September 14, 2011
Walking the Jewish walk, not just talking the talk
As a kid growing up in Encino, Jeff Mirkin’s Judaism was more a peripheral pleasure than a way of life. His family did what lots of Jews do — holiday dinners and the occasional trip to shul, usually on Yom Kippur. Family time, more than religious observance, was the focus of their Jewish life.
But when Mirkin’s first child was born, he figured it was time to join up, though even then he found himself dragging his feet. That was when his non-Jewish wife, Allison, gave him an ultimatum: Join a congregation or our son is getting baptized!
“When she said that, it became very clear to me that that wasn’t something I could do,” Mirkin, 58, said in an interview from his office on Beverly Drive.
That was almost 30 years ago. How a culturally Jewish, intermarried, agnostic-bordering-on-atheist then joined a synagogue, came to serve on its board for nine years and later rose to become president, is something of a point of pride for Mirkin.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said of his three-year term as president of Leo Baeck Temple, where he has been a member since 1988. He enjoyed it so much, he found himself undergoing mild withdrawal symptoms when his term ended last May. “It was very hard not to be president anymore. It took me awhile to get my head around that.”
Fortunately for Mirkin, he had a business to return to — Budget Rent-a-Car of Southern California — a downsized version of the company his father created in 1958, when Mirkin was 6, and later sold — save for the SoCal branch and a fraction of the national chain, which today remains a beloved family business.
When Budget first opened its doors near the corner of Robertson and Wilshire boulevards, Mirkin’s mother, Judith, was the company’s first counter agent. After his father died in 1985, Mirkin took over the business, and, three years ago, his eldest son joined him there. The family involvement has shaped the nature of the company, Mirkin said, as it operates with fewer rules and less rigidity than the average corporation. “Our employees are like family members,” Mirkin said on the Friday before Labor Day, as he dismissed his office staff at noon to lengthen the weekend. “We don’t have hard-and-fast rules,” he said. “People are human, and they make mistakes; we try to deal with that on a personal level.”
Mirkin says his business acumen and affability are what led him into philanthropic leadership. He first stepped in when two of the schools his children attended (Mirkin has four kids) — Windward School, a private, secular school in West Los Angeles, and Park Century School, a nonprofit lower school that caters to children with learning disabilities — both asked him to help with fundraising. Mirkin was initially reluctant: “I hate asking for money, and I hate being asked for money,” he said. But, he realized, capital campaigns tend to require that: “I very quickly got into asking for money,” he said wryly.
When the leadership of Leo Baeck Temple, a midsize congregation of 620 families with a $3 million-per-year operating budget, got word of his success as a fundraiser, they invited him to get more involved with the synagogue’s campaigns. Mirkin began with the temple’s Sponsors Circle, part of the annual giving campaign, and, soon after, agreed to sit on the temple’s board, to his feeble dismay: “I had always said, ‘No, I’d love to, but I’m too busy.’ ” Mirkin eventually caved in and went on to serve for nine years. In May 2008, he was elected president.
Mirkin’s presidency was both triumphant and challenging. During his tenure, he oversaw an $11 million capital campaign to build a new sanctuary, raising $9.5 million in three years and completing construction on the new building in just one (“No one believed we could do it in a year”). This he accomplished in the midst of an economic crisis, when less-affluent congregants were clinging to their pocketbooks and decreasing donations. A spate of families who couldn’t afford dues led to a $250,000 budget shortfall one year. But Mirkin refused to turn away families who couldn’t pay. “You don’t leave a congregation because you can’t afford it; that’s when you need us more than ever,” he said. Even when it was tough, he clung to the philosophy: “Stay a temple member, and we’ll help you work through this.”
The financial downturn was not the only trial of his term. Another year, two of Leo Baeck’s three clergy members relocated, leaving its 620 families with one rabbi, Ken Chasen, and the congregation’s lay leadership in the throes of a double replacement search. “It was very, very difficult,” Mirkin said, looking back, but the challenges spoke to his strengths. “I’m a very calm person; I’m Type B, not Type A. I’m also very optimistic,” he said. Mirkin believes that under pressure, what a community needs most is a calm presence. “People look to their leaders to decide how they should be feeling — and I don’t get upset.”
Abigail Spiegel, Leo Baeck’s executive director since 2004, said Mirkin was the perfect president in a pinch. “His business acumen, his calmness, his attention to details” were just a few of his helpful qualities. “To be a good leader, it takes tremendous love of the institution and belief in the community. Everybody’s voice is important; everybody’s concern is important; every complaint is important,” Spiegel said. “In addition to his leadership skills, Jeff’s just a lovely human being. There are few better.”
Where he was weak, Mirkin said, he tried to improve. “It can take me weeks to gin up enough nerve to make an important call,” he said. “And conflict is hard for me. I am a slow processor, and when someone confronts me, I can’t always find the words I’d like to rebut them.” To set an example, Mirkin said, he doubled his family’s annual gift several times. “Once you make the commitment and start to make payments, you realize it isn’t going to change your lifestyle, and that makes it easier to give and to give more,” he said.
In the end, Mirkin believes leadership success has little to do with money. “What you need in any volunteer group are the people who are willing to give time,” he said. “Temple dues never cover operating costs, but the vibrancy of a community comes from the people who care enough to commit themselves.”
Mixing service and spirituality was not a problem for Mirkin the way it is for some leaders; politics and pettiness didn’t seem to compromise his prayer: “The higher up in leadership you go, the more dirty laundry you see,” he said. “For me, it makes the temple more real, and better. The people who commit the least amount of time are often the people who find things not to like.”
He best explained a volunteer leader’s relationship to a synagogue with a marriage metaphor: “No one knows all my warts the way [my wife] does, but she loves me more than anyone else in the world,” he said of his wife of 30 years. “The more you know someone, the deeper you can care about them.” Likewise, he said, “As president, you’re about as deeply involved as you can be.”