When Joel Fox was in his early 20s working at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland doing Jewish community planning, he read a dedication written in a book by the late Federation Executive Director Sidney Vincent.
In this dedication, Vincent made a distinction between those who went to work and watched the clock all day for 5 p.m. and those who never had a second to think about the time during the workday because they were so preoccupied with their job. Both workers would wonder, after a day, week, year and then career, where the time went.
The difference between the two, Fox recalled Vincent writing, is the person who was never able to watch the clock will also be able to look back on a fruitful career filled with accomplishments.
Over 40 years later, having dedicated his professional life to Cleveland’s Jewish community through the Federation, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation and the Menorah Park Foundation, Fox will retire July 31 knowing that his hard work in nonprofit management and fundraising helped thousands.
“I feel very fortunate to be in that second group, where the work was so compelling, so meaningful, so impactful and important,” said Fox, a resident of Beachwood and a member of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple also in Beachwood. “Yes, the time went quickly, but I look back with pride on how much we’ve accomplished.”
Fox grew up in Erie, Pa., surrounded by parents staunchly involved in the city’s small, yet strong Jewish community.
His parents were dedicated members of their temple and Erie’s version of a Jewish federation known as the Jewish Community Council. Fox regularly attended temple, Jewish summer camps and Jewish youth groups as a boy.
“My parents had just very strong Jewish values and were extremely Jewish community oriented,” Fox told the Cleveland Jewish News. “I grew up in a house where Israel, the Jewish community, Jewish community services and giving tzedakah were important.”
He started at the University of Pittsburgh as an engineering major, switching to communications relatively soon. As a college student, he immediately became involved in the school’s Hillel.
He quickly felt a pull to join the United Jewish Appeal, where he served as a college campus chairman of the UJA campaign for the students for Israel. A part of the UJA, he attended the Pittsburgh federation’s meetings and went to Israel for the first time.
“I really just got sort of sucked in to the Federation universe at that point,” Fox said. “I discovered this much larger world of the Jewish community organization and activity.”
Post-graduation, Fox continued his work with UJA. He became the Midwest campus organizer for the UJA campus campaigns, where he helped colleges organize their campus campaigns for Israel.
While he continued to learn more about fundraising, he also learned about Cleveland and its Federation at this time.
Cleveland’s Federation told Fox he would need a master’s degree in social work to work with them. The Federation paid for half of his continued education in exchange for two years of work in the Federation field while he went to school.
Attending the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland connected the dots for Fox. His Jewish identity already related him to the community he worked in, but social work gave him a deeper ability to make a difference.
“In social work school, I saw the rest of the story – actually helping people, designing and providing social services for weaker populations, and organizing community in order to create mechanisms for people to help each other and feel like they’re part of something,” Fox said. “… The social service piece is what has really motivated me for the last 43 years as a professional in this business.”
In 1978, he started as a student at the Federation. With the completion of his master’s degree in social work, he took his first professional position at the Federation in 1980.
In his 27 years at the Federation, Fox’s focus and positions changed.
The first 10 years revolved around Jewish community planning. He served as the director of the Federation’s commission on services to older persons.
The second almost 10 years was focused on fundraising. He served as the annual campaign director and then moved up as the chief development officer, which Fox said “wasn’t called ‘chief development officer,’ but was more or less that.”
The third about 10-years brought Fox into the COO position. He worked closely with former Federation President Stephen H. Hoffman, functioning as his “tightly knit second in command.”
Fox also sat in for Hoffman as interim director of the Federation for about 3½ years when Hoffman was asked to run the national system of the federations.
Fox’s most cherished accomplishments throughout his Federation tenure spanned from completing two apartment buildings for lower income elderly people, assisting with the creation of the Federation’s commission on Jewish continuity – which merged with Cleveland’s Bureau of Jewish Education to become the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, and pushing the fundraising team to a more sophisticated and dedicated focus on developing permanent endowments and planned gifts.
“I loved everything I did at the Federation,” Fox said.
New careers, new beginnings
A few years after Hoffman returned from his role running the national Federation arm, Cleveland businessman and philanthropist Morton Mandel approached Fox with a proposition in 2007. Mandel wanted to make the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation independent so that it could continue even after the Mandel brothers died.
“I was honored to be asked,” Fox said. “… It felt like a new opportunity and an exciting chance to do something that I hadn’t quite done exactly before. I went, not knowing what was going to be next or even how long that chapter was going to take.”
During this 2½ years with the Mandel Foundation, Fox gained vital experience from Mandel regarding community building, engagement and the importance of Jewish education.
Following the successful restructuring of the Mandel Foundation, Fox spent two years as the director of development of the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland until 2011.
Steve Raichilson, the former executive director and CEO of Menorah Park, approached Fox with yet another opportunity: to join the Menorah Park Foundation as chief development officer in Beachwood.
Fox gratefully accepted in August 2011, excited to enter a field of social work again. He then set about a 10-year period of working to grow the foundation’s charitable activity.
He grew the foundation’s team of 2½ people to seven. He oversaw a major expansion at Wiggins Place, significant expansion and renovation of the Peter B. Lewis Aquatic & Therapy Center, the development of the Helen’s Place Assisted Living Memory Care Residence and the Sallie & Robert D. Deitz Piazza and the renovation of the Marcus Rehabilitation Pavilion, on top of general operating support.
“It was just a really perfect assignment for me,” Fox said. “… To have the opportunity to participate with and continue to build on one of the best organizations of its kind in a field that I care so deeply about has been just a fantastic opportunity. I’m just so proud of what we do.”
Looking at past, present
There’s a popular phrase: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” To Fox, who’s loved every job he’s had, he can’t help but disagree with that mantra.
“I feel like I’ve worked very hard in my life, and it wasn’t always easy,” he said. “But the reason for doing it is so compelling to me, that it’s been worth all that I’ve paid. I wasn’t always there for my kids. … It was hard work, but it was very satisfying work.”
Now felt right to retire for Fox. The 65-year-old cited activities he wanted to enjoy during his life, like playing guitar, woodworking and bicycling.
Fox and his wife are also new grandparents to two grandchildren who don’t live in the area.
“My work has been very intensive and very time consuming,” Fox said. “While I’m able, I want to be able to pursue those fun things in my life, and continue learning. I also want to have the time to go to my grandchildren.”
Just because retirement is Fox’s next job doesn’t mean he’s abandoning his desire to aid others.
Fox and a group of friends in similar situations aim to engage in projects in Cleveland to help strengthen the city and its social service projects. The cohort is looking at organizations that help people in the city gain and retain employment, projects that assist young people become graduates of Cleveland public schools and further their education in open employment fields and programs that help with hunger and homelessness.
“I have a dream about continuing to make the world a better place,” Fox said. “I am very grateful to this community for giving me the platform, the opportunity to pursue this wonderful career that I have loved. I want to pay back Cleveland for being Cleveland and for giving me that opportunity.”
Fox will be succeeded by Brian Sokol, who recently served as the senior director of national development and associate campaign manager at CWRU for seven years. Sokol will start Aug. 1 after having spent the past month learning from Fox about the position.
“It’s an honor to take this position,” said Sokol, a resident of Beachwood and a member of Park Synagogue. “Everybody at Menorah Park has been so wonderful and are great at what they do. I’ll do my best to fill Joel’s shoes, which won’t be easy. It’s an exciting challenge ahead.”
Menorah Park CEO and President Jim Newbrough thanked Fox for his decade of service, appreciative of the many efforts Fox brought to the campus.
“Joel’s empathy, compassion and drive to serve took center stage, especially during the time of the pandemic,” Newbrough said. “The Menorah Park team and I appreciated his leadership role he played in the welfare of our community by gaining the critical support needed in response to these new and unprecedented challenges. We are grateful for the impact Joel has made within the Menorah Park community as well as the broader impact through Northeast Ohio, the nation and Israel. All of the successful initiatives resulting from Joel’s leadership and a strong Menorah Park Foundation team have been answers to the calls for important services and enhancements that continue to support adults as they age with excellence.”