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Turning of the Wheel I Shabbat Shalom, 14 Adar I 5784

By Doron Krakow

Turning of the Wheel

Among the first JCC communities I visited back in 2017 when I arrived at JCC Association of North America was St. Louis. Lynn Wittels, the long-time CEO and a member of the JCC Association board, had quickly established herself for me as one of the invaluable voices of experience and wisdom in the leadership circle. She’d invited me to come and learn about one of the oldest and most remarkable JCCs in our field and then, as now, I was eager to learn.

An integral part of the St. Louis Jewish community since 1880, the JCC’s multi-campus facilities together with Camp Sabra on Lake of the Ozarks, one of our movement’s 24 overnight camps (making the JCC movement the largest Jewish overnight camp system in North America), combine to cover not only a wide geographical area but also a remarkably diverse Jewish community. It is the centerpiece of an organized Jewish community that includes 17 congregations, a vibrant Jewish Federation, day schools, museums, and myriad other organizations and service providers.

As in so many Jewish communities, in St. Louis, the JCC has the biggest footprint, draws the largest and most diverse population of Jews, and is the preeminent place on the Jewish landscape at which members of the wider community can be readily found. It is the anchor. Both the Staenberg Family Complex and the Marilyn Fox Building across town are showplaces of our field.

I found myself reflecting on that first visit when I learned this week about the passing of Marilyn Fox, z”l, just short of her 90th birthday. Anyone coming to St. Louis and encountering the Jewish community or numerous other institutions and programs connected with children, culture, education, and social services across the city can’t help but know her name. A giant of both the Jewish and philanthropic communities, Marilyn’s generosity, vision, wit, and wisdom and even more so, her humility and kindness have long been the stuff of legend.

Marilyn’s parents came to St. Louis from Lithuania. One of three children, she grew up in the Delmar Loop neighborhood and met her future husband, Sam, during her senior year of high school. They were married a year later, and she dropped out of college to get a job and help provide for the family they hoped to have together. Both came from humble beginnings, but over time Sam’s business acumen and several turns of good fortune allowed them to become community leaders and visionary philanthropists. One thing never changed. They never lost sight of who they were and where they came from. They had benefited from a Jewish community that helped to look after its own and were determined to make it possible for ensuing generations not only to have the same kinds of opportunities they’d had but so much more.

Marilyn and Sam have been role models, and wherever the Fox name is found, substance, meaning, quality, and a fundamental commitment to peoplehood and Israel also are there. Marilyn was the first woman to chair the JCC board, a post she held from 1992 to 1994. Though her term ended three decades ago, she remained a fixture at the JCC throughout the remainder of her life—her presence and influence a lifelong example to others.

Marilyn Fox was a giant in the St. Louis Jewish community—and an extraordinary part of an exemplary JCC. As we salute her life’s work and honor her memory, we do so knowing that thanks to her, Sam, and the Fox family, the foundation for an even greater Jewish future there is firmly in place. Marilyn and Sam, like so many other self-made leaders and philanthropists in JCC communities across the continent, have made possible more than their younger selves could ever have imagined. We are indebted to them for their vision and for the opportunity to stand on their shoulders as we strive for more. At a time of unsettling duress in the Jewish world, their example is a beacon, reminding us of the places from whence we’ve come and all that we have thus far achieved. They inspired a new generation of dreamers and dreams—the touchstones of our continuing journey as a Jewish community and a Jewish world.

I called Lynn a few days ago. I wanted to extend my condolences and express my gratitude once more for inviting me to make that first visit back in 2017—a visit that included an introduction to the remarkable Marilyn Fox. I also called to thank Lynn for something else. After more than 18 years at the JCC, 16 as its CEO, during which she served for six years as a member of the board of JCC Association—and became my friend and mentor—Lynn Wittels will be concluding her JCC career at the end of this month. On behalf of the legions of JCC professionals and lay leaders who’ve benefited from her talents, wisdom, and experience over the years, thank you, Lynn. We wish you, Bud, and your growing family a wonderful next chapter.

Am Yisrael Chai | עם ישראל חי

Shabbat shalom | שבת שלום

Doron Krakow
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America

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