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New president takes family service reins
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New president takes family service reins

Incoming JFS president Jennifer Pollak, second from left, chairs a planning meeting with, from left, executive director Tom Beck and longtime JFS volunteers Ruth Bilenker, Abe Suckno, and Bernice Fleischmann. Photos by Elaine Durbach
Incoming JFS president Jennifer Pollak, second from left, chairs a planning meeting with, from left, executive director Tom Beck and longtime JFS volunteers Ruth Bilenker, Abe Suckno, and Bernice Fleischmann. Photos by Elaine Durbach

Often it is a mother’s example that inspires a woman to serve the community. In Jennifer Pollak’s case, the inspiration came from further back in her family and from a man.

It was her grandfather, Sidney Hartmann of Scotch Plains, who took her as his “date” to a gala for Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey when she was a teenager living in the same town and got her hooked on its mission.

After her grandfather’s death in 1994, Pollak, then only 22, accepted a place on the agency’s board and has served ever since. In 2005 she received the Ruth Bilenker Award for outstanding community service.

After that long, unbroken connection with JFS, Pollak will now take on the presidency — although she and her husband, Josh, live with their two children outside of the Central region, in Marlboro.

She will be installed at the JFS’ annual meeting on June 1, when the agency will also honor Volunteers of the Year Alex Engel and Steven Schnipper and the Art Show Committee, whose members organized the Second Annual JFS Art Show on April 18.

Pollak is taking over from David Brooks, becoming the first woman president in many years, and at 37 still the youngest person on the board. Her ascent has come somewhat sooner than she expected. She said she did contemplate taking the reins one day — but not quite so soon, while her children are still young, just nine and four.

Pollak said she was a “social butterfly” in high school, but after she lost her grandfather and her mother she was forced to mature fast. “I realized what was important in life — to do for others, to get past yourself,” she said.

She acknowledged that she thrives on challenges and loves being busy and taking the lead. Her grandfather was that way too. “I think he saw it in me, and that’s why he included me in what he was doing.”

He also brought her into the family property management business, which she runs now with her brother. She also serves as vice president of the JCC of Western Monmouth in Manalapan, and serves on the board of United Cerebral Palsy in Northern NJ.

Pollak said she also takes particular pride in Central NJ JFS’ kosher food pantry and was crushed when the state withdrew funding for the agency’s NJ After Three after-school program. A goal for the near future, she said, is to get financing for the agency’s Project Open Door, “to help keep these kids off the streets.”

Pollak acknowledged that she is taking over at a particularly tough time. “Philanthropy isn’t as viable as it used to be,” she said. “The older generation is moving out of the community, and we really need to bring in more young people.”

On the other hand, she reveres the people she has served alongside, people like Lilly Gottlieb and Toby Goldberger — and, of course, her grandfather. “I used to watch them at meetings and think, I could never be good enough to do what they do,” she said. “But year after year, I’ve become more involved. I’ve gotten older and wiser with these people.”

Pollak said her predecessor, Brooks, “has left big shoes to fill, but he has put us on the right path for everything. Now more people need to know what the agency offers. They would be so proud to be involved with what we do.”

Brooks said that Pollak, having gotten involved at such a young age, “was ahead of many of her peers in realizing the importance of this kind of endeavor. Both she and her family are so generous on a number of different levels. It is, as is obvious, a challenging time right now, but with her history, commitment, and intelligence, she is an excellent choice.”

JFS executive director Tom Beck said presidents play a role “of immense value” to the agency, especially in times as difficult as these. “They set the tone,” he said, as Brooks has done, and Pollak is determined to do, helping to steer its work and inspire others to come on board.

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