On Nov. 18, I celebrated my 34th anniversary with the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation. When we arrived in the Valley in 1985, my wife Hilari and I, along with our one-year-old son Sean, found a Jewish community and Federation that has become an important part of our lives.
Reflecting back on these past 34 years, I think about the people who helped me grow professionally along the way. First, Sam Kooperman, who took a chance on a young man from Long Island with a master’s degree and three years’ experience in fundraising for UJA Federation of New York. I’d also like to give a shout out to the senior management team back in 1985 who are no longer working here in Youngstown or have recently retired: Eric Geboff, Alan Goldberg, Sandra Chiles, Gary Weiss, and Alvin Weisberg. And, of course, the many lay leaders I have worked with over the years, too numerous to mention for fear I will leave some out. People ask me what is one of the best parts of my job and I say meeting some incredible volunteers over the years. The worst part of the job is attending far too many of their funerals. The lay leadership and volunteers who I have met over the years have helped me professionally grow in my various roles with the Federation, and some I call my very good friends.
Back in 1985, this Jewish community looked very different than it does today. Certainly some of the services and programs we offered 34 years ago have changed or been eliminated, while new programs and services have emerged. When we arrived, Akiva Academy had just opened for grades kindergarten through first. Hilari started teaching third grade in 1986. The school grew to approximately 130 children in grades kindergarten through sixth in the mid-1990s, mostly Jewish students. Today, Akiva is for students in kindergarten through eighth grades and has 154 students, of which 20 are Jewish. We are doing something right, seeing that the parents of 134 children who are not Jewish choose to send their kids to our school. It most definitely has a lot do with with the Jewish values, tradition, and Hebrew/Judaic customs we teach at Akiva, and, of course, the teachers and administrators.
What else has changed in all of these years? Our Jewish Community Center is so different. The Federation and JCC offices are now on the second floor, where once preschool and Jewish Family Services were located. We have an Early Learning Center for children ages six weeks to five years old located on the lower level of the JCC building.
The fitness center, non-existent for the most part in 1985, is now equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. Back then there was one health club with sauna and steam, open different hours for men and women.
Across the parking lot to the west (by the way, there was a house between the JCC and Heritage Manor in 1985) renovations at Heritage Manor in the early 1980s increased bed capacity to 72. The Home has had numerous renovations, including work happening now to renovate the Heritage Manor lobby and offices at both Heritage Manor and Jewish Family Services. As I mentioned earlier, JFS was located on the second floor of the JCC, but was moved to the northwest corner of Heritage Manor, in part to maintain confidentiality for the clients.
Behind Heritage Manor sits Levy Gardens, completed in 1997 and offering 24 units of assisted living space (18 one bedroom and 6 two bedroom apartments). Adjacent to Levy Gardens is a group home for adults, also new to our campus.
I could go on and list the many other changes that have transpired from 1985 to 2019 (including the loss of much of my hair,) such as the drop in our population from 3,800 to 1,200 (or as I affectionately say, 1,200 Jewish men/women/children and cats/dogs). But one thing that has not changed is our dedication to serving the needs of our Jewish community. Some needs have stayed the same over the years and some have changed. New programs and services are being explored all the time with our dedicated volunteers and hardworking staff of the Federation and its agencies. Change is not easy, and is not always fast enough for everybody. But remember we strive to be the best, and we can unequivocally state we are the best Jewish community in North America. No community offers as much as we do for a Jewish population this size.
I cannot end this column without mentioning that security is of utmost importance to the Federation. We have strong security measures in place throughout our campus with security guards and cameras. Security is expensive, and is something, unfortunately, we will need to fund going forward. We will continue to consult with the area synagogues to help assist in any way possible regarding their respective security needs. We will also advocate for additional security dollars through the state and federal governments.
As we approach the end of the year, I wish you a happy Hanukkah and a happy and healthy New Year!
Executive Vice-President, Youngstown Area Jewish Federation