When Steve Willenksy and Judy Klein Willensky moved back to the Cleveland area 17 years ago, one of the couple’s priorities was to give back to the local community.
“Our major commitment to ourselves was that we were going to get involved in the community. We set it upon ourselves to make sure that happened,” Judy said.
And the Gates Mills couple did just that. Judy Willensky is former vice chair of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and serves on numerous Federation committees and boards, in addition to serving on the board at Montefiore in Beachwood and Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike, where she is also former vice president.
Steve Willensky is former board chairman at Montefiore and has served on the boards at Park Synagogue, the Federation and the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland. They are also founding co-chairs of Shining Star CLE, a solo-singing competition presented by Montefiore for Northeast Ohio high school students.
The Willenskys, who met while working at General Electric, both held high-pressure jobs that required a large amount of travel.
“We sort of hit the point where we said, ‘We need to slow down a little bit.’ I think we sort of came to the realization that we weren’t going to wait until we were 65 or 70 years old to get involved,” Steve Willensky said.
“We were fortunate that we did well in our business careers and we really wanted to sort of step back and say it’s not all about business. We needed to help organizations and people who were a little less fortunate than we were,” he added.
For Judy, the concept of becoming involved in community work was instilled in her at a young age.
“I grew up here and my parents were very involved in the community,” she said. “They used to hold quiet board meetings in our living room with their friends planning for the various organizations that they were involved in. That was in my DNA.”
The key to the couple’s success has been committing to a handful of organizations that they feel passionate about. The Willenskys like to be hands-on with the organizations they’re involved with, so spreading themselves too thin isn’t the right strategy.
“I think the fact that we’ve been able to really go deep into organizations like Montefiore and the Federation and Park Synagogue has enabled us to be more impactful,” Steve said. “At the end of the day, anybody can write a check to these organizations, and they need people like that in the organization because every nonprofit needs funding. The reality is that a lot of these nonprofits have major strategic issues they’re dealing with. …
Where they really need the help is to be able to make major strategic moves that will ensure their survival and give them the ability to help the less fortunate in the community.
“For me, I get more satisfaction by being involved and seeing how that plays out in the organization than just writing a check and not even knowing what the organization does.”
For other community members who may want to get involved but aren’t sure where to start, Judy’s advice is simple: Pick one organization and get started.
“We’re so fortunate in this community to have outstanding organizations and agencies and causes that all need expertise and support,” she said. “It can be overwhelming to look at the vast array of where you could specifically make an impact, but do an analysis and understand those opportunities. I think that most organizations would welcome individuals with open arms who are willing to give their time and energy and expertise.”
“There are opportunities everywhere,” Steve added. “Find something you can be passionate about.”