January 20, 2005
Jewish Big Brothers Gets a New Parent
Lately, the tears have fallen easily from Margy Feldman's eyes. It's not that the new president and CEO of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters (JBBBS) of Los Angeles is frustrated or depressed. Far from it. Hers are tears of joy, a feeling that comes from knowing that her work makes a profound difference in the lives of young people.
"I happy cry all the time," said Feldman, a 53-year-old former clothing manufacturing executive who came to JBBBS in July 2003 and quickly moved up the ranks. "I recently talked to a young girl at [JBBBS-run] Camp [Max Straus] and asked her what she liked about it. She said, 'It's so quiet around here. You don't hear any gunshots.' That blew me away."
These are also good times for supporters of JBBBS, an organization that not only offers summer camp and enrichment programs for underprivileged youth but pairs young Jewish boys and girls with adult Jewish mentors. After surviving ballooning deficits, massive layoffs and stagnant fundraising that threatened its very existence, JBBBS -- with Feldman's assistance -- has righted itself. The agency, which has seen its staff shrink from 52 employees in 1999 to 23 today, has balanced its budget and even unveiled new programs.
However, a group of laid-off social workers said JBBBS has lost its way. By eliminating counseling services for little brothers and sisters, they say, the agency has increased the likelihood that those youngsters will drop out of the Big Brothers program. Whereas "matches" once endured six to eight years, they now last less than five, the former employees say.
"The heart is gone from Big Brothers," said a former JBBBS social worker who requested anonymity. "The point of this program is to restore some sort of continuity in these kids lives, who may have lost a parent through death or divorce. And if those relationships don't endure, that's one more loss."
Doug Gold, a former corporate executive and Feldman's predecessor as head of JBBBS, said the agency has remained true to its mission of mentoring young adults between 6 and 18. He said JBBBS touches the lives of 1,500 youngsters annually, the same number as five years ago. Unlike the past, though, Gold said JBBBS now operates on a sound financial footing, partly because of such painful "belt-tightening" measures as the elimination of agency counseling (Jewish Family Service and other agencies continue to offer such services).
Gold said he and Feldman (his "right-hand person") did more than simply slash and burn during their time together. By bringing sound business practices to the once-struggling nonprofit, the pair burnished the agency's reputation. That, in turn, boosted fundraising and allowed JBBBS to look forward for the first time in years, Gold said.
Feldman, he added, also conceptualized and raised money for Arts Buddies. The popular year-old program brings inner-city youth to Camp Max Straus in Glendale, where they learn about such classic artists as Van Gogh and Monet. Afterward, the young people make their own artworks, and, in the process, learn to interact with each other and adult mentors.
Given Feldman's many contributions to JBBBS, Gold said he heartily endorsed her promotion.
"I'm very confident and comfortable leaving it in her hands," he said.
Bursting with enthusiasm and passion, Feldman said she has big plans for JBBBS. To meet the growing demand for adult big brothers and big sisters, she just hired a full-time staffer charged with recruiting volunteers. To help get the word out about the agency, she said JBBBS is in the process of revamping its Web site as part of a larger "branding" campaign. Building on the success of Arts Buddies, Feldman envisions expanding the program to new areas such as drama, computers and music.
Feldman knows that making her vision come to fruition will cost money -- lots of it. But she said the challenges don't intimidate her. In her 19 successful years in the male-dominated retail trade, she learned the art of salesmanship, persuasion and charm and the value of pit bull-like intensity.
Even before assuming the top spot at JBBBS, Feldman put those talents to use. Bob Waldorf, a board member and past president, said Feldman sweet-talked him into "noodging" fellow directors to pony up more money and to tap their friends for contributions. The result: Tens of thousands of additional dollars were raised for JBBBS.
"When she calls you, she has a way of endearing herself to you. So when she asks you for something, you do it," said Waldorf, himself a former big brother.
Board member Gary Weinhouse also succumbed to Feldman's charm offensive. Even though he has a demanding consulting job and an infant daughter, Weinhouse said he surprised himself by acceding to her request that he head JBBBS' Recruitment Committee. To convince him to take the position, Feldman called him three times and made a personal pitch over breakfast at Junior's.
Feldman appears to have made a good choice. In Weinhouse's seven months in his new position, he said about 10 men and women have become or committed to become Jewish big brothers and sisters through his and others' efforts.
"She's absolutely, unabashedly passionate about the agency," Weinhouse said.
And about her Judaism. A self-described "born-again" Jew, Feldman heartily embraced her Jewish heritage more than nearly two decades ago with the birth of her son, Eric, whose "perfection" inspired her spiritual rebirth. Afterward, she became more involved in religious life, eventually becoming president of Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach and teaching herself Hebrew.
In the back of her mind, the New Jersey native wanted to pursue work in the community. However, breaking in would prove difficult without degrees in social work or Jewish communal service, she said.
In the late 1990s, Feldman rose to the vice president of sales at Dakota Sportswear, a startup-clothing manufacturer in Los Angeles that made jeans and T-shirts. Proud of her career success, she nonetheless found the work somewhat unsatisfying. Gone were the days of huge commissions and limited competition. Instead, offshore garment makers offering cut-rate prices had transformed the business into a never-ending fight for survival. The thrill was gone.
So Feldman considered it a miracle of sorts when she landed a job as program director of the Jewish Federation South Bay Council. As happened with JBBBS, she soon rose to the top spot, this time because of a round of layoffs. In her new position, Feldman said she developed an annual "Mitzvah Day" that brought together South Bay residents to perform such good deeds as making blankets for AIDS babies and preparing gift bags for incarcerated Jews. In just three years, event attendance tripped to almost 1,000 people.
Mitzvah Day's success helped bring her to JBBBS. She said she couldn't be happier.
"I'm dedicated to really making a difference in the world, and this is a fabulous vehicle to do that," Feldman said. "I have a tremendous amount of tenacity and that often makes me a pain in the tush. When I believe in something, I can make it happen."