Madame President

Madame President

Jayne Petak of River Vale and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey tells her story

Sometimes you can tell early if someone is going to grow up to be a leader.

Say, for argument’s sake, that it is 1969, and you are confronted by a 13-year-old girl, whose becoming bat mitzvah is being celebrated that Friday night.

Say, for the sake of that same argument, that you’re a rabbi with a world-class intellect, an unbending sense of propriety, and a tall, straight-backed, formidable presence.

And now let’s get more specific. It’s 1969, and you are Andre Ungar, rabbi of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake.

It wouldn’t be very easy to challenge you, even if the challenge is made politely, carefully, and to honor a great-grandfather.

Jayne Petak

“I told Rabbi Ungar that they were coming, and I asked what my great grandfather, who was 84, could do. He was so strong, and so brilliant — but he said ‘That’s not what we do here.’

Jayne Wolfin, who had lived in Woodcliff Lake for only a year then, was lucky enough to have all four grandparents and two great grandparents, as well as both her parents, at her bat mitzvah. Her great grandparents, Cecilia and Tobias Nudelman, did not drive on Shabbat, and as Orthodox Jews they were not comfortable with girls reading the haftarah on Friday nights, but they were immensely proud of their granddaughter. They agreed to go the bat mitzvah.

“So the night of my bat mitzvah, my great grandparents sat in the first row, and when I was called up to make the kiddush, I said ‘I am very fortunate to have my great grandfather here — and I would like to call him up to do the kiddush with me.

“Rabbi Ungar nodded at me, and allowed him to do it. Afterward, he just said ‘We don’t usually do it like that.’”

That girl, now Jayne Petak of River Vale, lived up to the promise she showed then — she became someone who challenges authority respectfully, quirkily, and fearlessly. She grew up to become a double president — of the family business that she and her husband, David, started, and since last summer, of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Her story began in Brooklyn and quickly shifted to Bellmore, a heavily Jewish town on Long Island’s south shore. Ms. Petak’s parents, Sydelle and Julie Wolfin, were the children of immigrants; Mr. Wolfin had his own business manufacturing precision machine parts. Jayne went to public school and to Hebrew school at her shul, the Conservative Temple Beth-El.

And then, when she was 12, “my parents moved me to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey,” Ms. Petak said. “It was a major shock to my system.” To a Long Island girl, the other side of the Hudson was terra incognita.

Jayne Wolfin dancing with her father, Julie.
Jayne Wolfin dancing with her father, Julie.

One of the biggest surprises Ms. Petak encountered was that her new school and town had relatively few Jews. “I was one of maybe five or six Jews, out of maybe 90 kids in my class,” she said. The area still was semirural. “Tice Farms was a real farm then, with cider and apple-picking. I came home from sleepaway camp one summer, and instead of going to my little Levitt house, we came to a big house in New Jersey, in the farmlands of New Jersey.

“I was starting fresh. I was as tall as I am now, 5’8”, and I was skinny, scrawny, and Jewish.”

Although “I found some very nice friends in Woodcliff Lake, I never really felt at home there then,” she said. “The summer I was 14, there was a teen travel program from the Y in Hackensack.” That was the YM/YWHA of Hackensack, which changed its name a few times to end up as the ambitiously named, recently shuttered, with-any-luck-soon-to-be-revived-in-a-different-form Bergen County Y, a Jewish Community Center in Washington Township. “I met Jewish friends from Teaneck and Bergenfield and Fair Lawn, and I became the wandering Jew,” Ms. Petak said. “Every weekend I would go to someone’s home and meet their friends.” She became part of many intersecting social groups that way.

Why did she choose to spend most of her time with Jewish friends rather than local ones? “I was comfortable with them,” she said. “We had the same values. It felt comfortable. It felt right.”

Her desire to have Jewish friends was a matter of comfort and shared assumptions, Ms. Petak said, but her need to travel to find those friends was a historic and geographic fluke. Her older brother went straight to high school when the family moved to Woodcliff Lake; the contingent from Hillsdale included more Jews. By the time her younger brother was in high school, more Jews had moved to Woodcliff Lake. She — a classic middle child, she said — was caught in the middle. Like always!

Ms. Petak knew that she wanted to be in business, but she also loved fashion, so when it was time to pick a college she chose the Fashion Institute of Technology’s buying and merchandising program, thus neatly getting both at once. She lived in Chelsea.

It was perfect. “It was a huge change from Woodcliff Lake,” Ms. Petak said. “People say ‘You went to a college without a campus!’ and I say ‘No campus???? We had New York City! It was great.’” She and her friends “explored the city — we took subways and buses and got half-price tickets. I loved it.”

FIT offers two-year degrees, so once she earned her associate’s degree, Ms. Petak moved to Greenwich Village and got her bachelor’s degree in business from NYU. Then she was ready to work in the garment center.

Ms. Petak’s first job after college was for Bonnie Cashin, the influential designer who developed the concept of sportswear as we still know it. And then she moved on to work with a designer who was even more iconic, Pauline Trigère.

Miss Trigère, as Ms. Petak always calls her even now — it is clear, listening to Ms. Petak, that to call Miss Trigère only by her last name would be vulgar, to call her Ms. Trigère would be silly, and to call her Pauline would be unspeakably presumptuous — was a formative teacher. Ms. Petak’s work was on the business side, but that did not stop her from soaking up everything she could learn.

The Parisian-born Pauline Trigère was Jewish, something Ms. Petak relished. She was also dramatic, larger than life, and brilliantly innovative.

“When Miss Trigère walked into a room, you knew it,” Ms. Petak said. “The charisma dripped off her.

“She didn’t ever use patterns. She draped and she cut and she pinned. Those were expensive fabrics, and she just took a scissor and cut.

“Once, we were waiting for the model to come in.” Once she arrived, she’d undress, be draped in a gloriously expensive piece of fabric, and Miss Trigère would make a piece of clothing on her body. “We waited and waited and the model never came. She pointed to me” — remember, Jayne Wolfin Petak was (and still is) tall and slender, with a model’s body — and said ‘You’ll be fine today.’

“So they gave me a tank top to put on, and somebody draped me, and she cut. And I was thrilled.

“I was in awe.”

Ms. Petak was married by the time she worked at Miss Trigère’s atelier, and she soon was pregnant with her older son, Aaron. “Miss Trigère walked in one day with a beautifully wrapped gift box. It was stunning,” Ms. Petak said. “She said it was for me, for the baby. She said, ‘It’s a blanket, and it’s very ugly, but babies love it.

“‘I have yards and yards of fabric that I save for babies, because they love it.’”

It really was ugly, Ms. Petak confirmed; loud, fluorescent, just plain ugly. But Miss Trigère was right, and both her babies with the bad taste that all babies display, loved it.

Let’s back up to introduce Jayne Wolfin to David Petak, of the Fair Lawn Petaks. That’s as in Petak’s Glatt Kosher Fine Foods & Catering, the appetizing institution that has fed observant Jews in and around Fair Lawn for more than half a century.

Jayne and David met through a mutual friend, Josh Krantz, whose father, Hyman Krantz, was the rabbi of the Glen Rock Jewish Center. “I’d heard about David for years, but I’d never met him before,” she said. “We met on September 9, got engaged two and a half weeks later, and got married the following September 9.” It was 1979, and Ms. Petak was 22.

The young family lived first in Fort Lee and then in Suffern; in 1983 they moved to River Vale. Ms. Petak took time off to be a full-time mother — and remains aware of how lucky she was in having the luxury to do it.

Because life sometimes comes full circle, Jayne Petak once again joined Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, this time as a grown-up. “My son Aaron’s bris was the first simcha in the new building in Woodcliff Lake,” she said. “Rabbi Ungar said that I’d have to have the bris in his office, because it was heated, and have everything else in the sanctuary, which wasn’t completed yet. We had to bring in space heaters.”

The Petaks in Colorado — from left, Aaron, Jayne, David, and Derek.
The Petaks in Colorado — from left, Aaron, Jayne, David, and Derek.

Both Aaron and Derek’s bar mitzvahs were at the shul, and Rabbi Ungar and Cantor Mark Biddleman presided over them, just as they had over the boys’ mother’s coming-of-age ceremony.

For 18 years, David Petak worked with his wife’s father; Julie Wolfin’s machine parts business expanded to include “drapery items — all the components for drapery except for the fabrics,” Ms. Petak said. The firm also worked with Velcro.

About 22 years ago, she said, Ms. Petak began working for her husband on what was meant to be a very temporary basis. “His assistant was on maternity leave, so I went to help out,” she said. “And then — I liked it, and I continued.” She was able to work what she called “mom hours” — “That’s the nice part of being in a family business.” And then, “19 years ago in April, David and I decided to go out on our own.” They had worked a bit with fasteners on their drapery line earlier; now, “we concentrated on fasteners, mainly 3M and Velcro products.”

The business, FASTENation, which is Velcro’s largest distributor, has done very well.

“Velcro has so many uses,” Ms. Petak said; her firm specializes in customizing it in creative and surprising ways. “We work with someone in Alaska who makes dog shoes for the Iditarod,” the trans-Alaska dogsled race. “We sell to NASA, and to people who manufacture signs and medical devices.” What does FASTENation sell to NASA — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration? “The space shuttle has a lot of Velcro on it,” Ms. Petak said. “Each of the astronauts has his or her own color, and each has his or her own tools. There is a dot of the colored Velcro on each tool, and a dot of Velcro on the astronaut’s leg.”

Why? “That’s so that the tools don’t float around and hit them in the head,” she explained.

Ms. Petak watches as a FASTENation employee, Ruben Ramirez, works on a fabrication machine.
Ms. Petak watches as a FASTENation employee, Ruben Ramirez, works on a fabrication machine.

“Most of the products we sell are adhesive-based,” Ms. Petak continued. “We don’t manufacture them, but we are a distributor and fabricator.” Although the businesses are extremely different, you can feel a waft of Miss Trigère’s presence hanging ever so faintly in the air when Ms. Petak says that “we do cutting, sewing, and ultrasonic welding.” It all happens in the company’s facility in Clifton.

Ms. Petak, who went back to work full-time as soon as her sons were old enough, handles sales; “David is a jack of all trades,” she said. “He is very handy, and he has a wonderful mastery of the machinery. He understands what kind of machines to get, and how to tweak them to handle customers’ needs.

“We are a certified woman-owned business,” she said proudly.

Not only do she and her husband work together, so do their two sons. Aaron, 34, and Derek, 31, “have their own business, and also work together,” she said. “That’s the best gift that a mom can have.” For the last seven years, the Petak brothers have worked together in their Internet marketing firm, Red Rock Interactive. And like their parents, they are involved in the Jewish world.

“Both my sons went to school in Colorado,” Ms. Petak said. “After Aaron graduated, he said that he wanted to be a ski bum for a year. I gagged. We are members of B’nai Vail,” a nondenominational shul in ski country, “and I’d just met the president, who is a really nice guy. I said to Aaron that if you really want to do that, you have to call him and ask if he can help you get an internship or something for a year.” That internship, a parent’s mandate in response to a son’s desire to bum around for a year, led to both sons’ careers, and to their spending three months in Herzlia, Israel, learning from an Israeli start-up. “I was a very happy mom,” Ms. Petak said.

As should be clear, between her work and her family, Ms. Petak has a very busy life. Somehow, though, she manages to fit in enough volunteer work for another full-time job.

When she first moved back to New Jersey, “I went to a young woman’s federation event,” she said. “I told someone that I lived in River Vale” — in fact she hadn’t quite moved in yet — “and they said to me, ‘Oh, when are you moving out?’ All of them were in Englewood or Tenafly. So I didn’t go back to federation for a while.”

Instead, Ms. Petak concentrated her energies on the YJCC, “working on a committee figuring out how to structure nursery school programs for young children. I co-chaired the first early childhood committee. About that time, I went to a women’s division meeting — I didn’t want to go back to the young women’s division — and I ended up falling in love with the women I met there.” Those were the women a generation ahead of her, “women who are still involved to this day, who became my mentors. Women I looked up to.

“That was a perfect place for me to do volunteer work. I always had a project that I could feel creative with. I loved working, and creating, and feeling that my time was worthwhile. I loved feeling that I was making a difference in Jewish lives.”

About 18 years ago, she said, Ms. Petak became the president of the women’s division.

There were many places where Ms. Petak could have worked as a volunteer, but she chose Jewish ones. “It was where my heart was,” she said. “It was what felt right for me. The values were the values I grew up with, and the shared knowledge meant that I was able to reach Jews. Everything I learned about it drew me in further and further. It became such an important part of me.”

She credits her husband and sons for their support. “It means being out of the house a lot of nights,” she said. “They adjust to it. The more I did, the more I loved it.”

Ms. Petak rose up steadily in federation’s leadership ranks. “The president of women’s division was invited onto the Big Board — yes, that’s what everyone calls it,” she said. “I stayed involved, worked on a lot of committees, ended up being on and then chairing the planning and allocations committee. At the same time, I was on the board of the YJCC and the Jewish Home at Rockleigh — my grandmother had been a resident there when it was in Jersey City.” She retained her seat on the Jewish Home’s board until last year, when she had to step down lest her federation obligations run headlong into any Jewish Home ones.

She never felt hindered by being a woman, Ms. Petak said. For one thing, that generation of mentors had gone far, and one of them, Eva Lynn Gans, had become the first woman to be president of the federation — then called the Bergen County UJA Federation — in 1998.

For another thing, “I have a business background, and that means that they” — the men who are her peers in leadership positions in the federation — “include me in the conversation in a different way,” she said. “Or I include myself.”

That business background is invaluable, she added. The whole Jewish federation system is learning that the social-worker worldview that had helped it flourish when times were better is not enough for the tougher challenges we face today. “The value of the social work approach is still there, but you also need the administrative and financial skills,” she said.

Ms. Petak took over as federation president from Dr. Zvi Marans, who admires her greatly. His “federation friend — and now a close friend,” Jayne, combines business and emotional skills, “which is quite a feat,” he said. “She understands people, she understands behavior, she understands nuance.

“She is very straightforward, she is very calm, and when you speak to her you always feel that she is very present during the conversation. When you see her at federation events, she always is greeting people, making them feel good about who they are and why they are there. She really is a quintessential leader.”

He told a story about last year’s women’s mission to Israel. There was a woman on the trip who had never been to Israel before, and there was no visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall, scheduled before the trip’s end. “Jayne recognized that a person cannot go to Israel for the first time and not go to the Kotel,” he said. “She rearranged things so that the first thing this woman would see was the Kotel. It showed a few things. It showed that she understands the importance of our Jewish values and history, and it also showed that when she sees something that has to be done she can execute it. That shows a lot of character.”

David and Jayne Petak in Jerusalem.
David and Jayne Petak in Jerusalem.


Jayne Petak, Donna Kissler, and Leslie Smith stand in Old Jaffa during a recent federation women’s trip to Israel
Jayne Petak, Donna Kissler, and Leslie Smith stand in Old Jaffa during a recent federation women’s trip to Israel

A few years ago, Ms. Petak and Julie Eisen were co-chairs as they searched for a new federation CEO; together, they found Jason Shames. “When we found Jason, we knew we were making a change,” Ms. Petak said. “We wanted the skill set that he had so he could set our feet on a different path.”

The admiration is mutual. “I think Jayne is great,” Mr. Shames said. “What she brings to the table is Jewish values, combined with an entrepreneurial mind and spirit. Those are two of the core components a president needs to be successful.

And there’s something else, Mr. Shames added. “The seamlessness of the transition between presidencies is important, and Jayne has been a critical part of it. From Alan Scharfstein to David Goodman to Zvi to Jayne — our community is very very lucky to have had those four presidents in a row.”

Rabbi Ungar, who watched Ms. Petak and her sons grow up, also is proud of her.

“It has been my joy to watch the transformation of a sweet young girl into a mature responsible leader in the broader Jewish community,” he said. “And I pray that her creative participation in the highest reaches of American Jewry will continue unfolding in the years ahead, and will inspire other young leaders.”

So, back to Ms. Petak. “She is a great partner,” Mr. Shames said. “She cares an awful lot about her community. This is her home. She has put tremendous personal time, energy, and reflection into it — and the best is yet to come.

The federation has undergone a vast structural change in the last decade; those changes are now complete, Ms. Petak said. “I don’t have individual goals, because we have all been setting priorities together. We have to be able to keep on taking care of the most vulnerable among us; to support Israel; to support our agencies through the good times and the bad times, and through all our transitions.

“It is incumbent on us to teach our children well,” Ms. Petak concluded. “We have to teach them what we do; yes, the world is changing, but we have a message to share.”

Thinking back to one of her most recent federation-created missions to Israel, Ms. Petak remembers a heartwrenching story. She had gone to Bayit Cham, the federation-supported afterschool house for children at risk in Nahariya that so impressed Nicholas Montello, the director of Bergen County’s division of family guidance, that he is opening a similar place in Hackensack. “Three young women came and told us their stories,” Ms. Petak said. “They talked about how they turned their lives around.

“The director asked me if I wanted to say anything, and I said that I was so proud that we had played a small part in helping them reach their goals. One of the young women ran out of the room when I said that, and I looked at the director and said, ‘Oh my God, what did I do wrong?’ The director went to find the girl, who was standing there with tears running down her face, and asked her why. ‘She said that no one has ever said that she was proud of me before,’” Ms. Petak said.

“So it’s not just the money. It’s going out and making bonds that matter. My children heard me say, ‘I’m so proud of you’ every day of their lives. We didn’t even think about it when we said it. And she had never had anyone say it to her before. Not ever.”

That young woman ended up going into the army. “It was great to see — and in a small way we helped to make that possible,” Ms. Petak said.

That’s why she does what she does, she said. That’s why Jewish federations matter.