Assistant Director of Development, Myah Blazar, sat down to lunch with Director for Life and Board Alum, Steve Podolsky, and President Elect and Current Board Member, Adam Tarantur to discuss the past and future of JCYS.
Myah Blazar: Steve and Adam, thank you for taking time out of your schedules for this interview. Please share your current JCYS positions.
Steve Podolsky: I was a Board Member between 1975 and 1980. I am now a Director for Life and the Honoree for the 2015 JCYS Annual Gala.
Adam Tarantur: I wish I could remember when I started on the Board! I am currently the President-Elect and will be the President of the organization next year.
MB: Steve, how were you introduced to JCYS?
SP: I knew members who were on the Board of JCYS through our mutual activities. Actually I knew members who were on the Board of Young Men’s Jewish Council. There was no JCYS in my day. I knew these individuals through the Junior Real Estate Board of Chicago. The reason that I became interested in Young Men’s was not a very philanthropic reason. I wanted to join the Standard Club. At the time, in order to be considered for membership at the Standard Club, I had to be involved in Jewish philanthropy both from giving and activity standpoints. My friends talked to me about the Young Men’s Board and I decided to give it a try. Although the reason behind why I became involved was not altruistic, I did get very active within the agency once I was there.
AT: I actually had two main influences that got me involved in JCYS. One of those influences is the man sitting next to me, Steve Podolsky. And the other influence was Gary Wool, Past President of the organization. Steve knew that I was looking for a philanthropic organization in which I could actively participate. Steve had no doubt that I should become involved with JCYS. At the same exact time, I was speaking with Gary Wool. His encouragement to join the Board of JCYS wasn’t predicated by me saying I was interested in doing it. Gary feels so strongly about our mission and what we do. He is constantly on the lookout for the next Board Member. He strongly encouraged my involvement in the organization. So when I had both Steve and Gary telling me I should do it, two people who I respect greatly, it seemed like a no brainer.
SP: I was on the Board for six years. But subsequent to coming off the Board, the agency has always been foremost in my mind. Over the years I have sent six or seven young men and women to the agency and to the Board, including Gary Wool. I am proud of my involvement in the agency from that standpoint in recommending the agency to young people as it is the agency to roll up your sleeves and get involved in the community.
Adam Tarantur, President Elect & Current Board Member
Steve Podolsky, Director for Life & Board Alum
MB: What was the general feel and structure of the Board in your time?
SP: Well, the most significant difference in my time was that it was all men, hence the name Young Men’s Jewish Council. I don’t remember the exact year that the bylaws were changed and women were allowed to become members of the Board. I do know that Phyllis Tabachnik was the first woman to rise to the position of President. Phyllis is now a very good friend. The general feel of the Board was that all the men were between their late 20’s and late 30’s- truly it was young men. We were all professionals and all making our names in our respected industries. We were very dedicated to the agency and building the agency’s future.
AT: I think in many ways the Board is not all that different from when Steve was on the Board. I do have a feeling based on recollections and stories that our Board is slightly younger today and that things might be slightly less formal today. That being said, I do think we are trying to bring back some of the formality to the Board. Structurally, not much has changed because the bylaws of the organization haven’t changed. We are looking to modernize and update our bylaws to not only make them more relevant to today but also to modernize the overall Board structure.
SP: We had some pretty raucous Board meetings. I think one of the significant differences between my Board and the current Board is that we were all very empowered to have this incredibly large budget to work with, to spend and create programs and facilities, and to serve Jewish youth. By incredibly large, I mean that our budget was in the low to mid hundreds of thousands back in my day. The budget for the agency today is…
AT: 10 million
SP: 10 million dollars. Young people on the Board today have a significantly greater responsibility and a significantly greater obligation as fiduciaries of that money. Fundraising has taken off in an entirely new direction. I believe towards the end of my tenure, we held our first gala to raise some money outside of our networks of just friends and family.
MB: What are some of your favorite aspects of your time spent on the Board?
AT: I can say with almost 100% assurance that the Board experience I am getting is truly unlike any other board experience that my friends or contemporaries are getting on their respective boards. Speaking to what Steve just said, the decision making authority we have as Board Members, that is being the highest level of decision makers in the organization, puts us in a very unique position. We do make decisions that are very thought out, analyzed and over analyzed at times to make sure that we are making the best decisions given the information we have at the time. I’ve not only enjoyed this experience and the ability to do that but I know that I’ve already seen crossover between experiences that I’ve had on the JCYS Board and my own professional career. When I measure myself against my peers I can tell that there are skills that I have gained by being a Board Member that I would not have gained in my everyday life. Another one of my favorite aspects of being on the Board is that I get to be surrounded by the brightest and most gifted people I’ve met in my career and in my life. When I think about the level of talent and knowledge and drive that sits around the table, it is amazing to think about the cross section of future Jewish philanthropic and professional leaders who are sitting around you. These are people who I might not have a personal day-to-day relationship with, but these are people who I can pick up the phone and call for advice or coffee and I think that is truly, truly unique to the JCYS Board of Directors.
SP: I have two favorite aspects of my time on the Board. One was the work we did. Remember, I said I joined for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t have a philanthropic goal to join the Board. Once I got on the Board, however, I was very taken by the work that the agency did. We weren’t a rubber stamp approving board. We rolled up our sleeves and got involved in every aspect of the agency. I remember one year I was chairman of the Camp Henry Horner committee when we got a significant gift to build a swimming pool at camp. The staff did not immediately take over the project. The committee worked with the architects to answer the questions: Where were we putting this pool? How would we design it? What was it going to look like? We had such incredible involvement in the decisions. It was an exciting time.
My other favorite aspect of being on the Board was the friendships that I made. Friendships from 40 years ago those are still relevant in my life today. As a quick aside, I will tell you that for my 50th birthday, my wife wanted to throw me a birthday party and I declined because I refused to acknowledge that I was turning 50. So she talked me into having two small brunches. At one of the brunches, we were sitting around the table when I realized we were all connected through the Young Men’s Board of Directors. We grew up together in the agency. We became friends and we remained friends. It was an incredible epiphany moment for me and something that continues to keep the agency dear to my heart.
Another very fond memory were Family Camp Days at Camp Henry Horner. My kids went to Young Men’s camps and my grandkids go to the JCYS Michael R. Lutz Family Center in Lakeview for preschool. We’ve always used JCYS facilities for raising our children and grandchildren in a Jewish way. But my kids loved Family Camp Day as did my wife and I. Family Camp Day had a lasting impression on my oldest daughter, Alana. In her adult life, when she was seeking philanthropy to get involved with, I recommended JCYS. She didn’t know what it was, and then I said Young Men’s and her eyes lit up. Alana went on to become a four-year member of the Board. The agency has a connection to my family across three generations.
AT: One other thing that I want to note as one of my favorite parts of the organization is the involvement of our Alumni and our non-Alumni stakeholders. The way that this organization operates is by the work, energy, time and money given by so many people. It’s remarkable when you really think about how the sum of all that comes together and creates this really amazing umbrella program with so many great things underneath it.
MB: Steve, you’ve stayed quite involved as one of the Alumni stakeholders that Adam is describing.
SP: I left the Board in 1980 and really other than the agency being in my thoughts and my sending young people to the Board, there was really no involvement. There was no alumni group at the time. You served your time on that Board and you went onto other philanthropies, which is what I did. Remarkably, I came back to work with the agency as an Alumnus when my daughter Alana joined the board. She was co-chair of the Event Book for the gala one year and they wanted to reach out to Alumni to bring in that additional level of support and fundraising. Alana asked me if I would help her do the Event Book so I got back involved. And then I got back involved in other ways. I reconnected with the agency to the point that the agency was kind enough to elect me to a Director for Life position. Of all of my awards and honors, this is one that I cherish very dearly.
MB: What do you envision for the organization in the future?
AT: I believe that we will probably have some different perspectives on this question. Not because we want different things for the organization but because I am a little bit closer to the day-to-day. What I envision for the organization is, substantially, we will be doing the same things that we are doing now, however we begin doing them in a more focused and predetermined type of way. Our growth within the organization has been truly organic based upon the needs of the community that we serve. I think that today we have access to better information. I think that we have the ability to forecast in a new way and I think we are going to be a little bit more calculated in the ways in which we grow and the programs that we provide. The landscape of childcare is evolving and it’s evolving fast. We are going to have to evolve with it if we want to continue to serve the communities. To stay relevant and to stay as a fixture in the community, we need to make the changes that the community is asking of us. I can see the agency already doing this and we will continue to do this in the future. The JCYS name has a very strong place in the markets that we serve. It will be interesting to see if there are markets in which we should be serving, if there are markets where we should no longer be serving, and how we continue to spread our wings and have the greatest impact on those who need the services we provide.
SP: I would say ditto to all of that! Looking at the agency in the future, I have a couple of different thoughts. With Sue Rochlis retiring and John Thomason coming aboard, the executive leadership of the agency is now going to be very different. That historical perspective will have the possibility of being lost which can be both good and bad. I also think the agency has to resist the temptation to be all things to all people. I think it’s important for the agency to not get ahead of itself. The growth over the last 10 years has been steady but a 10 million dollar budge scares me to some degree. It’s exciting and exhilarating that the agency has grown to that size but I think that the future has to continue to be a steady pace, a measured pace. I have no question in my mind that the agency will celebrate its 150th anniversary one day soon, the only question I have is if I will be around to be at the party! It is really with great pride that the man sitting next to me is going to be the President of this agency. Adam is a member of my family, he’s my partner, my friend, I respect him greatly, and most importantly he is a fellow Badger. I think that the agency is in good hands in the future.