JCC CEO Ken Light to retire but still has big plans for facility

Tucson Jewish Community Center President and CEO Ken Light (Larry Haas)

Twenty-six years ago, when Ken Light took the helm of the Tucson Jewish Community Center, the landmark edifice on River Road hadn’t even been built.

Light had come to town with the understanding that financing and permits were all in place, but it would take three more years of fundraising, design changes and construction before the building was ready. In the meantime, the JCC, which had moved several times since first opening on South Tucson Boulevard in 1950, was housed across the campus in what are now the offices of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

Even when the new JCC opened its doors in 1989, the facility was far from finished, says Light, with nine or 10 building projects completed in the ensuing 15 years.

Still, although much of his role has focused on the creation and upkeep of the structure, the job has been about much more than the building, emphasizes Light, who recently announced that he’ll be retiring as president and CEO in March 2013.

“I’ve been really blessed,” he says, to work “with a great group of people, on the volunteer side as well as the staff side” in creating “one of the premier JCCs in the country.”

The JCC, Light says, is about “making a difference in people’s lives and meeting the needs of people on a daily basis, whether it’s their physical well-being, mental or social or emotional, psychological, recreational. All of those things, we do pretty well.”

Although the JCC is not a religious institution, the perpetuation of Jewish continuity and enrichment of Jewish life is a critical part of its mission, says Light, noting the JCC’s strong partnerships with local synagogues and the Federation “family of agencies” — which includes Tucson Hebrew Academy, Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging, Jewish Family & Children’s Services and the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, along with the JCC — and a particularly strong relationship with the Federation itself.

“What Ken has been able to achieve in his leadership of the JCC over these two-plus decades is truly beyond compare. He and his lay partners and staff have created a world-class organization that has become the jewel of our Jewish community,” says Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO.

“All the while,” adds Mellan, “his savvy professionalism has enabled the JCC to remain fiscally strong during the up and downs of our economy. And for me, personally, I am truly grateful to Ken for being such a wonderful partner in the work of building our Jewish community. His leadership will be missed, but he has most certainly made an indelible and profoundly positive mark on our community. ”

Other Jewish community leaders agree.

“Ken’s strength has really been in the relationships that he’s created both on the lay side, with the community, as well as with his own professionals and other professionals in Tucson,” says Helaine Levy, a former JCC board member who chairs the search committee seeking Light’s replacement.

Flexibility has also been key. Throughout his long tenure, Light “has adapted to changes and has been willing to take risks to make changes both to the facility and also the programmatic part,” says Levy, adding that Light rarely makes unilateral decisions, instead seeking outside input, whether that involves supporting special needs programming or creating a sculpture garden, one of the most recent additions to the JCC.

A professional from the JCC Association is assisting the search committee, but the ideal candidate could come from any field, says Levy. In recent years, she says, only half of the top JCC executive positions nationwide have been filled from within the JCC movement. The committee is simply seeking “people with transferable skills,” she says, noting that referrals from community members are welcome. The committee members and the JCCA representative have conferred with current and past board members, longtime JCC members and current staff as part of the search process, she says.

“Ken has many strengths,” says Tom Warne, chair of the JCC board, and chief among them “is always keeping his mind open to what people have to say and to their thoughts. And he really can do this without imposing his own ego.”

In exercising this strength, “he never loses sight of the Jewish mission of the JCC, and that remains strong as ever,” Warne says, adding that the approximately 50 percent of JCC members who are not Jewish appreciate the mission and the atmosphere the JCC maintains.

Light’s management skills, says Warne, have enabled the JCC to develop programs for ages 6 months to 90-plus that are well received by the Jewish community and the Tucson community at large.

With his retirement still more than six months off, Light is involved in a number of new projects at the JCC.

One is an expansion plan that would add space in several program areas: children and youth; the special needs program for young adults, which currently has a waiting list of about 40 people; sports and wellness; and arts and culture.

Last week, at a special meeting, the Federation board viewed a video presentation of the architectural plans — including a collapsible glass wall between the Heritage Room and sculpture garden, with a large shade structure to create an enhanced indoor/outdoor event space – and gave approval for the JCC to launch a capital campaign of approximately $4.5 million in the spring, reaching out to the broader Tucson community as well as the Jewish community. As a JFSA beneficiary agency, the JCC must seek approval for capital campaigns.

The second project focuses on enhancing the wellness aspect of the JCC’s mission. “Toward that end,” says Light, “we’re now in discussions partnering with Canyon Ranch and Tucson Medical Center in a tripartite wellness initiative that is going to be very exciting and hopefully will break within the next 60 to 90 days.”

Light, who grew up in Gunnison, Colo., earned a bachelor’s degree and a graduate degree in recreation administration from the University of Colorado. He started his JCC career as a wrestling and self-defense teacher at the Denver JCC. He then spent six years at the JCC in St. Paul, Minn., before returning to Denver, where he eventually became assistant director, the position he held before coming to Tucson.

Although he is stepping down as CEO, Light still plans to work part time on the JCC’s new fundraising campaign. But he also plans to spend time with family — including his wife, Marcia, three married children and four grandchildren — golf and mountain bike, travel and explore other interests in the community, including the Rotary Club, where he’s already an active volunteer.

Light hopes that his replacement as the JCC’s top executive, in addition to continuing the programs the JCC already does well, “will take some new ideas into new directions for the future.”