“She is very powerful, so be nice to her.”
That quote from Eric Fingerhut, former chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, is prominently displayed on the home page of “Writes Like She Talks,” a blog Pepper Pike Councilwoman Jill Miller Zimon writes. The quote was advice Fingerhut, a University Heights native, offered a new blogger in 2007.
Not only is Zimon powerful, she’s also busy and multi-talented. She’s director of partnerships for The Civic Commons, a Cleveland-based project aimed at using the Internet and social media to create productive, civil dialogue on public issues. Her blog, “Writes Like She Talks,” focuses on such topics as women in politics, social justice and other issues that interest her. She also writes a blog for Pepper Pike City Council.
She’s also a contributing editor for BlogHer.com, billed as the Web’s leading guide to hot news and trends among women in social media. In addition, she’s an award-winning freelance writer and a sought-after public speaker, commentator and analyst on such topics as government, media, politics and women.
In an interview at her Pepper Pike home, Zimon comes across as pleasant, thoughtful, humble and grounded. It’s clear she views her job as mother to her three children as important as any of her more public endeavors. As Mother’s Day approaches, Zimon said her main focus is preparing for the bar mitzvah of her son, Matthew, Saturday, May 18, at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike.
“Oh my gosh, what happens after that?” she said in mock seriousness, referring to the bar mitzvah. “Does the world collapse?”
Zimon said there’s “no magic bullet” for balancing her busy schedule with motherhood.
Her husband, Jeff, a lawyer, helps out when he can, she said.
“My husband has his own law office now (in Mayfield Heights), and it’s just a few minutes from the house,” she said. “We communicate a lot, by email, text and in person, to try to fill in where we need to with the kids.”
“The kids” are Max, 19, a 2012 graduate of Orange High School and a freshman at Case Western Reserve University; Raya, 16, a sophomore at Orange High School; and Matthew, 13, a seventh-grader at Brady Middle School in the Orange school district.
The Zimons are active at B’nai Jeshurun, where Jeff serves on the executive committee and Jill is a former trustee. She is a graduate of B’nai Jeshurun’s Marcus Leadership Institute, a two-year program that seeks to identify and train emerging leaders within the synagogue.
Zimon is also serving a second three-year term on the board of the American Jewish Committee. She was appointed to the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Community Relations Committee at the start of this year.
Turning point: shift in major
A New York native who grew up around New Haven, Conn., Zimon moved to Cleveland in 1988 to pursue a joint degree in law and social work at Case Western Reserve University. A change in her major at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1984, was a turning point in her life and career path, she said.
“It was the first semester of my sophomore year when I shifted my major from Chinese to a double major in government and sociology,” she said. “Chinese is a very demanding major, and it takes up a lot of time.
“As a freshman I had taken Sociology 101, and the professor was just fabulous. I really enjoyed the subject matter.”
In addition, Zimon wanted to study abroad. But the opportunity to study in China wasn't available to her.
“If you went abroad (as a Chinese major), you could only study in Taiwan, and I really didn’t want to do that,” she said. “I wanted to go to Beijing, and there was no program at that time.”
Zimon was accepted into Georgetown’s college of arts and sciences, so she could pursue the dual major in government and sociology. She said her career goal was not defined when she graduated.
“In my junior year, I spent spring break in Appalachia in a volunteer program,” she said. “I was in Red Bird Mission in southeastern Kentucky. Georgetown is a Jesuit school, and relief services and service learning are a very big part of the Catholic education.”
Zimon said she enjoyed the Appalachia program so much she went back to the same place during spring break as a senior.
“It was a really fabulous experience,” she said. “The mission is run by the Methodist Church.
“When I got back to school, I was thinking a lot about my Judaism. I was raised Reform, and I was bat mitzvahed and everything, but I really didn’t feel the same sense of intimacy with my religion as I was observing in these Appalachian places.”
Seeking to increase her connection with Judaism and knowledge of her faith, Zimon chose to spend a year in Israel after graduation from Georgetown.
“I was in a program called Sherut La’am,” she said. “It was run by the Jewish Agency of Israel. I spent three months in an ulpan (a school for the intensive study of Hebrew) and nine months of working in a development town, and I lived on a moshav (farm community).
“It was life-changing; it was fantastic.”
Effort to ‘give voice to people’
Zimon returned home to New Haven and found work at Yale University’s main library. Three months later, she landed a job in Yale’s development office, eventually becoming research director of corporate and foundation relations.
After three years in that office, Zimon decided to seek a joint degree in law and social work from CWRU because of her inclination toward public interest law.
“I was particularly interested in juvenile law and how kids are, by and large, unrepresented or underrepresented in so many parts of our system,” she said. “I saw my role… as being that of someone who could help kids express what they wanted to and needed to.
“This effort, to give voice to people or issues that otherwise aren't being heard, is one of the strongest and most consistent themes in my personal and professional life.”
While a graduate student at CWRU, she met Jeff Zimon, a law student from Boston, in a class they took together.
“I didn’t really pay attention to him, but he noticed me,” she said. “A law school classmate of ours apparently knew Jeff had his eye out for me.”
So the classmate invited Jeff, Jill and a couple other students to join her and her family at Park Synagogue Main in Cleveland Heights for Kol Nidre services, Zimon said.
“Jeff and I sat next to each other, we eventually started to date, and we were engaged within about five months,” she said. “We were married in December 1991 at my home synagogue in New Haven.”
From 1991 to 1993, the Zimons rented a duplex in Cleveland Heights. They bought their first home in 1993 in University Heights and moved to Pepper Pike in 1999.
After earning her joint degree at CWRU in 1992, Zimon was hired as ombudsman at Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau in Shaker Heights.
“I loved the work there,” she said. “It was really meaningful.
“In the last couple years I was there, (Bellefaire) created a department of risk management, and I was named the first director of that department. I wrote the legal brief that preceded Bellefaire’s figuring out how they were going to create the Monarch (Center for Autism).”
Zimon left Bellefaire in 2000 because she was pregnant with Matthew.
In early 2002, she began what eventually became a successful career as a freelance writer. From 2004 until 2012, she was a regular columnist for Cleveland Family magazine, writing primarily about the intersection of parenting and life. She started blogging in 2005.
Zimon said her blogging became a way for her to develop her writing. It led to her becoming a speaker, panelist and presenter on television, radio and conferences on politics, journalism, new media and women in leadership. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Plain Dealer and on Newsweek.com, and she has provided commentary on CNN, C-SPAN, the BBC, Ohio News Network, WCPN (Cleveland’s National Public Radio affiliate) and “Feagler and Friends.”
“I don’t pursue that many writing opportunities now,” she said. “I just don’t have the time. My work time is mostly dedicated to The Civic Commons and (Pepper Pike) council.”
Award inspires council run
In 2009, Zimon was elected to her first four-year term on Pepper Pike council. She said an award she won from a local newspaper for using her blog, “Writes Like She Talks,” to help get a political yard sign law changed spurred her to try public office.
“Pepper Pike had a law that allowed only one yard sign (per residential property),” she said. “For an ordinance to dictate that you can have just one yard sign is very unconstitutional. I wrote that it would be wise to rescind this law and write something else. (The mayor and council) agreed, and they repealed the law and changed it to allow residents to post up to three yard signs."
For her efforts, Sun News recognized Zimon as the Most Influential Person in Pepper Pike for 2008.
“After that, my husband said, ‘Do you want to think about running for council?’ ” she said. “We talked about it for a couple months at the beginning of 2009, and I decided to do it.
“(Serving on council) has its moments where it can be very frustrating, but overall I find it very rewarding.”
Zimon’s four-year term on council expires Dec. 31. She said she’s waiting until after Matthew’s bar mitzvah to decide whether to seek re-election. The filing deadline is in August.
In 2010, Scene magazine named Zimon a Political Figure to Watch. She also won the 2011 Campaign & Elections CampaignTech Innovator Award in the candidate category for her use of social media and technology in her public service role.
In September 2011, Zimon started a new chapter in her life as network facilitator, project director and project manager of The Civic Commons. She was hired on a contract basis to direct and facilitate the EfficientGovNetwork project, its goal to increase regional capacity for government collaboration. Her grant application netted the network a $100,000 state award. The project continued through last December.
Zimon was named The Civic Commons’ director of partnerships last May. The organization has an office on Euclid Avenue, in Cleveland State University’s campus district, and she divides her work time between there and her home office.
“Basically what we want, and why we exist, is to show people you can have civic and civil online conversation that is deep and meaningful,” she said. “We will work to bring policy and decision makers into the conversation.”
Dan Moulthrop, a co-founder of The Civic Commons who became CEO of The City Club of Cleveland May 1, said he has known Zimon since 2005 or 2006 and has “kept track of her journey.”
“Jill is really a huge asset to the (Civic Commons) team, and I was really pleased when we brought her on board,” he said. “I think the world of her.
“Because she straddles the worlds of public service and online engagement and activism, she understands the power these tools have to help us do democracy better.”
Zimon is compiling her columns for Cleveland Family magazine – she has about 45 – into a book of essays. She’s also heavily involved in helping develop The Civic Commons “so it can really make a difference in the kind of engagement Northeast Ohio can experience.”
“I just like to see people get involved,” she said. “That’s part of my goal on council.”
But first and foremost, Zimon has to get through that bar mitzvah next weekend.
“I could almost tell you how many hours,” she said, with the broad smile of a proud mother.