From Backstage to Center Stage: Mort & Micki Naiman

Mort_MickiSeveral years ago the Minneapolis Jewish Federation began using the tagline “Build Community”. While I can’t argue the appropriateness of the tagline for the Federation, there is a force within the Federation that I think even better embodies that phrase.
That force is this year’s Sabes JCC annual benefit honorees, Mort & Micki Naiman. And anyone who knows them might even suggest my use of the word “force” is a bit too tame to describe these two.
Full disclosure: I am fortunate to call Mort a personal friend, confidant, coach, and mentor. And I’m even more fortunate to call Micki… Mom.
I first need to tell you about Mort, starting with his more obvious effect on our community. As the current Chief Philanthropy Officer–and former Campaign Director–of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, for the past 17 years Mort has helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars, which the Federation has used to support important activities locally and abroad.
Mort has orchestrated these record-breaking campaigns in an often less than ideal economy. He accomplishes this by making everyone feel important and empowered to make a difference, including employees, lay leaders, community partners, and all the donors with whom he comes in contact.
Mort works tirelessly to continue to build our community, and has re-defined what it means to be a workaholic. I’ll use the example of a simple dinner at their house. The rest of us will be sitting eating dinner, and Mort will already be washing the dishes from the previous course, entertaining his grandchildren, popping into the dining room enough to contribute to the conversation, re-filling everyone’s beverages, and waving off our constant pleas for him to sit down and join us. By the time the dessert dishes are cleared, the house will be cleaner than the cleanest my house has ever been. That will likely be followed by him playing with the grandkids until they are asleep or go home, and then heading into the office (if it’s not Shabbat) around 11:00 PM to get some work done.
But more impressive than his work ethic is the purity of his motive. He is dedicated to building our community, helping those in need, recognizing the people that deserve to be recognized, and doing it all from an amazingly influential and powerful backstage location where he shies away from accolades and adoration.
That’s why it’s so exciting for many of us that the man who actively avoids it will finally be in the spotlight. (May 9, Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, save the date) And with that honor, hopefully many others will learn what the community lay leaders and our family has known for years, that Mort is an unstoppable force of good in our community. The respect he has in this community is why this year’s JCC fundraiser is on track to raise maybe double its previous record and is selling out in a hurry.
Many of us, me included, have waited for him to be the honoree instead of the backroom wheeler and dealer. But typical Mort, he isn’t leaving all the work to the large and very dedicated event committee; he’s out there hustling and doing everything in his power to ensure a successful event. He doesn’t rest. Ever.
Mort is a unique and dedicated person, and our community is lucky to have him. But the reason this East Coast transplant is even here at all is because of Micki, my mom.
My mom, in her own way, has also been building this community for years. She spent years in that fishbowl office at the entrance of the JCC lobby. In typical non-profit fashion — find a capable person willing to work hard, then give them three jobs — mom wore many hats at the JCC. She was the full time membership director, the Sholom Minneapolis Director, and the director of the senior program.
With Sholom Minneapolis, Mom welcomed newcomers to Minneapolis, helping them with realtors, synagogues, day care, and meting and making friends (I believe on more than one occasion she even found them a spouse).
For the senior program, where still today she actively volunteers at the Congregant dining program, she always made the seniors feel welcome and comfortable when they came for classes and meals.
Since retiring, she has been as active as ever. She volunteers, serves on boards and committees, and is actively providing love, time, attention, and Jewish values to her grandchildren. She is also spending her retirement days planning the next dinner party, attending fundraisers and lifecycle events, and being Mort’s trusty and valued sidekick.
But she is so much more than a sidekick. Mom has made such a name for herself in our community over the years, I sometimes consider wearing a nametag that just says “Micki’s son” whenever I leave the house.
“Oh, you’re Micki’s son, we miss your mom at the J.”
“Oh, your mom is always such a big help.”
“Your mom and I used to be in plays together back in the day at the JCC.”
While her Jewish life and community work has been so much more broad than just the JCC, I couldn’t think of a more fitting organization to recognize all she has done.
I benefit every day from the love and support Mort and Micki provide me. I benefit from the larger Jewish community they have built and remain active in. And all of you, whether you know it or not, benefit from the time and dedication they put into building our community.
You can show your support for these two wonderful people by attending or donating to the Sabes JCC annual event. I will be doing both.