could do even more, and we did that by opening our programs to deliver them to people on the autistic spectrum, with cognitive disabilities, and who are deaf, or hard of hearing, or blind or visually impaired, and those with dementia.

“It’s been awesome.

“We are very humbled,” she continued. “We know we have gotten the things – airplanes, space capsules, a very sexy set of artifacts – that allow us to deliver those programs. We know that, and we are humbled by the opportunity.”

The Intrepid also reaches out to the Jewish community; it markets the ship to observant Jews as a place to spend with the family on chol hamo-eid Pesach. Five years ago, the ship hosted a tenth yahrzeit for Yitzhak Rabin, featuring former President Bill Clinton.

Although she does not want to call her management values specifically Jewish, Marenoff-Zausner said the values that drive her, and through her the Intrepid, are “warmth, engagement, and inclusiveness.

“I think that my experiences form these values.”

But, she continued, in a larger sense, the job allows her “the opportunity to give back, to help others ““ and that is part of tikkun olam,” the divine imperative to try to fix our broken world. “This is something I treasure; something that not everyone gets to do in their workdays.”

To mark the 70th anniversary of its commissioning on August 16, the Intrepid hosted a celebration. “We typically have about 40 to 50 former crew members who visit here, but we worked for about a year to find 300 former crew members,” Marenoff-Zausner said. They and their families came on board. “It was the first time for many of them to be back at the ship, and for many of them it will be the last time.

“Fourteen of them were plank owners,” she continued. Flight decks on aircraft carriers originally were made of wood, which soon was replaced by steel. The original crew – the men who were part of the Intrepid’s crew when it was commissioned – were given thick, solid, polished rectangles – planks – from that original floor. “We had a ceremony, with 300 men and their families,” she said. “It was about 1,200 people from all over the country. We had the planks stored. We also offered eight weeks of summer camp, so we decided to have members of the youngest generation give bits of the plank back to the oldest generation – the greatest generation.

“So here were these 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls, and the youngest and the oldest generations were hugging each other.

“It was beautiful,” she said. Her eyes misted. “This is why I love what I do.”

And there were so many stories told during that celebration! She could retell just a few of them.

“We opened the New York Stock Exchange that day,” she said. “When you get there, they walk you through the exchange first. I’m walking in front, everyone is standing, and everyone applauds. The guys from every generation of service were being applauded. They were so affected that they were crying.

“What was particularly impactful for me was that I can’t tell you how many Vietnam vets said that they heard more thank-yous that day then they ever had since they came back from the service.

“And the stories from that day!

“There was a son who came – his father had passed away – his father never spoke of his service. The son came to the reunion, and said that he heard more stories from his father’s bunkmate, whom he met there, than he had ever heard before.

“There was another story, from one of our crew members. There was a blast one day, he said, and he knew that there had been shrapnel. He was fine, until one day he had to wear whites for a ceremony. They had to roll their pants up very tight; when he unrolled them there were little holes all over the legs. Shrapnel.

“He pulled out a piece of shrapnel from his pocket, which he has carried with him for 70 years. It would have killed him if he had been in front of his locker then.

Susan Marenoff-Zausner is married to Daniel Zausner. The couple has two children – Samuel, 5, and Eli, 4.

In her copious free time (it seems as if she would have about 5 seconds in the middle of the night, but somehow she seems to find more), Marenoff-Zausner is active at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

“We moved to Tenafly from the city in 2008,” she said. “We were looking for our kids’ future. We knew people there who spoke very highly of the JCC as a central part of their suburban lives.

“I scoped it out for programs like Mommy and Me – I was on maternity leave then. I hadn’t thought of JCCs as being like this place, a thriving institution, with so many incredible offerings. It is very sophisticated, both in its physical structure and in its programming,” she said.

She went from the JCC’s membership committee to chairing the marketing committee, and was on the team that worked on its mission, vision, and goal statement. She now sits on its board as well. “I try to be available when I am needed, because it is a very similar entity to the Intrepid in the sense that there is a whole sales and revenue side of things, that thrives on membership, and then the program side. There are hundreds of programs, and then the compartments of separate businesses – the music school, the dance school, the nursery school.”

Like the Intrepid, some of the JCC’s more glamorous public offerings finance the social services that form its soul. “I am able to think about it from three levels – as a parent, a board member, and a member of the community,” she said.

Balancing work and home life is no easier for Marenoff-Zausner than for any other highly successful and driven parent, but she works at it.

“I also volunteer at my son’s school, to serve lunch there,” she continued. “It’s very important for me to be a parent, and to balance that as much as I can, even though I know I will never feel that I am doing it well enough. I make sure to do a mom thing every day before I leave, so that even if my day is over late, I’ve done it.

“I have a network of mom friends who have been my eyes and ears, doing things like texting me to remember that tomorrow is superhero day at camp. They keep me included, and there is such a sense of community.

“I try to do whatever I can to give back to them, to say thank you.

“I feel blessed,” she said.

Avi Lewinson, the JCC’s executive director, adores Marenoff-Zausner. “I always call her,” he said. “She’s articulate, she’s bright, she understands what we’re doing.

“I call her for advice because as heads of not-for-profits we share some things. There has never been a time when I have gotten off the phone and not felt wiser, better prepared, that I have more knowledge.

“My biggest worry is that I will burn her out.

“She has a way about her. At every meeting, she has a way of making everybody feel part of the process. She knows that their thoughts, their comments, their feelings all count.”

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