An ‘unwavering Jewish compass’
As he transitions out of his CEO job, supporters talk about Avi Lewinson
Last week, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly announced a major change in its professional leadership.
According to a press release, the “exciting changes” saw its CEO, Avi Lewinson of Demarest, leave that position to become a fundraising consultant. He will be replaced in the JCC’s executive suite by Jordan Shenker, who had worked for the JCC Association of North America as a consultant to large JCCs, including to the Kaplen center.
Mr. Lewinson has been at the JCC for 25 years, and at its helm for most of that time. Since the announcement of his role change, his many supporters have been reminiscing about his work there.
Maggie Kaplen and her late husband, Bill (more correctly, Wilson R., but always Bill), were such strong supporters of the JCC that they lent it their names.
“When I think of Avi, this is what comes to mind — work hard, aim high, keep healthy, and stand out,” Ms. Kaplen, who lives in Tenafly, said. “And that’s what he did. And not only did he do it himself, he got the whole JCC community to share those goals.
“I spent a lot of time with him personally,” she continued. “I sat in class with him for six or seven years. It was on Thursdays, a lunch-and-learn with Reuben Kimelman.” (Rabbi Kimelman is the JCC’s scholar in residence.) “It was supposed to be for staff, but I went. Only a few of us came, so I really got to know Avi as a good friend.
“And then, when Bill got so ill that I couldn’t go, at least twice a month Avi came to visit Bill on those Thursdays, and wonderful conversations ensued. I love Avi. I adore him. He is a friend. He is caring. He is sensitive. He is a listener.”
One of Mr. Lewinson’s prime accomplishments, just about everyone agrees, was his ability to balance the needs of all the groups that came to the JCC. First, there is the strong group of wealthy, successful people, who either already were donors or had the potential to become big givers. Next, there are the people who are not particularly wealthy but who are looking for the community and the specific programs, facilities, and education the JCC offers. And then there are the people in need whom the JCC helps.
The Kaplen JCC, like other JCCs but to a far larger extent than almost any other (or perhaps that should be an unqualified any other), is at its heart a social-service agency. It is also an educational and social center, and then, perhaps uniquely, it is a place of glitter and glamour, where high-profile people feel at home and understood. And, of course, it is profoundly Jewish.
“Avi has an unwavering Jewish compass,” Tani Foger of Englewood, a psychologist and the chair of the JCC’s Judaic department, said. “Under his watch, the JCC grew and it remained Jewish.
“He understood the importance of the J in the JCC. For him, it was more than a health club and a swimming pool and a preschool and a summer camp — the revenue-producing parts of the organization. He understood that there is a need for an institution that is grounded in our rich tradition and culture. He was synonymous with the J in the JCC, and that is what propelled him — and the organization — forward.
“That is what built this incredibly thriving and robust organization,” Dr. Foger concluded. “I hope that continues. I can’t imagine the JCC without him.”
Rabbi Kimelman thinks it wise to have Mr. Lewinson continue to fundraise for the JCC. “He has a remarkable ability to sell the center,” he said. “That’s because he’s so passionate about it, and he gets other people to share his passion and vision.
“He lives for the center.”
Mr. Lewinson is trained as a social worker, and that background helped him as a fundraiser, Rabbi Kimelman said. “Fundraising is all about personal relationships and group dynamics. By training, he knew about personal relationships, and through experience, he learned about group dynamics. And so he became a consummate fundraiser.
“The key to success is that it is very difficult for someone to say ‘no’ to someone they like, and whose cause they like. Most people do not give to a what, they give to a whom. There are many good causes out there — you invest in those people who can excite you about the goal. That was his specialty.”
Or, he corrected himself, one of Mr. Lewinson’s specialties. “I have never known anybody else who paid attention to every individual, no matter what their means or their giving capacity,” he said. “He did not esteem people by their wealth, and this is an unusual and extraordinary phenomenon. The result was that he endeared himself to a wide variety of people.
“I have worked with many people who run Jewish federations, and I have rarely met anyone with that quality. It is part of his Jewish vision. He perceives himself as a Jewish leader, caring about all Jews.
“Some Jews are financiers, some Jews are participants, and some Jews are in need. All three became his constituents. It is very difficult to find anyone in the center who would not say that they like him personally — and he’s been there over 20 years.”
And then there is the question of Mr. Lewinson’s commitment to study and growth. “Avi and I have been learning Torah almost every week for years,” Rabbi Kimelman said. “He is one of the few Jewish leaders who is constantly growing Jewishly. In that sense, he is a model for lay leaders and professionals alike.”
Dr. Sandra Gold, a one-time JCC president and longtime active member, is a strong fan of Mr. Lewinson’s.
“From George Hantgan forward, I have had the privilege of working with every executive director who has ever served the Englewood JCC, now renamed the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades,” she said. “This unique platform allows me to appreciate the integrity, executive talent, enlightened Jewish background, dedication to living Jewish values and extraordinary ability to connect with members, staff and lay leaders which Avi Lewinson brought to his 25 years of visionary leadership.
“It is during his tenure that our JCC attained prominence as one of the flagship community centers in North America. Avi, steeped in the wisdom of our tradition, possesses an ethical and moral compass well suited to carry out the pluralistic mission of our JCC. Outreach and inclusion are his passions; concern and respect toward all those who seek services; and a love of both the Center community and the community at large motivates Avi’s support of vulnerable populations. Thus, the special needs department, for example, grew significantly during his administration.
“It has been a pleasure to serve with him and I look forward to continuing our relationship as Avi transitions to his role as consultant and mentor.
Mr. Lewinson looks back at his tenure as the JCC’s CEO with pride, dedication, and no little sense of wonder.
“I don’t love the gym, but I love that we have a robust membership as a result of the gym, so that we can do the important social-service work,” he said. “I love the way it all comes together, because it’s for everyone.
“It’s a bustling, exciting community, and the lobby is like Main Street. You see people of all ages, all sizes and shapes, people with special needs, seniors, everybody.
“Seniors — we have a 105-year-old man and he sings and he dances, and he’s alive. We have seniors with nursery-school kids; they can be 97 years old, but they know they’re alive.
“Each nursery-school kid has a ‘grandparent’ who reads on Shabbat,” he continued. (He doesn’t mean the real Shabbat, which begins on sundown on Friday, but the school Shabbat, the children’s last school day before the weekend.) “And the Orthodox are comfortable with the secular, with Conservative and Reform, with people who aren’t Jewish. Everyone is valued. It’s the Jewish people that matters and the people who aren’t Jewish get to learn Jewish culture, values, and history.”
Recently, Mr. Lewinson said, Ilan Ramon’s widow, Rona Ramon, spoke at the JCC. Her husband, who was in the Israeli Air Force, was onboard the space shuttle Columbia when it blew up in 2003. Years earlier, Mr. Lewinson had met Mr. Ramon, and had been touched by his kindness.
“And I think about Hurricane Sandy, and how we helped, and about how we did a fundraiser at the JCC after the Japanese tsunami hit,” Mr. Lewinson said. “That’s what we do at the JCC.”
He is now involved in developing an ambitious international program that takes 30 JCCs — 10 from the United States, 10 from Israel, and 10 from around the rest of the world — and brings them together— physically if possible, virtually if not — through music. The Kaplen JCC would be matched with sister organizations in Romania, Bulgaria, and Israel.
“I have gotten to do amazing things, meet amazing people, and run amazing programs,” Mr. Lewinson said. “It’s been a good run.”
His emotions run deep. “I love my staff,” he continued. “They’re my family.” (Of course, they are not his only family; he and his wife, Susan Shlanger, have two sons, Elie and Jacob.) “Through good times and bad, we have been there for each other. I care about them deeply, and I look forward to working with them in a different way.”
He plans to keep fundraising for the JCC, but “I am going to get another job,” he said. “I love this community.
“I will be doing a little bit of development at the center, but I am looking at the next chapter. I’m excited! People will still see me at the center — hopefully I’ll be exercising.”
There have been some major personnel changes at the JCC lately. Its CFO, Danny Rocke, has been gone since February, and its COO, Deann Forman, who is now the CEO of the Riverdale YM-YWHA, since last fall. Those positions have been filled by interims.
The center’s president, Tina Guberman, left that position in April; the volunteer job was filled by Danny Rubin, who was interim. The JCC’s new president, JoJo Rubach of Tenafly, who was installed at the May 17 board meeting, said, “Tina was supposed to put in a two-year stint, and she did. She left about a month before the annual meeting, when the new officers are voted in.” But generally the outgoing president gives the State of the Center speech at that meeting. Moreover, the board president’s term, which had been set at two years and was renewable once, had been changed to a nonrenewable three years. Ms. Guberman’s term in office would have ended next year.
“We are thankful for the 20-plus years that Avi has served us,” Mr. Rubach said.
Mr. Lewinson will transition to his fundraising duties and Mr. Shenker will take over the reins as CEO on June 15.