Olson Center director Phyllis Gold retiring after five years in NW

Phyllis Gold

Phyllis Gold already had been retired three years from her position as executive director of Satori Inc., where she ran a local K-1 private school and a charter school for grades 2-8, when she agreed to become director of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Northwest Division. Now, after five years in which the Northwest Division saw tremendous growth, including the transformation of its office into the Ruth and Irving Olson Center for Jewish Life, and a move to a larger space, she is ready to retire for good.

“I am so thankful to [former JFSA president and CEO] Stu Mellan and [JFSA senior vice president] Fran Katz, because they empowered me to further grow and develop the Northwest Jewish community … to work with the Northwest advisory council and continue Anne Lowe’s legacy,” Gold says, referring to her predecessor as Northwest Division director.

In 2019, the center was named in honor of the late Ruth and Irving Olson, benefactors of the program, and the Olson-Stelman family, who continue their support.

“The Olson Center is the only Jewish connection for many who live in the Northwest communities,” Gold says, noting that this is especially true for the young family cohort. “And we encompass so many miles. It’s a 30-mile distance between SaddleBrooke Ranch and Marana, for example.”

Young Jewish families who met at the center often get together informally, she says, along with participating in Olson Center activities such as PJ Library programs and “Shabbat Shabang” services with Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Batsheva Appel.

The center’s chair yoga classes typically have 20 participants, while programs such as a 2019 symposium on anti-Semitism drew a crowd of 50, with some coming from other parts of Tucson.

The center’s lunch and learn programs also are popular.  “People just want time to sit and talk to rabbis,” says Gold.

“We had weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual events and the numbers just increased,” Gold says. “We started running out of space.”

More than 60 people attended a Northwest Yom HaShoah commemoration in 2018. “We had to turn people away,” Gold says. At Mellan’s direction, she prepared a visioning document that paved the way for expansion.

In October, the Olson Center moved into larger quarters at 180 W. Magee Road, Suite 140, not far from its former space in the same plaza. A fundraising campaign raised $71,000 toward the goal of $100,000 to cover increased rent for four years.

The Olson Center also raises money for the JFSA annual campaign. Volunteer Bill Jacobson assembled a great committee, Gold says, and the Northwest’s campaign, strong in recent years, was going well this year until the coronavirus pandemic. The center’s operating budget is 50% of the campaign funds it raises, supplemented by nominal fees for ongoing classes and events.

For most of her five years as director, Gold’s partner on the advisory council was former chair Alan Kendal.

“Phyllis is a vivacious, very warm personality, very personable and very committed to Jewish community life in Tucson,” says Kendal. He has immense respect for her work ethic, noting that she accomplished all she did as a part-time employee.

Ariel Miklofsky, the center’s associate director for the last three years, also played a big part, says Gold, along with part-time staff members Marti Cohen and Carol Nudelman. When the previous associate director, Sarah Chen, left town, Gold feared she would not find another young, tech savvy associate, but Chen helped recruit Miklofsky, who is “phenomenal,” Gold says.

“I have loved working with Phyllis,” Miklofsky says. “Even though she herself does not live in the Northwest, the Northwest community is always the first thing she thinks of. She really is passionate about it, and I think that’s the number one thing I’m going to take with me after she leaves.”

Gold also did a fantastic job of collaborating with other Jewish agencies, such as Tucson Hebrew Academy, the UA Hillel Foundation, and the Tucson Jewish Community Center, she says.

“The amount of growth that I have seen in three years is just amazing,” Miklofsky adds. Thanks to commitment from both Gold and Kendal, she says, nine to 10 young Jewish families with children now regularly take part in center events. Since the pandemic, Miklofsky has been keeping in touch with these families weekly.

Helene Mittleman, advisory council vice chair and former chair, stepped in as acting chair six months ago, when Kendal resigned due to health issues. Gold “touched all the bases” as an administrator and fundraiser, she says, and her knowledge of the larger community as a native Tucsonan was very helpful.

Jane Myerson, who just became the center’s new chair, calls Gold “an amazingly energetic person.”

“I’m very much going to miss her,” says Myerson, adding that the council hopes to have a party to celebrate Gold once the office reopens.

Sheila Tepper, 86, has been a participant in the monthly book club, a knitting group, and lectures. She decided to get more involved in the Jewish community when she became a widow, and is grateful for the welcoming atmosphere Gold created.

“She has done a very good job in building up this branch of the Jewish community,” she says, adding that Gold deserves to enjoy her retirement.

At the moment, the coronavirus has put plans to replace Gold on hold, says Graham Hoffman, president and CEO of JFSA and the Jewish Community Foundation.

“Phyllis is one of those people who cannot be replaced,” he says. “We owe an enormous debt to her vision, leadership, and incredible hard work.”

In the interim, Miklofsky will pick up additional hours to continue to facilitate online programming. Hoffman prefers not to use the term “virtual,” he says, “because it’s still real activity that’s happening. There’s nothing simulated about it.”

Over the coming months, he says, “together with the remarkable advisory council of volunteer leaders, we’ll be plotting the course for the continued success and future development of our work in the Northwest.”