By Stacey Dresner
WORCESTER – One of the things that George Pins appreciates most about Emily Holdstein is her connection to the members of the Worcester Jewish community.
“She knows everyone,” Pins laughed.
For the past few years, Pins and Holdstein have sat down together with every individual new Worcester Jewish Community Center board member to get to know them.
That’s when Holdstein begins playing “Jewish geography – Worcester-Style.
“One of my favorite things about Emily is that there is always a personal connection between Emily and just about everybody who walks through the door,” Pins said. “We interviewed a teen board member this week and in the first five minutes Emily said, ‘You know, your parents’ and my parents’ houses were back to back growing up.”
That connection to the Worcester Jewish community has been one of Holdstein’s strengths while serving as executive director of the Worcester JCC for the past 17 years.
But last week, she announced that she would be retiring.
“I want to have some more time for myself and as joyful as this position is, it’s also very time-consuming and it involves a very intensive dedication,” Holdstein explained. “I have to be ready to be available morning, noon and night for whatever might come up and so I really want to kind of take back some of that time for myself and enjoy it while I can.”
“I was a little bit surprised by the timing of it,” admitted Pins, the president of the JCC board of directors. “But she has been doing this for 17 years and she has been a rock and done so many tremendous things for the JCC. It was just the right time. It was a personal decision on her part.”
A search committee has been formed to find Holdstein’s successor. Pins said they hope to have someone in place when Holdstein retires at the end of November.
Worcester is home for Holdstein. She grew up in the town and her family belonged to Temple Sinai, now Temple Emanuel Sinai. Her family owned the Big D Supermarket chain, founded by her grandfather, Nathan Gould.
“I grew up coming to the JCC,” Holdstein said. “I went to the day camps as a child, I went to the vacation programs, which we still have, I did some afterschool activities. So the JCC has been a home for me for all of the years I lived in the area.”
She left Worcester to attend Brown University in Providence, lived for a year in London, then later moved to New York City to get her MBA at Columbia.
After graduating, she worked in New York in the art auction field. She also met her husband James in New York.
They moved back to Massachusetts first to Framingham for a couple of years for Emily to work in the family business. They then moved to Worcester where they raised their three children.
Her children attended the early childhood center at the JCC and she brought them to various JCC programs, she says.
“When I moved back to Worcester…I came to the JCC with my two young children at the time and I got them involved in activities,” she recalls. “All three kids went through the early childhood program here, they all went through the day camps, and a couple of them actually served as counselors at our day camp. So we’ve been very attached. I actually was a volunteer at the JCC and served as the chair of the early childhood center committee and was on the board for quite a while.”
After volunteering and sitting on the JCC board of directors for a few years, Holdstein became executive director in 2000, succeeding Myron Flager, now director of the JCC in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I had just finished three years as president of my synagogue… it was a small congregation with not a lot of staff so I worked very closely with the rabbi and the staff and just really enjoyed that. I enjoyed my connections with the congregation,” she said.
By that time, her family’s supermarket operation had been sold to Price Chopper.
“The JCC had been searching for a director, and my husband said to me, ‘I know who would be the next and greatest executive director…you would be!’ It really was through his encouragement and creative thinking that I even considered it.”
She says her business background came in handy when running the JCC.
“It was extremely helpful,” she said. “My MBA was very helpful when I was working in business. For many years I had a very broad experience in our business. My dad ran the company and he was a terrific teacher and I was exposed to many different aspects of the business as well as having responsibilities for certain pieces of it. I found [my degree and previous business experience] very, very helpful in operating what is essentially a large business operation here.”
Nancy Greenberg, cultural arts and senior adult director, arrived at the JCC a year before Holdstein did.
“The JCC was in deep financial distress when she came onboard and she immediately began to systematically tackle the financial issues. She is a master at all things quantitative and this is exactly what was needed. Budgets are her expertise,” Greenberg said.
Pins agreed that Holdstein’s business acumen helped to insure the future of the JCC.
“She really financially and infrastructurally took the JCC to the next level of strength and sustainability,” he said. “She is passionate about the community, she is passionate about the people in the community. And I think it is sort of a synergy of those things. She cares about the people and cares about the stability, core viability and sustainability of the greater Worcester community. She has made it a significantly stronger place.”
When she came on board, Holdstein and her staff worked hard on building membership and programming and improving the facility.
“We reinvested heavily in our facility and programs and people…it was growth over a period of time, and I would call it smart growth,” she said. “I marvel at the skill of our staff not only in terms of their ability to plan and execute programs, but their relationships with the kids and the families I really admire.”
Greenberg said that Holdstein has given her the freedom to be creative in her departments’ programming.
“Her support has allowed me to take risks and try new things, whether a new program like a Yiddish Festival or a collaboration with another organization, such as the Worcester Senior Center and Holy Cross,” Greenberg said. “I have deeply appreciated her support of my attending the Jewish Book Council Conference each year. And in October, I will be traveling to Israel through the Seminar in Israel for JCC Professionals, unquestionably because of Emily’s support. I can’t imagine the JCC without her at the helm. I feel sad thinking about that.”
Holdstein says her favorite memories of leading the JCC are her “encounters with members who just share with us how the JCC, our programs, our staff have enhanced their lives,” she said.
“Emily is a rock in the Worcester community,” Pins said.
“Emily is the face of the organization. Emily has always been a go-to person that I could speak with about the community, the strength of the community and visionary ideas about how to strengthen the Jewish community.”
Which is what Holdstein says is one of the most important functions of the institution she has been at the helm of for the past 17 years.
“It’s been mostly joyful and it’s been wonderful being the leader of a Jewish organization where Jewish values are treasured and part of who we are,” she said.