CEO of the Jewish Community Board of Akron
When Todd Polikoff and his family relocated from a noisy, dense neighborhood in Philadelphia to a subdivision in Marlton, N.J., just 20 minutes away, there were plenty of adjustments.
“The joke is that New Jersey is a suburb of somewhere else, the entire state,” Polikoff says, who moved when he was 11 or 12. “I loved my neighborhood (in Philadelphia). We lived in a relatively blue-collar area with row houses. We knew all the neighbors. We knew all the kids. We would play stickball in the alley.”
In Marlton, there were no alleys and no stickball games: only lawns, single-family houses, new faces at school and a bedroom of his own rather than a shared one with his younger brother.
In Philadelphia, his family had belonged to Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, Pa. But once arriving in Marlton, his mother nixed all thought of Polikoff becoming a bar mitzvah at a local New Jersey synagogue after the local rabbi wanted to send Polikoff back two years in Hebrew first.
“My parents have a very blue-collar family,” says Polikoff, 48, who today is coming to the end of his first year as CEO of the Jewish Community Board of Akron. “We didn’t have the money to do a lot of stuff. Joining a synagogue with dues and everything else was not something we necessarily did.”
Instead, he ended up working with a private tutor, Rabbi Shimon Berris, who lived in the same building as Polikoff’s grandmother, Sadie Polikoff.
“The funny part was I was like 6-1, 6-2 at my bar mitzvah,” Polikoff recalls, who was 14 when the ceremony took place. “Rabbi Berris is maybe 5-foot tall. It was very funny seeing us stand next to each other and the whole thing.”
Polikoff’s bar mitzvah took place Sept. 14, 1985 at the Sheraton in Cherry Hill, N.J.
“They had an ark that they rolled in and all the trappings of a bar mitzvah, just not the synagogue,” he says. “Cherry Hill is a relatively Jewish area, so the hotel actually has one. If I remember correctly, a local synagogue would loan to them.”
At the bar mitzvah party, the Eddie Davis Orchestra, headlined by a neighbor in Philadelphia, played, and Polikoff’s parents Jack and Judy cut the rug. Polikoff’s friends got empty mini trash cans with their names on them and two candy carts were rolled out.
“They filled up their trash cans,” the Akron resident recalls. “Some guys took off their socks. And we wanted it to be sort of like that, but the trash can was because my room was always a mess. (My mother has) always got to do something. She said your room is always a mess, so I’m giving everybody trash cans so they know how much of a slob you are. I don’t recall if she did or not, but I think everybody knew why.”
There was a pool complex in the development where the Polikoff family lived.
“And my mother talked to the guy who managed it and she opened a snack bar in the complex ... and ran it for three years, paid for my bar mitzvah in cash and then closed the snack bar,” he recalls. “So, you know we all worked it, we were all working there. It was very popular actually. My mother is a phenomenal cook.”
Polikoff remembers Berris held him accountable.
“He had like a personality about him,” Polikoff says. “We’d talk about serious things and we’d talk about the Torah portion and all that stuff, but I just remember it was fun. He had a sort of grandfather quality about him.”
He remembers feeling a bit let down afterward, realizing the bar mitzvah now meant that he had to fast at Yom Kippur.
Polikoff’s grandfather, Samuel Polikoff, was an immigrant from Russia. He traveled by ship from Osaka, Japan to Seattle and then across the country by train to settle in Philadelphia. That weighed heavily on Polikoff as he prepared for his bar mitzvah.
“You’re representing those who came before,” he says.
Polikoff found Jewish community at B’nai B’rith Youth Organization in high school and, after graduating bought a ticket to go to Israel for several months.
He came back, traveled, attended Camden County College in New Jersey and transferred to Stockton University in Pomona, N.J. He majored in psychology with a minor in Jewish studies and Holocaust education. He became involved in Jewish campus life and was invited to apply for a fellowship to help restart the Hillel at the University of Moscow. While there, he had dinner with a family who showed him burn marks on the bottom of a cabinet, where they had lit Chanukah candles in secret.
“As kids you don’t think of Chanukah as one of the serious holidays, right? It’s not Rosh Hashanah; it’s not Yom Kippur,” he says. “But yet, this family, they were risking their lives to celebrate this holiday that I had trivialized. And I remember after that I said, ‘Look, I want to make sure that nobody has to do this again.’ And that was one of the main things that got me into my career.”
He said he is a strong believer in the concept of Jews being a light unto nations.
“I think that everyone in the Jewish community represents all other Jews and that we should carry ourselves and we should work according to that,” he said. “I think there is a point to the Jewish community helping everyone. And I think sometimes we get so insular that we stand on our own rock in Jewish community and we don’t really look to see if the rest of the land is falling away.”