By Jessica Hanewinckel
After 26 years, Jewish Family Service of San Diego CEO Jill Borg Spitzer is retiring from the organization, leaving a healthy, fiscally sound agency in her wake. Her successor, New York transplant Michael Hopkins, will start as CEO designate Jan. 3 and will fully assume leadership Jan. 24.
Hopkins, who has a long history working to better Jewish communities, spent most of his 30-plus-year career helping to grow JCCs across the country. In 1979, he began working on programming for high school seniors in a JCC environment immediately after earning his MSW from the Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He advanced through the ranks at a handful of other JCCs over the years. Eventually, Hopkins was executive director of the Richmond, Va., JCC and then CEO of JCC Metrowest in the New York metro area, where he led a $23 million expansion and renovation and launched the country’s first Jewish Health and Healing Center under the auspices of a JCC. Most recently, he was executive director of Nehirim, a national Jewish LGBT organization.
Hopkins said his decades working in different capacities for Jewish communities across the country have given him a breadth of experience that makes him qualified to lead JFS here in San Diego, citing a healing center, older adult centers, resettlement programs and a food pantry as just a few of the programs he’s overseen at various JCCs and that also exist at JFS of San Diego.
“Paying attention to what the needs of the Jewish community are and trying to deliver programs and services that meet their needs is part of what I’ve developed over 30 years of working in the JCC world,” said the affable, humble Hopkins from his temporary office at JFS just a few days after arriving in town. “Out of [JFS’s] 50 programs I probably have some background in 30 of them. Every JCC is different, kind of like how every JFS is different, and because I’ve worked at so many JCCs over the years, I’ve done a lot of these things.”
More than any specific program, though, Hopkins said he’s most proud of his relationship-building skills.
“The middle word of JCC is community, and I truly understood that for the JCC to be effective, and for that matter for JFS to be effective, it’s about how you partner, how you collaborate, how you work with various organizations,” he said. “Figuring out how to strengthen the relationships with our Jewish community is on my short list.”
Following his long career in JCCs, Hopkins’ transition into the Jewish LGBT world through Nehirim gave him a new perspective on Jewish communal outreach and was in line with where he was in his life at that point, he said.
“Each person brings a unique set of life circumstances, of issues, of challenges, and so paying attention to their sexual orientation, their gender, their age, their health, to their whole self, is part of effectively serving them,” explained Hopkins, who had himself come out a short time before becoming involved in Nehirim. “As we develop as a professional, our personal life influences and enriches our professional skill set and so undoubtably, my family, my personal life, my own journey inform who I am as a professional.”
So what does Hopkins hope to do as JFS’s newest CEO?
“I’m not ready to say that yet,” he said. “I think that first of all, I’m following an amazing professional who has transformed this agency in 20-plus years. One of the reasons this position was attractive to me was the incredible health of the organization and the good work and their reputation. It would almost be inappropriate to say, ‘I know what I want to change.’ It would be different if the agency were in crisis. That’s not the case at all. This is an incredibly healthy agency. I feel really blessed to be here.”
A Fond Farewell
JFS will take the opportunity to formally bid Spitzer goodbye at its annual Heart and Soul Gala, this year at 6:30 p.m. March 3 at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla. Though the evening will be JFS’s major fundraiser as it always is, it will also pay special tribute to Spitzer’s long tenure at JFS, said Jennifer Levitt, co-chair of this year’s gala, with Murray Galinson and Ashley Stone.
“We expect probably the largest crowd ever to celebrate Jill’s incredible career and to honor her and wish her well in the next stage of her life,” Levitt said. “Jill has established some incredible and meaningful relationships over the years, so she has quite a legacy, and she holds a really unique position of respect as someone who’s developed a tremendous amount of cache over the years. Along those lines, the programming is going to be extra special and filled with lots of surprises, and I think it will be especially meaningful because we’re going to highlight these various aspects of Jill’s career and at the same time highlight the different important stages in JFS’s history.”
Despite the uncertain economy, Levitt said, they anticipate that the gala will continue its history of raising more money each year. Last year, she explained, the gala raised around $850,000. This year, they have no doubt it can hit the $1 million mark.
“I think [the economy] is something that is resonating in the community,” she said. “They know JFS is a place that supports families in need at every stage of family life, and I think we’ve done a good job of being able to communicate to the community how we’ve stepped up and helped families during this economic crisis. People in the community recognize that and are responding really generously. In addition, the legacy Jill has created and people’s response to that, we feel, is going to give us that additional push and make this the most successful gala ever.”
• For more information on Michael Hopkins, Jill Borg Spitzer, JFS or the Heart and Soul Gala, visit www.jfssd.org or call (858) 637-3034.