Local | Senior Lifestyle

Longtime Tucsonan gives heart and soul to the Jewish community

Linda Tumarkin poses with the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s mission statement inside the Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy, June 27, 2019. (Román Urias/AJP)

Linda Tumarkin, 79, has been an active volunteer in the Tucson Jewish community since shortly after moving to town in 1971, including three terms as chair of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and four terms as chair of the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council. She was on the founding committee of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona in 1975 and has served on the JCF board and various committees on and off over the years. Recently, she gave up her seat on the JCF board to make room for a younger leader.

“I actually had one more year to go,” she says, explaining that she was part of a local Jewish community leadership class two years ago, with a range of ages among the participants. “What I gleaned from that is that there’s wonderful leadership coming and there has to be room for these people.

“I was very encouraged by the transition of Tracy to Graham; I was part of that process,” she adds, referring to former JCF President and CEO Tracy Salkowitz, who left Tucson last year, and the current JCF chief, Graham Hoffman, who came aboard in September. “I think that Foundation is in great hands. I did go to the final meeting and saw some of the new young people who were sitting at the table … we have a wonderful community with fabulous talent.”

When the Tumarkins moved to Tucson from Livingston, New Jersey, she says, her husband, Gerry, was a manufacturer of electronic components for television picture tubes. To compete with Japanese manufacturers, his company opened one of the first American export factories or maquiladoras in Nogales, Mexico. The couple had three children, ages 8, 6, and 2, and Gerry often traveled for business — she recalls that at the time, American Airlines had nonstop service to New York, Chicago, and Florida.

The other city Gerry’s company had proposed was Jacksonville, Florida. “Hands down, no contest,” she says of choosing Tucson.

“We were very fortunate that we both knew people who were here already, or knew people who knew people. And we went to some young Jewish Tucson event and just connected and felt comfortable and those people are still our friends today — Ruthie and Ronnie Kolker, Barbara Holtzman and her husband Stuart, who is deceased now, Janet and Steve Seltzer — all people who cared about the Jewish community, many of them from back East, also transplants. We just sort of found each other.”

Tumarkin and her husband were born in the same hospital in Newark, New Jersey — Philip Roth country, she notes, citing the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose novels so often chronicled Jewish American middle-class life.

In New Jersey, she didn’t have to think about being Jewish, but in Tucson, she soon realized that if she wanted her kids to have a Jewish identity, “I’m going to have to step up.”

She and Gerry joined Temple Emanu-El, eventually moving to Congregation Anshei Israel, where her parents, who moved to Tucson one year after the Tumarkins, were members. Tumarkin’s mother, Evelyn Bersh, died six years ago, at age 101, and Gerry’s mother, Ida Kesselman, who moved here at age 95, lived to be 104. Today Tumarkin and her husband belong to Congregation Or Chadash, where she sings in the choir, something she also did at Anshei Israel. “There was a time when my mom and I were both in the choir. That was a hoot and a half,” she says.

Getting involved in Jewish community work has been stimulating both emotionally and intellectually, says Tumarkin. “The people that I met and worked with, I was always impressed by their expertise and the amount of time they were all willing to give.”

Gerry has similarly been involved in the Jewish community — he was president of the Tucson Jewish Community Center when she was president of the Federation, and served with many other Jewish agencies. “We have different leadership styles but the same heart,” she muses.

Her first real involvement was with Tucson Hebrew High, where she was later president. “The one who really got me involved in Federation, though, is Margie Fenton,” a former JCRC director, she says, while Carole Levi, her predecessor as JFSA chair, later convinced her to take on that challenge.

Tumarkin worked on the campaign to free Soviet Jews, who were not allowed to emigrate. Along with writing letters in support of “refuseniks,” the JCRC held 13 or 14 “Freedom Runs” in the ’70s and ’80s to publicize their plight. JCRC volunteers also helped resettle Soviet Jews who eventually were able to leave and came to Tucson. She and Barbara Holtzman had to explain to people that they were not raising funds for “Soviet jewelry,” she recalls with a laugh. “It was a learning experience.”

“For myself, I also felt that my involvement was a good example for my family,” she says.

After planting a tree during one of the four interfaith missions to Israel Linda Tumarkin led as chair of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Jewish Community Relations Council in the early 1990s, she and her husband, Gerry, pose à la Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic.’ [Courtesy Tumarkin)

“I led four interfaith missions to Israel when I was chair of JCRC — they were really extraordinary community events.  I felt very fortunate to be able to represent our Jewish community and to feel the sense of community that came about because of each of those missions.”

In 1984, the Federation named her its Woman of the Year.

Tumarkin also has volunteered with the Tucson J, serving on its governance board, among other roles. Her JCC years go back to its former site on Plumer Avenue, which was followed by the “JCC Without Walls” before the current edifice on Dodge Boulevard was built. More recently, she was on the J’s initial Sculpture Garden committee — a project she continues to take pride in, and show off to visitors.

Throughout her years in Tucson, Tumarkin worked alongside some “fabulous” lay leaders, including Saul and Sue Tobin, Jack Sarver, Shaol and Evie Pozez and Louis and Ruthann Pozez, Roz Kaufman, and Don Diamond. Carol Stern, who served as a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, commonly known as the JDC, “was probably the first woman leader I really knew,” she says.  Many of these mentors have now passed on.

When Tumarkin was JFSA chair, 1997-2000, Stuart Mellan was relatively new in his role as president and CEO. “Stuart has been incredible in his leadership of our community. He’s going to be sorely missed [when he retires in May 2020.] I can’t picture us without him, but we will survive.”

“Linda is a remarkable gift to our community. She has not let up in her devotion to our Jewish community for one moment. She’s one of the most positive, affirming people that one can ever encounter. Linda’s wonderful leadership qualities are amplified by having a partner, Gerry, who is as fully invested as she is,” says Mellan.

While she was chair, the Federation prepared to conduct a demographic study, which was completed in 2002. Ron Weintraub, Paul Baker, and Alice Baker were among the leaders on that project, she says.

Four years ago, she became involved with the Jewish History Museum, where she continues to serve as a docent, along with her friend Lynda Rogoff. “We used to play tennis together,” she says, “and I couldn’t play tennis anymore, so this was another opportunity to share a passion. When I was JCRC chair, Lynda became the chair of the Holocaust survivors group and she really got to know some wonderful people.” Tumarkin is on the committee for the JHM’s annual meeting, coming up in November.

Tumarkin also sat on the board of Jewish Family & Children’s Services for several years. “I was there when they started Matza & More,” annual Passover baskets to help those in need celebrate the holiday.

Her other volunteer interests — things she’s explored “without any involvement with boards” — include Literacy Connects’ Reading Seed program, where for the past six or seven years she’s helped first- or second-graders to read. “It’s been a wonderful, rewarding experience,” she says. The other is the Sister Jose Women’s Center, which serves homeless women. Sister Jose was the focus of Federation’s 70th-anniversary mitzvah project in 2016-17 — a turn of events that thrilled her — but it was Holtzman, who previously volunteered at Casa Maria, who got her involved. “I was there when the backyard was dedicated … and it gives me a great deal of pleasure to see the Federation name on Sister Jose,” Tumarkin says. “I see a number of our Jewish community volunteering as well.”

“At 79, my health is important to me,” Tumarkin says, before nimbly climbing on rocks and gravel outside the Federation for a photo shoot. “I’ve always exercised, so I get a lot of pleasure out of going to the J.”

Volunteering remains an abiding passion. It has been “an opportunity for growth. You get to know yourself better; you get to know people better.” Continuing to work with wonderful friends, she says, “lets the years fall away.”