Jewish Community Board of Akron CEO Todd Polikoff said the quality of Jewish life offered in Akron is among one of the best kept secrets in Ohio.
Polikoff took the reins Dec. 3 at the Schultz Campus for Jewish Life in Akron, replacing David Koch, who retired after 11 years in the position. Since then, he’s set out to let others know there’s more than a gym on the 55-acre campus and living an affordable Jewish life in Akron is possible with programs like J-Ticket, which reduces costs of JCC membership and school tuition.
After nearly 10 weeks on the job, Polikoff sat down with the Cleveland Jewish News to discuss his plans for Akron’s Jewish community, how he’ll use his experience in his new role and what changes he’s already making.
CJN: How will your past experience as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Nevada, director of donor stewardship and senior development officer at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and director with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Houston and Las Vegas help you in this role?
Polikoff: Everybody’s career is a book, every chapter teaches you something different. I think, certainly, my experience with AIPAC is all about the pace of the work – every five minutes there was something new. You had to really delegate amongst your staff. ... Certainly through Cleveland, it was an understanding of, what more can federation be? Cleveland isn’t just a federation, it’s much more than the general community – than the Jewish community – and really learning from (former Jewish Federation of Cleveland President) Steve Hoffman, there are things a federation can do and there are things a federation can’t do, and you have to figure out what the difference is. There are things you do as an organization, and there are things you may fund that somebody else does, but really, what the role of the federation is and our job is to project Jewish life through agencies and synagogues.
(In Las Vegas), you have to go out and speak to everyone, and you have to create a closeness that doesn’t exist because there are no facilities. There’s no JCC in Las Vegas, the federation is in a business park. ... In a place like Nevada, you have to create an environment to bring everyone together because there is no central place.
CJN: The theme of your letter to the community in the Akron Jewish News focused on affiliation or engagement. Why are these words on your mind?
Polikoff: Because I think we utilize an old definition. I think the old way of saying someone was engaged or affiliated was that they pay dues. If you didn’t pay dues to a synagogue, you’re not affiliated. ...
You always have the person in the synagogue board meeting (talking) about people who have left the synagogue. There’s always the one or two people at the end of the table who say, ‘They didn’t want to pay dues.’ I would always argue, ‘No, we didn’t show them what their money was worth.’
We didn’t give them a value proposition because all we think they are to us is paying dues or not. And we need them more than they need us, let’s be honest. We have to show that we are valuing their engagement, their affiliation, at whatever level they choose. It’s our job as professionals and as community leaders to cultivate them to do more in the community, both philanthropically and in human capital.
CJN: What plans are there to remodel the Schultz Campus for Jewish Life?
Polikoff: If we want to grow The Lippman School and the Mandel (Early Childhood Education Center), there’s an understanding if you’re going to bring more kids under the canvas, part of bringing them is that we provide meals for them. If we’re going to provide meals for them, we’re going to need a kitchen that can keep up with that growth. Part of our strategy is to re-evaluate the kitchen structure and to make sure our kitchen is able to keep up with the capacity of the schools.
We have a camp building out back and we have a day camp in the summer. There’s a big push these days for retreat business. There are thoughts of what do we do with the camp building that may create an environment that we can have people on campus year-round, using that building. Obviously, it would be a revenue source for the campus.
CJN: Have you made any changes since taking on the role?
Polikoff: It’s not a change that I’ve made, it’s more of a change that I was brought here to implement. The structure changed over the years of the organization, the corporate structure where the JCBA, the federation, is the umbrella of the campus and the JCC director, John Keverkamp, and (The Lippman School) director, Sam Chestnut, are vice presidents of JCBA, technically, and the three of us are the management team for the campus. ... A lot of it is around language. If you notice, I don’t talk about the JCC, or the school or the federation – I talk about the campus. It’s changing that mindset among the professionals that we can’t talk about ourselves as separate entities.
The point I’ve been making recently is we can’t compete with Planet Fitness as a gym. They have a marketing budget, they have this huge gym. They have all that stuff. There are certain schools we can’t compete with because they have a lot more money ... And we can’t compete as an outdoor pool – everybody may have a pool. But no one can compete with us as a campus.
If we look at ourselves as a campus, Planet Fitness can’t compete with us as a campus, the schools can’t compete with us as a campus. So, our strongest position is as a campus. If I’m making any changes, it’s the way I speak about this place.
CJN: What has surprised you most since taking on the role?
Polikoff: I’ve asked people, everyone I meet here, “Where are you from?” “Akron.” ... People in Akron either grew up in Akron, went to The University of Akron and never left Akron. Or, they grew up in Akron, went to school somewhere, then moved back. I don’t know why I’m surprised by it because I’ve come to really understand how great it is to live here, but it is one of the things that surprises me.
CJN: What drew you to Akron?
Polikoff: On a personal side was the proximity to my kids. But on a professional side ... the No. 1 issue facing the Jewish community is anti-Semitism, which is always No. 1 – you’d be foolish to think it’s not. If No. 2 is affordability of Jewish life, again, Akron has a program that alleviates a lot of that issue. You have this great campus, you have terrific professional staff that’s here, you have terrific lay leadership that are here, and again, we have a lot of space to grow.
We have a lot more room in this building to put people, the synagogues have a lot more room to put people, so as a professional and someone who tends to work more entrepreneurial ... there’s a lot to attract someone like me to a place like Akron.
CJN: Are there plans to partner with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland?
Polikoff: Absolutely – and these are just thoughts that we have – (but) I’m meeting with some of the people who direct these programs this week and next week.
We have a pretty good understanding that we have a relatively large interfaith family population in Summit County. It would be foolish for us to reinvent the wheel and look for an interfaith family program when (Rabbi) Melinda Mersack in Cleveland is running the jHUB program. I’ve reached out to Melinda and we’re going to sit and talk and see what that looks like.
We should also understand that I’m sure there are interfaith families from Summit County who are participating in Cleveland’s jHUB program. OK, let’s not reinvent the wheel, let’s talk about what does it look like if we extended the curriculum down here and let’s say we hire a coordinator, so it’s things like that.
The security apparatus in Cleveland, Jim Hartnett (Jewish Federation of Cleveland director of community wide security) has done a phenomenal job in Cleveland with just setting up an entire security piece for the community. We have a 55-acre physical campus, and I believe that we should always look to experts. Fortunately for us, we have an expert in Cleveland.
So, Jim is coming down in two weeks with his team and we’re going to walk around campus and get some input from Jim, and the local FBI is going to come because Jim has those contacts.
CJN: Are there any concerns about partnering with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland?
Polikoff: When people hear us partnering or cooperating with Cleveland, for some reason, there’s this instant thought that, “Oh they want to take us (over).” There are a lot more ways to partner than just talking about us becoming part of them, that’s never entered into the conversation. The initial conversations I’ve had with Erika (B. Rudin-Luria, Jewish Federation of Cleveland president), if there are resources there, we can partner or buy in, whatever it might look like. We’d be foolish to create a whole new dynamic when it already exists up there, and we are all a Jewish community here.
CJN: There’s room for people in the Schultz building. How are you going to fill it?
Polikoff: One is we have to work with the general community, the civic community (and) the local government, and there are attraction strategies that have been put together for Akron, for Summit County. We at this campus, having what we have here, we have to be a part of that.
When they list the organizations involved in growing Akron and growing Summit County, it’s important for us to be there. Part of it is us making sure we have a way to partner with those non-Jewish entities in the area and work with them on those attraction strategies, or on those growth strategies.
I think in the Jewish community, it’s working with the local clergy, working with the agencies that are both on this campus and elsewhere, and projecting the richness of Jewish life here because, again, I think we are one of the best-kept secrets.