As we continue our efforts to stay better connected with you, we are thrilled to share our latest addition of the Alumni Newsletter. We look forward to staying in touch and sharing how you can become more involved with all that is happening at JCYS! Thank you for continuing to drive our organization to achieve its tremendous potential and honor the JCYS legacy.
Table for Two
A series of interviews published in the JCYS Alumni Newsletter, Table for Two brings together a current and former Board Member to discuss the past and future of JCYS. For this issue we sat down with Past President Ezra Jaffe and current Board Member At-Large, Jon Karelitz.
Myah Blazar: Ezra and Jon, thank you for joining me today. Let’s jump right in! Ezra, when did you join the JCYS Board of Directors?
Ezra Jaffe: I was on the Board for ten years: 1996-2006. I was President of the agency from 2004-2005. Early on, my good friend David Solomon lied to me. He told me ‘we like to put a Designate in charge of the raffle!’ I learned later that everyone else said ‘no’. Raffle Chair was my first position on the Board. I was thrown right into the fire which was helpful! During my tenure on the Board, I was Head of Finance, Head of the Buffalo Grove Committee, a member of the Search Committee for the new Executive Directors as a Board Member and as an Alum as well. I’m not sure if this is still the case, but during my time, Board Members shuffled from committee to committee because it gave us the best perspective of what was going on throughout the agency.
Jon Karelitz: I think that’s one thing that I’ve found helpful too. I’m a human resources lawyer, so it was very easy for me to get comfortable on the Personnel Committee. However, I’ve chaired the North Shore Operations Committee, too. And I had the delight of being a Designate for two consecutive years because I did not meet the fundraising requirement, so I was on the Scholarship Committee as a first year Designate and then I chaired the Scholarship Committee as a second year Designate. I’ve been on the Executive Committee for five years now.
EJ: The irony is that at other organizations, the Scholarship Committee is the senior members, not the new people.
JK: And at JCYS, they throw you right in. I think the benefit is that right away, you start to understand what the agency does and where the money that you’re raising goes. You learn about the programs through osmosis.
MB: Ezra, How were you introduced to JCYS?
EJ: I was the Banker for the Agency at American National Bank. I inherited the account and met some Board Members. Within about a year, I resigned the account to another Banker and joined the Board as a Designate.
MB: Jon, what about you?
JK: During my second year at Seyfarth, I was working on a corporate transaction. I ended up in a meeting with Allan Reich, who was managing the transaction. He looked at me, sizing me up, and said ‘You’re Jewish, right?’ and I said, ‘good guess.’ He asked me if I was involved in any extracurricular activities, and at the time I wasn’t. He told me I’d be a good match for JCYS. I took a meeting with the Executive Director at the time. I don’t think I realized at that time how it would take on a different meaning to me.
EJ: Are you a Chicago native?
JK: No, I’m from Boston.
EJ: There, we found our bond. I’m not from Chicago either. I grew up in Cleveland so I didn’t know JCYS either.
JK: Besides getting involved in a new agency and learning a lot, joining the Board really did help me make social and business connections. I know I will stay in touch with these people as an Alum.
MB: What do you think is the best way to onboard new Designates?
EJ: I think you need to see things in action. That makes the biggest impression on people. When board members talk about different challenges at the various Centers, it’s so helpful to be able to visualize that. There’s no substitute for seeing the programs face to face.
JK: Absolutely. I sit on the Nominating Committee and one of our recent initiatives was to institutionalize a process around the selection, onboarding, and elevation of Designates. We all agreed that it’s important for new Designates to visit the sites.
MB: What were some big projects you worked on during your Board tenure?
EJ: While on the Board, we built the Northwest Family Center. We inherited The Lil’ during my time on the Board. We built the Leibow Lodge. We started Camp STAR as well.
MB: What felt new to you?
EJ: The fundraising side of things and stewarding relationships with major donors was very new to me. After we built Leibow Lodge, there were plans to build more buildings. We wanted to build a dining hall out at camp. At the time, there was a tent there. So, I went out with a client of mine who is also a friend for breakfast one morning. We sat out there while kids came out of Leibow Lodge and joined us in the tent for breakfast. It made a big impression on my client and on me. He was so moved by the project that he introduced me to the Sacks family who funds JCYS in a major way still today.
JK: That’s really interesting history to learn. Now, there’s a cadre of people who are consistent supporters of the agency and the Sacks family is one of them. I don’t think current Board Members know the genesis of many of these relationships. It’s really inspiring to hear this story.
MB: Jon, what are some of the most significant projects you’ve worked on as a Board Member?
JK: The two biggest things that have happened since I’ve been on the Board were in the last 2-3 years. The first is that we’ve had a significant staff leadership change. With that, I think the agency has modernized as a result. The second project is the new Michael R. Lutz Family Center in Wicker Park. This is a huge project. As a board, we’ve been very invested in this project. For as long as I’ve been on the Board, we were scouting different locations around the city, looking for the best place to build a new Family Center. I live a quarter-mile from the new Center and when I walk by it I think, ‘I had a role in this!’
MB: What skills did you acquire from your JCYS board experiences?
EJ: I really learned how to put together a presentation and present in front of others.
JK: In my profession, new attorneys are usually thrown into private practice with an analytical and theoretical skillset. But there’s no formal training on understanding how a business operates. My Board experience has given me a 360 degree understanding of how a business (albeit a nonprofit) operates. It has made me a better lawyer because I’m able to have more practical conversations with my clients about their business goals and how to develop legal strategies that support those goals. In 2008, I did not have any of those skills.
EJ: I also learned how to ask questions in a group of people. I was on another board where nobody asked questions, except for me. These meetings are definitely not as productive as JCYS meetings.
JK: I don’t know if current Board members appreciate how unique our experience is. It took me a little while to get up the gumption to ask questions, but it’s really the only way to really understand what you’re doing and confidently make a decision.
MB: Ezra, what are some challenges that you faced during your time on the Board?
EJ: The biggest challenge was the staff leadership change. I had never gone through anything like this. I was a twenty something year old kid. We had really talented Board leadership and we were thoughtful about it. I learned a tremendous amount from the President at the time. She handled it great.
JK: I would say the exact same thing, ten years later. And Ezra, you were one of our Alumni Advisors on the Search Committee when we were looking for a new Executive Director. You really added good quality perspective. The process of selecting new leadership was a tremendous learning experience. As part of my job, I help companies implement personnel decisions every day, but I never sit on the other side where we’re looking at the business reasons behind a leadership change. This process gave me a lot of perspective from that angle too.
EJ: I think when you allow the Board to make these tough decisions, you really empower them.
JK: Yes, I agree. I tip my hat to Tom Field for really getting the ball rolling on the search process.
EJ: And that was Jen Berman during my time.
MB: You talked about the Alumni’s role in the Search Committee. What do you see as the ideal dose of Alumni’s participation in board decisions?
EJ: From my perspective, the ideal role of Alumni is as supporters. They should stay out of the way.
JK: Unless called upon!
EJ: Right. But ultimately, it’s up to you. And it was up to me. We made good decisions and bad decisions and we learned from them. Shortly after I left the Board, I attended a number of meetings and Board Members were looking to me for guidance. After the third meeting I decided not to go back because it wasn’t helpful to the Board. I should be a supporter, cheering on the sidelines, helping to make introductions. I should be very far removed from the trenches.
JK: I think one of the Board’s greatest weaknesses has been engaging the Alumni in ways other than monetary asks. I don’t know the right answer. I think we have people who have gone onto professional success, joined other Boards, and have even more broadened experiences. If we could find a way to draw upon those people in a noninvasive way, that would be ideal. It makes sense for the agency to continue talking with Alumni to learn what they want.
EJ: I love getting together with former board members with whom I served. I am willing to speak with any current Designate or Board Member at any time. I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to anything that JCYS called me about.
MB: What do you envision for the future of the agency?
EJ: I always wish that our brand was better known throughout the Chicago area. My hope is that we continue to serve the population wherever they go: to be within the Jewish community and outside of it at the same time. It’s so important that we are able to adapt.
JK: The new Center in Wicker Park is a prime example. If you talk to someone who was on the Board 30 years ago, they know the organization by a different name and different operations. But we’ve grown into the 21st century and I think that it’s important to always stay nimble in that regard.
EJ: I was one of the few Board Members at my time who had kids. My family was a big part of my involvement with JCYS. When there was a day for the Board up at camp, my kids were with me swimming in the pool. When they interviewed me for something, I brought my daughter Hannah along. These events made an impression on my kids. My daughter Aliza spent a summer volunteering at Camp Red Leaf and four summers working at Camp STAR and she was so inspired by the program that she is now pursuing a PhD in School Psychology. My daughter Hannah was a lifeguard at The Lil’ and now my son Noah just applied for a job at The Lil’. JCYS was and still is integrated into my family’s life.
JK: It would be nice to have Alumni activities that involve their kids. In my example, I started on the Board with a long-distance girlfriend and now, eight years later, I’m married with a two year-old. I think there are lot of Alumni with young kids so it would be great to engage them with Alumni family events.
EJ: Another proud moment from my years on the Board is helping to create Camp STAR. It was launched when a congregant at my Synagogue, Dr. Avi Rosenblatt, whose kids went to the Michael R. Lutz Family Center in Lakeview, approached me with the idea of a camp for kids with ADHD. I was just the matchmaker who connected this man with the Executive Director at the time. We had meetings with UIC to talk about making this idea a reality. That’s how Camp STAR came to be.
JK: I’m learning a lot of great history!
MB: Thank you both for sharing your JCYS stories with me. I think will all learned some interesting JCYS history and current events.