Contemplative, compassionate, collaborative: these are some of the words friends and colleagues use to describe Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, who is retiring at the end of this month after more than a quarter century leading the organization.
The coronavirus pandemic and social distancing mean he will bow out with little fanfare. A Federation celebration that had been planned for this month is postponed indefinitely.
“Endings are funny, transitions and letting go,” says Mellan. For him, beginnings make up the most exciting moments of his JFSA career, starting with the creation of the Weintraub Israel Center program, which brought its first shaliach (Israeli emissary) here in 1997 and launched Tucson’s first big Israel festival in 1998. He also cites the opening of the Holocaust History Center at the Jewish History Museum, the creation of the Ruth and Irving Olson Center for Jewish Life in the Northwest, and the opening of the new Federation and Foundation building, the Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy. “Every time we created a new program — launching PJ Library, the first Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition — all of these were exciting.”
But his most rewarding moments have to do with relationships, which often began or deepened on trips to Israel and other places. “In 1997, Louis Pozez of blessed memory helped me lead a trip of 35 Tucsonans to Poland and Russia, which was very powerful and life-changing,” says Mellan. Among many trips he was privileged to take, another standout was a trip to Israel about 15 years ago, for 35 men, which Paul Baker and the late Donald Diamond helped him lead. “I’ve talked to people through the years, and even very recently, they say, ‘You know, that trip we took to Israel really made an impact on my life,’” he says.
Bryan Davis, executive director of the Jewish History Museum, says the regard Mellan shows for relationships makes him an important role model.
“I have been fortunate to work with him for 13 years and during that time he has been my primary professional mentor,” Davis says. “I would not be here doing this work today if it wasn’t for Stu’s encouragement and support. Stu taught me how to do this work by taking me under his wing, guiding me. We worked so closely together for so long, that I learned a tremendous amount through that proximity, by observation. Stu values relationships and he understands how deeply the process matters. I think that is the ultimate lesson I have learned from Stu: the value of relationships.”
“Stu is a uniquely gifted relationship-builder. He has, over the course of the past 25 years, personally operated as a ‘network weaver’ — connecting and cultivating Jewish community that is vibrant, diverse, and deeply enriching for all those who have had the opportunity to take part,” says Graham Hoffman, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation and president and CEO-elect of the Federation.
“From the moment we met during my interview for the Jewish Community Foundation, Stu has demonstrated an extraordinary generosity of spirit and commitment to support my success in the community,” adds Hoffman. “Stu has been a champion in our community for a single CEO to bring together the work of our Federation and Jewish Community Foundation. Thanks to his pioneering efforts over the course of the past two decades, we have made enormous strides over the past 20 months we have had the privilege of working together.”
Mellan is most proud of the collaborative spirit he has helped foster in the community.
“I feel like over the 25 years I worked hard to create an inclusive Federation, an inclusive community that celebrates every individual and nurtures the spirit of partnership between our institutions, making a place for everyone to participate who wants to participate,” he says.
There were challenges, he says, but his attitude toward challenges has generally been, “Well, that’s the work.”
People have commented recently that he must be glad to be retiring, with all the challenges the world faces because of coronavirus.
“I actually don’t feel that way,” he says. “I feel like when we’re faced with enormous challenges, that’s the time when the Jewish community and the leadership of our Jewish community and the Federation are of great value.
“And yes, its’s very hard, and sometimes painful decisions are made, to cut services for example during difficult financial times; these are very painful times but that’s the work. The work is trying to bring people together. Sometimes, there are a lot of strong opinions in the room and they’re not all aligned.” The work, he says, is to try to find a way to keep people moving together in the same direction.
For Mellan, the hardest times have been when people felt disappointed. “To me the saddest time is when someone feels let down by the community; you just never want to hear that, especially if they are people of good will who really were counting on the community. Conversely, the rewards are when the community has made a difference in someone’s life for the better.”
Linda Tumarkin was president of the Federation board from 1997-2000. “Stuart’s style was collaborative,” she says. “He was an excellent listener as well as a risk taker. He knew how to empower his volunteers and would always take a step back so that they could take center stage. Guided by his passion for our Jewish world, he has dedicated his career to tikkun olam (repair of the world). He has shared his beautiful family as well as his talent for playing the piano with the community. I feel blessed to have worked with him and to have him as my friend.”
One project on which Tumarkin and Mellan worked together involved the mikvah (ritual bath) at Congregation Young Israel, at the time the only community mikvah. A group called the Federation/Synagogue Dialogue determined that it needed to be remodeled. “None of the congregations would take the lead, so it became my responsibility with Stuart to get the task accomplished,” she says, recalling that the outcome was “a welcoming, inviting community mikvah.”
Fran Katz, JFSA senior vice president, says, “I was a friend before I was an employee. I was on the committee that hired him. We became friends through my volunteer work and now I’ve had the honor of working with him for five years. My respect for him as a leader has grown even more during my tenure as an employee. His compassion for people — compassion and understanding of those around him — is really a gift. He’s certainly going to be missed.”
Rabbi Thomas Louchheim of Congregation Or Chadash calls Mellan “contemplative and a tremendous listener” who takes the time “to weigh all the different communities that he’s representing as the head of Federation, and always comes up with a thoughtful response and a plan for us to move ahead together.
“I always felt that I was part of his planning team. I just loved his leadership style and just him, personally. I told him that when we celebrated at Or Chadash [which held a dinner and service honoring Mellan on Feb. 21]. I’m so happy that we were able to create an opportunity where people could gather together and celebrate the last 25 years together, with him, for him … and for Nancy,” Louchheim says, explaining that particularly where Or Chadash was concerned, Mellan’s wife was “part of the equation.”
Gail Barnhill has been Mellan’s executive assistant for the last 20 years of his 25 as CEO of the Federation. “He has always been so thoughtful, patient, supportive, and kind, and will forever be my favorite boss,” she says.
He also seemed to appreciate Barnhill’s sense of humor.
“It was always easy to pull surprises on Stuart,” she recalls. “One year, a week or so after a ceiling collapsed in another part of the old building — I rushed into his office and told him, ‘You’ve got to go see what happened in the boardroom right away,’ which he did at a run … and found a surprise birthday party! His heart eventually stopped pounding so fast.
“It is so sad that our work relationship has ended so strangely what with COVID 19 — but as I’ve told him many times, it lasted over twice as long as both of my marriages put together,” she says, concluding that it was “a delight to work with him.”
Deborah Oseran, the current chair of the Federation board, says it was her “great good fortune to work with Stuart both at the beginning of his tenure as CEO of our Federation when I served as volunteer legal counsel, and at the closing of his tenure. He has guided our community with dedication and vision — despite our relatively small numbers, Southern Arizona is widely recognized for our diversity of participants, and our cohesion as a community. This we owe in large part to Stuart’s constant motivation to be inclusive, preserving what is best in our community, while adapting to change and introducing new ideas to improve the ways in which we can engage all, care for those in need, and provide partnership and support to our agencies, affiliates, synagogues and temples.”
Mellan, she says, has an “unmatched ability to empower both volunteers and professionals, providing guidance and collaboration without the need to take credit. Stuart is like the perfect parent, never showing favoritism but instead demonstrating respect, kindness, and friendship for each community member, whether a professional, donor, volunteer, or service recipient.
“A mensch is so much more than a good person, or a dignified person of good character who you admire. While Stuart certainly is possessed of these characteristics, he is a true mensch because he is someone who always can be trusted to do the right thing. It has been an honor to have worked closely with Stuart, the most humble person I know, and to be able to call him my friend.”
Mellan and Nancy plan to remain in Tucson. “We have three of our five adult children and their families here and we love Tucson,” Mellan says, “so we can’t think of another place we’d rather be.”