Same Faces New Chairs
Marla Letizia, Jewish Nevada Board Chair
Stefanie Tuzman, JCC of Southern Nevada Director, Annual Giving & Women’s Philanthropy Director
Devra Weiss, Jewish Community Center Council Chair
Todd Polikoff, Jewish Nevada President and CEO
“We want a strong vibrant Jewish community in the most cost-effective way.”
These words, in particular, come from Devra Weiss, the current chair of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) Council, but they could just as easily have been spoken by anyone in the upper echelons of leadership in both the JCC as well as Jewish Nevada, the organization which, as of the first of July, enfolded the JCC into its corporate structure. These words go a long way to understanding why the JCC becoming part of Jewish Nevada is just the latest move by an organization looking to redefine and who they are and what they hope to bring to the Jewish community throughout the state.
As with most major changes, if you start with the head, the body will follow. In this case, the change in the head came with the hiring of Todd Polikoff to take over Jewish Federation of Las Vegas in November of 2015. Polikoff, who had spent the majority of his professional life working for the Jewish community, was a good fit for the organization. He was familiar with Las Vegas, having lived here from 2005-2011, and he had a fresh set of eyes, which was desperately needed.
His first task, upon assuming the position of President and CEO, was to sit down with the leadership and ask the key question: “What’s our core competence?” He needed to really understand who the organization was and what its primary function should be. “If we’re going to be a Federation,” he explains now, “there’s a sense of what federations do and what federations shouldn’t do. I stood up and said, ‘we are only going to do the things we can do.’”
Interestingly, this meant jettisoning a number of long standing programs because, frankly, they didn’t fall under the actual purview of what the Federation was designed and set up to do. He moved those programs over to organizations better set up to handle the logistics of maintaining them, while Federation would still supply the funding needed to run them. This made sense, especially in light of what Polikoff realized was the main thrust of what needed to be done. “We…said we want to impact as many Jews in the community as we can and the deciding metric on whether or not we do something is impact,” he says. “It’s not how many people show up. Not how much money we raise from that one thing, it’s are we impacting the community in a positive way.”
The only problem was in identifying just exactly where that community was. “We do have a reputation for being focused primarily on the Western side of Las Vegas, the Summerlin area,” explains Weiss. She is quick to point out that while it is true there is a heavy focus on the West Side, there are programs being funded all over town.
Polikoff concurs. “People think all the Jews in the state mostly live on the west side of Vegas.” His initial research, however, showed some different, and more sobering, statistics. Turns out they were actually interacting with at least 22 different Jewish communities across the state. “We didn’t realize this at first,” he says jokingly. “Elko is like the new Jerusalem.” With this new knowledge, and a trip to Reno to see things first hand, Polikoff discovered that the myth that Federation was only for the Las Vegas community was persistent. According to Polikoff, it really felt like they didn’t realize they had a Federation.
Something had to be done.
“After this learning process of a few months,” he explains, “I sat down with our board chair Marla Letizia and put together a marketing committee and we said ‘we really have to make sure that people know we are the Federation for the state and how do we do that?’ We change our name.”
Which they did.
Two years ago, the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas transformed into the much more inclusive and wider reaching Jewish Nevada. “The rebranding changed our name, it changed our color scheme and it changed our look,” explains Letizia. “Two years ago, if you looked at our brand, we looked like our grandfather’s, our great grandfather’s Federation. Now we’ve updated to a more, if you will, Pinterest type of font and look.” This new look is more than a fresh coat of paint, though. Instead, it was required if the organization wanted to, as Letizia says, “keep the Millennial’s attention.”
“We decided that ‘Jewish Nevada’ had to be where we are as a brand, as an entity for the state,” says Polikoff. Which means that Reno is now a regular destination for the heads of the organization with plans to eventually have a permanent staff member there. This is especially vital as the community is growing rapidly. A large number of people are moving over to northern Nevada because they can still afford it. They’re being priced out of California. And Jewish Nevada is in place to make sure they know there’s a Jewish community ready to welcome them with open arms.
All of which brings things right back around to what happened at the beginning of this past July, when the JCC became a part of Jewish Nevada. “The Jewish Community Center has a mission of providing programs and services within the Jewish community to help build community,” says Weiss. “To really build relationships between the people in the community, to help connect the Jews, or anyone else in Las Vegas, with Jewish heritage, Jewish culture.” The two organizations have always had a synergy, with Federation/Jewish Nevada being the JCC’s top financial donor. With this integration, Weiss says the existent synergy can only become stronger. It gives the people who are talking to the donors in the community and easier way to show what Polikoff is after, the impact Jewish Nevada is making.
Stephanie Tuzman, who took over as director of the JCC on July 16th, explains it this way: “What everyone wants to know is ‘what’s my money being spent on?’ I’m really excited to actually be a part of that right now, to say ‘look, this is what it’s doing, it’s creating mommy and me programs, it’s creating programs for senior adults, it’s creating cultural educational opportunities.’ All these things that a JCC should do! I’m excited to be a part of building that.”
The most important thing to remember, though, is that just because the JCC is now a part of Jewish Nevada, it is most definitely not going away. “We can’t have a scenario where someone looks at a website, or is looking around, looking at the Jewish community of Nevada, thinking about moving here and they don’t see a JCC,” explains Polikoff. “People will not move here without a JCC. They need to know there’s a Jewish community center in whatever form it’s in.”
Which coincides with Tuzman’s view of how she wants to move forward in her new position. She understands that because of the transient nature of Las Vegas, the community is filled with people from all over the country and that they are all going to expect a JCC just like the one they left behind. “There really is no…,” Tuzman falters for a second, searching for the right words to fully explain her vision. “The model of the JCC is so different from community to community, but I think in Las Vegas, we’ve yet to figure out what a model looks like.” She understands that in some ways, in the past, the JCC has tried to be something it wasn’t. She also understands that part of her job is to listen to the community. “I’m starting to listen more, to see what people are interested in, what they need and what they’re looking for and we want to be able to provide for them.”