When Michael Hyman retires as president and CEO of the Mandel Jewish Community Center on June 30, he will have completed nearly 50 years of service to the Jewish community — with nearly 19 years spent at the Beachwood center after moving here in 2003 from Buffalo, NY
The Mandel JCC will honor him for his service on May 22 at Landerhaven in Mayfield Heights.
Although he spent a total of 24 years on the staff of the Buffalo JCC — 15 of which were spent in a similar leadership position — Hyman told the Cleveland Jewish News that his professional journey started in an almost completely different direction.
“I graduated in 1973 from Rutgers University with a degree in political science,” he said. “My parents and I all thought I was going to be a lawyer. In the 1960s and 1970s, when Jewish boys came of age, they went to law school or you became a doctor. Vietnam War had just ended and I felt like law school really wasn’t for me, I really needed to do something that would make a difference.
Growing up in New Jersey, Hyman spent his free time in college working part-time at a JCC in West Orange, NJ. It turned out to be what he needed to find his career path, he said.
“I was also very active in the Jewish student program at the nearby Rutgers campus, and that program was tied to the JCC,” he said. “I realized that what I really wanted to do was do JCC work, that I would like to pursue a higher education that would give me the tools to do that.”
He attended Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work on a scholarship from Jewish Community Centers of North America. The condition of the scholarship was that he undertake to work for two years in a JCC after obtaining his master’s degree. Hyman’s first job was managing a day center for Jewish older adults in Newark, NJ. The program was based in a former synagogue in the middle of a public housing project. Its several hundred defendants were all on welfare or social security and had little or no contact with relatives, mostly Holocaust survivors.
The next part of his journey came with a job opportunity for the New York-based American Zionist Youth Foundation, but he found that after three years he wanted to return to JCC work.
“Through the connections I made, the opportunity arose to lead the overnight camp at Camp Lakeland at the Jewish Community Center in Buffalo,” he said, earning him an eight-year term. years as a camp director. “During this period, I also took on the role of Deputy Director of the JCC. Following the retirement of the longtime director, I became CEO of the Buffalo JCC.
Hyman said he met his wife, Susan, while working at the Buffalo JCC, where she also worked. She now works as director of the Jewish Volunteer Network at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and also plans to retire at the end of June. The couple live in Beachwood and frequent Beachwood Kehilla. The couple have two children and 10 grandchildren.
And then the opportunity to come to Cleveland came on Hyman’s desk, or rather his phone, he said.
“Seriously, it was just a phone call,” he said. “I had been at the JCC in Buffalo for 12 years and I received a phone call from person #2 of the JCC Association of North America. He said he was going to ask me a question that would shake things up a bit: “Would you be interested in leaving Buffalo and taking the CEO position in Cleveland?”
Hyman said he went home and spoke to his wife that night, who is from Buffalo. They both agreed it was the right time to take the next step in their careers, he recalls.
“In Cleveland, we have a very large, vibrant Jewish community that has a lot to offer,” he said. “I knew the Cleveland JCC had significant challenges. I also knew in my heart that if a Jewish community like Cleveland couldn’t have a successful JCC, we couldn’t have a successful JCC anywhere. The rest is history.
Before arriving in Cleveland, Hyman said the Mandel JCC had “very serious operational and business challenges.” Throughout his tenure, the JCC expanded its core programs in physical fitness, early childhood, summer camp, and arts, culture, and Jewish life.
“We just weren’t in the right place,” he said. “Membership and participation in the program was at an all-time low. A plan was developed in partnership with senior management, the board and staff, which included a comprehensive assessment of the state of current operations and the creation and development of plans for the organization.
Community funding partners, including the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, Mandel Foundation, Mt. Sinai Health Foundation, and Myers Foundation, helped the organization rebuild, grow, and hire “talented staff and prepare the ground for the future growth of the organization,” Hyman mentioned.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Centennial Fund allocated $6.7 million to improve facilities at the campground that houses Camp Wise and the JCC day camps between 2004 and 2007. A few years later , the Mandel Foundation donated $15 million to expand the JCC building. , which Hyman described as a “game changer”. This work took place between 2010 and 2012, ushering in a period of “tremendous growth” for the JCC between 2012 and 2018.
“We made sure we all agreed on where we needed to go, what we needed to do and how we were going to get there,” he said. “Once we got the CCG back on track, the staff team as well as the board leadership I worked with were a tremendous asset to this organization. Doing it together and working in the same direction to achieve agreed goals is really what sets us apart.
Neil Tramer, Chairman of the Mandel JCC Board, told CJN that the organization “has been blessed over the past 18 years to have Michael Hyman as President and CEO of our Mandel JCC.”
“The number 18 has long been considered to correspond to the Hebrew word (chai) meaning (living or alive),” he said. “There is no better way to describe the transformative impact Michael Hyman has had on our Mandel JCC over the past 18 years than to say that he has created a living center for Jewish life. His wisdom, thoughtfulness and kindness have blessed this community.
At the end of 2019, Hyman said he was facing the “most significant challenge” he had ever faced in his professional career – the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was nothing more than an absolute determination not to see the organization fail,” Hyman said of the JCC’s success. “In a very short time, we figured out how to reorient the way we fulfill our mission of building community by bringing people together around shared experiences and we’ve done that through virtual programming in almost every area of this that we did.”
While the center still hasn’t fully returned to pre-COVID operations, Hyman said members are returning and the center is about 60% into pre-COVID programming.
“At the end of the day, we can look like a different organization once we get past that, and that’s fine too,” said Hyman, who was honored in March on Jewish Heritage Night during a Cleveland Monsters game at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in downtown Cleveland. “We have learned that we are resilient as an organization, that we have the right staff to be connected and engaged with our members.”
As the post-COVID era will continue to affect Jewish community organizations, Hyman said the future of the Mandel JCC lies in its ability to identify how to engage and connect with target groups.
“It can take us out of the walls of our building,” he said. “Until now, most of our programs have focused on buildings. What’s happening now, and not just in our community, is that people want to be together in places that may be different from our building. We need to think outside the box and look at where those opportunities are to bring people together to fulfill our mission and not necessarily within our building.
As he nears retirement, Hyman said he has “every intention” of remaining in the Cleveland Jewish community. You could probably find him working at the JCC from time to time, he said.
“It will always be a place that is in my heart, a place full of love and admiration for me,” he said. “It’s all about people.”