Avi Lewinson, the ‘soul’ of a communal treasure

Avi Lewinson, the ‘soul’ of a communal treasure

"Best of the best' is how JCCers describe the man at the top in Tenafly

Avi Lewinson stands in front of a painting by Jose M. Fontaiña, one of many works of art displayed at the JCC. Photos by James Janoff

Sometimes it seems as if there are two JCCs.

The JCC you see first is beautiful. Light flows through glass onto red brick and artwork, gilding classrooms hung with the bright colors of childhood, illuminating gyms and the restaurant and rooms full of people.

The tucked-away dance studios and music rooms, the gem-like little theater and the pool and the changing rooms are lovely. Time and taste and care have been lavished on them.

The programs that fill these spaces are alternatively challenging and comforting, and the people who use these rooms are wealthy and well-educated and self-assured. They glow.

The other JCC is a social service agency. It works with elderly people, with people living with a range of handicaps, with children diagnosed with autism and Down Syndrome, with people suffering the aftereffects of death, divorce, or other traumas. It hires social workers and specialists, and it welcomes everyone who needs the support it can give. There is no glamour here but there is love and compassion, and the painstaking attention to detail that this work demands.

Either one of these institutions would be extraordinary. But they are not two JCCs. They are one – the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. The logical question that these two simultaneous and co-existing JCCs raise is how such a thing could be possible.

The answer, it seems to many observers, is its executive director, Avi Lewinson, who similarly yokes a range of disparate skills in one body and soul.

Lewinson hastens to disagree.

He sees the JCC as a glorious reflection of the range of the community, a place where Jews from across the Jewish world – from Orthodox through Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform, to militantly secular – all can come, and where the outside world is warmly welcomed as well. He sees it as a place guided by Jewish values. So it’s not at all just him, he said. Instead, “It’s a combination of the leadership and the staff and the community.”

Lewinson, 61, is deeply and unabashedly in love with the JCC, which he sees as “clearly one of the best JCCs in the country.

“I have been lucky enough to have cultivated relationships with lay leaders who are as honestly and passionately in love with the JCC as I am,” he said. “People who are willing to work, to give money, to come to meetings – to do what it takes to makes sure that we thrive.”

The JCC has a very big board – 65 to 70 people, Lewinson said. “I understand why people might think it’s more difficult than having a large board, but I love it, and that’s because I truly believe, to my core, that people love what they create. That’s social work 101.” (He knows what he’s talking about – his master’s degree in social work is from Columbia.) “I have a massive number of people who come to meetings knowing that their opinions are valued.

“Our board is seen as a popular board. People want to be on it. I don’t bring them reports to read; I come to them with real work. People who are on the board are leaders in the community, and we have a product we are proud of.”

The building’s most recent renovation is a prime example of the JCC’s leadership, Lewinson said. “The campaign was for $35 million, and we did it, thanks to the Taub Challenge – one of the last things Henry Taub did.”

Taub, one of the JCC’s benefactors, had agreed on his deathbed in June 2011 to offer a 2-to-1 match to help the JCC reach the last $4.5 million it needed. Taub decided to donate $1.5 million more to the renovation effort, but it “was going to all or nothing,” Lewinson said. There was just a year in which to raise the money. It took just that year. The Taub family was thrilled that Henry’s wishes were fulfilled.

Lewinson knew that the final push would work, he said. He quoted the JCC’s CFO, Danny Rocke, who said that “at a convention of optimists I’d be the cheerleader,” he reported cheerfully.

The staff, too, is extraordinary, he said. “I’ve always prided myself on bringing in people who are better than I am in areas in which I’m not strong.”

Lewinson’s care for his staff helped all of them through the trauma of Hurricane Sandy. “It was brutal,” Lewinson said. “We lost power for eight days at the center.” (He and his family also were without power during those same days in their Demarest home.) “The staff was struggling and hurting and cold.

“Every night I would leave a message on robocall, saying that we still don’t have power, and that if anyone on staff is having any problems, here is my cellphone number and please call me.

“That was more meaningful than I could have imagined. When we got power back late Sunday night, I had a meeting for the entire staff, full time, part time, everyone, and I got them in the room and used it as an opportunity.

“I said, ‘It’s great to see you. We’re all family. People will be coming into our facility, and it’s a great time to say “How are you” and “Do you need anything?” If we think of ourselves as family, then these are our cousins, and you take care of family.'”

Once the JCC reopened, it invited everyone – not just members, not just Jews, but everyone – who had been affected by the storm to take advantage of its facilities. “People need a place to shower, to shave, to let their kids have a place to run,” Lewinson said.

Staffers were paid for the time when they would have been working; it is not surprising that full-time workers were not docked for time lost to Sandy, but part-time workers did not assume that they would be paid. Lewinson told them, though, “that we were going to pay everyone. They have struggled enough.”

“Some people started to cry,” out of relief and release of tension, he recalled.

The board backed him on that decision, he added. “Everyone was so proud. This is an organization that values it staff. If we want the staff to treat our members with respect and care and courtesy, they deserve that same treatment.”

Lewinson’s Jewishness is bone-deep, and that affects his leadership profoundly. “That is why this is the job for me,” he said. “If this were a YMCA, even if it were the biggest in the country, I couldn’t be here.

“I love the Jewish people and Jewish peoplehood. I’m blessed to be doing this job – to the extent that anyone can be created for a job, I’m it.”

JCCs are hybrid institutions, catering to a range of interests. “When JCCs are struggling, there is a tendency to think that we must be more like everyone else,” Lewinson said. “We have to be open on Shabbes, because our competition is. But I look at it in the opposite way.

“We will never be the best gym. We will never have the best pool.” And his JCC is not open on Shabbat. “What we always will be best at is the core of our mission. We are a Jewish organization.

“We know that people want good gym equipment. We’re not going to not buy it. We have to provide a top-notch program. We also have to do that and to be successful both because our culture here demands it, and because the money that it throws off allows us to offer the programs and services that are core to our mission.”

As part of that mission, the JCC offers services to vulnerable, often underserved groups. “The chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” Lewinson said. “We have to take care of everyone in the Jewish community and the larger community, so special services are a priority for us.

“We serve 700 people with special needs each month,” he continued. “That’s a large number. We have an excellent department director, and staff who really care.

“We have a daycare program for seniors with Alzheimer’s. We have a day program for people with special needs who are over 21. When you have children over 21, there are no services for them out there. We have a waiting list for that program. Young adults there learn to do simple things – they help set the table for the seniors who eat lunch there, they help to put boxes together for pizza. They feel that they’re contributing.”

The JCC’s therapeutic nursery, for children with autism and related disorders, draws families from across the country. “There are people who have moved from California and from Florida for it,” Lewinson said.

It is expensive to have children with special needs. Recognizing that, “the JCC made the commitment to serve the community,” Lewinson said. “You don’t have to be a member. We are a membership organization, and it’s great if families want to become members,” but they don’t have to.

Other departments flourish, as well. The programming for children and teenagers is extensive; drama and music schools teach both technique and discipline. Teen programming also are heavy on tikkun olam; permitting participants to help fix the world during trips to clean up storm damage in New Orleans and offering programs to help teenage nascent philanthropists to focus on the question of where and how to give. That program, which offers students community service credits, is popular with many local day, private, and public schools.

Lewinson’s own focus, too, is “all about the relationships,” he said. “I can’t sit in my office all day. I just can’t. People sometimes get upset; they say ‘Avi, how can you spend so much time with everyone? Doesn’t it get in the way of your work?’ But that is my work.”

Lewinson grew up in Newark, the son of Shoah refugees. “I grew up in an Orthodox family, in my zayde’s home. He was a Renaissance man; a rabbi, a sofer” – scribe – “a shochet” – he could perform ritual slaughter – “a pulpit rabbi. He was at the Slobodka yeshivah in Kovno, in Russia, and he was sent here before the war to raise funds. He wrote letters with coded information to his wife, who was in Europe. One daughter had come here with him; the other five daughters, two sons, and his wife made it through. One son was killed by a sniper while davening Ma’ariv, and the rest survived.

“I learned from him,” Lewinson continued. “He said to me ‘There are people who would say that you’re not Orthodox, you’re not really Jewish,’ and I’d say ‘Zayde, I don’t understand,’ and he’s say ‘They’re wrong.’

“He would talk about Jewish peoplehood, about how whether or not you were religious, whether you were Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or not religious at all, we all are Jewish.

“He taught me something that is my compass. I use it every single day. You know the game where you have to put your philosophy in six words? Mine is ‘Always do the right thing.’ That’s only five words, so I said ‘Always do the right thing. Period.’

“It’s how I live my life. Figuring out what the right thing would be – and then doing it.”

Other people echo Lewinson’s self-assessment.

Jo Sohinki is the director of the early childhood department. She has worked in a number of JCCs and synagogues, so she has a good basis for comparison.

“The big thing that I see with this JCC is that Avi really invests in his staff,” she said. “He really sets his staff up to be successful. And because he does that, and shows everyone that he wants them to succeed, the JCC staff really supports one another.”

The preschool that she directs, the Leonard and Syril Rubin Nursery School, is huge, with 330 children and 80 staff members. The youngest class is for 16-month-olds and the oldest is a kindergarten.

“Avi’s been very supportive,” she said; because she took over from another director this summer, there was a transition period, with some unavoidable friction as the various moving parts found ways to fit together. Lewinson helped ease her way to leadership. “He comes to many parent meetings,” Sohinki said. “He comes early in the morning to meet with parents and me, to explain the philosophy and make sure things go smoothly. And he comes to night meetings. I don’t even have to ask – I just say that this is what we’re doing and he says ‘I’ll be there.’

“Avi is always telling stories,” she added. “He has a story for everything. It’s great. It makes you think.”

Then she told a story about him. The JCC had been closed for a week after Hurricane Sandy. She lives in Essex County and had no power. She knew that parents were upset about the school being closed, “so I called Avi and asked what to do.

“He said, ‘I’ll look for room. I’ll find us a place.’ He called back a few minutes later and said, ‘We have it.’

“It was Temple Emanu-El in Closter. He called the president of the synagogue and arranged to go over there and send me pictures. I couldn’t even get there. Avi sent me the pictures and I told him we’ll need this many chairs and that many tables, and he called the maintenance crews to go to the synagogue. They spent most of the afternoon setting up the classrooms, scrubbing down the tables, someone went to get art supplies and puzzles, and he stayed there with them.

“He went that extra mile to make sure that we could open in the morning, so that some of our parents could have care for their children so they could go to work, and the children could be back in school.”

As it turned out, that work was unnecessary – but the emotions it evoked were powerful. “Sure enough, at 10:30 that night the power came back at the JCC.”

“He’s a mentsch,” she concluded. “And he’s amazing.”

Dr. Sandra Gold of Englewood has been on the board of the JCC during the tenure of every executive director since it was founded, and she was its president from 1988 to 1992. She also is on the board of the Jewish Community Center Association, the umbrella group to which the JCC belongs, for about 30 years. “I think I have a very good overview of the talent pool, and I think that in Avi we have managed to secure the very very best,” she said.

“Avi is unique in that he is very Jewishly educated, very centered in his Judaism, and uses that lens of his moral compass, his goal to doing the right thing, as a leader in our JCC.

“He is both passionate and compassionate in his work,” she continued. “He is step-up kind of guy. He’s very involved in chesed. I’m not even talking about the big things – Sandy, and the tsunami in Japan, where we raised money for the victims – but the times when you have to reach out to every single person in the community. He goes to more funerals in one year than many people do in a lifetime. He’s as if he has a congregation made up of all the congregations and denominations. He has a big soul.”

According to Gold, Lewinson is an extremely successful fundraiser because of this focus. “Because he is so passionate about the value of the JCC community, he is able to ask for help with a lot of conviction. He galvanizes the membership.

“Because each member is important to Avi, I think that they step up to the best of their ability. I think that everybody really tried to make the Taub challenge grant work. “He’s a great role model.”

Gold added, with a hint of bemusement in her voice, “He’s a nice, decent human being. How do you find somebody like that, with the credentials that go along with it? I’m a big fan of this man.”

Just as Gold is among the longest-serving board members, Susan Marenoff-Zausner of Tenafly is among the newest.

She is the president of the Intrepid Museum, so she knows about running things.

“I met Avi about a year ago,” she said. “One of the things that impressed me so much was that he is so incredibly personable while running such a complex institution.

“I often think that the public doesn’t realize how complex running an entire institute is. He has to balance business acumen with faith, and with a complex set of goals.

“The fact that he runs it with such a warm hand is so impressive.”

She noted, as well, his skill in combining many strands into one tapestry. “There are so many passionate voices at the J that creating one voice is essential for its growth. The buy-in from everyone who works there is reflected in all that they do. Avi has crafted this effort to make sure that the this one voice is created.” That paves the way for more growth, she said.

Lewinson is a member of the Conservative Temple Emanu-El of Closter. Its rabbi, David-Seth Kirshner, says, “Avi is a perfect blend of humor, incredible intellect, a deep knowledge of Judaism and tradition, and a lot of warmth. He’s a very welcoming soul.

“When your synagogue collaborates with the JCC, Avi always says that ‘by helping Temple Emanu-El, we’re helping the JCC.’

“I know from my wife, Dori, who sits on the JCC board, that he doesn’t say that just about Emanu-El. He says it about every synagogue.”

There have been times in American Jewish history when the relationships between synagogues and JCCs were strained at best, with each side suspecting the other of poaching – or at least wanting to poach – its members. That’s not true with Lewinson. “Avi genuinely thinks that the stronger the synagogues are, the stronger the JCC is, and vice versa,” Kirshner said.

He is also a peacemaker, Kirshner added. “Whenever there is a rift between the streams, it’s Avi who consistently opens up the discussion.

“He gets the big picture. You can give him a budget and he can laser in on the issue immediately, and at the same time he can walk down the hall and make a senior smile, make a Holocaust survivor feel honored, give some toddler a high five – and he does it in a natural, organic way.”

Kirshner thought of another example of Lewinson taking charge. “In 2008, when Operation Cast Lead” – hostilities between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza – had broken out, I wanted to do something.” He talked to other rabbis, but everyone else had to jump through time- and energy-consuming hoops. “So I called Avi, and his answer was, ‘Yes yes yes.’ He put everything together to make sure that we met and exceeded all our goals for the event, and we did.

“We had senators and ambassadors. Everyone came. It was on the first page of the Bergen Record the next day.

“Avi did it because the JCC is the address for the whole community.”

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