Mort Naiman said that when Lisa Heilicher looked back at her life of philanthropy and involvement in the Minneapolis Jewish community, what she’d be proudest of is her role in developing her grandson, Andrew Wieberdink, into an emerging community leader.
“The memory that stands out to my wife Micki and my mind is on the Federation mission to Morocco where Lisa brought Andrew. He was by far the youngest person there,” said Naiman, the Senior Vice President Global Philanthropy at the Jewish Agency For Israel. “At the final banquet in Casablanca, he put his hand on his grandmother’s shoulder and said ‘Thank you for this opportunity.’ That moment transformed Andrew and Lisa.”
Heilicher, who assumed her role as the head of one of Minneapolis’ most notable philanthropic families, passed away on Dec. 1. She was 77 years old.
Heilicher was passionate about Jewish education in the Minneapolis Jewish community, with the Jewish Day School bearing the name of her parents, Amos and Cecilia Heilicher.
“Lisa was the ultimate agent for the community, promoting all our organizations in only a way she knew how. She was eternally giving of her time, her knowledge, her heart, her humor, and her personal contributions,” said Yoni Binus, the head of school at the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School. “At the school, Lisa’s generosity saw no limits. She was always prepared to give guidance, raise funds, and connect people to the school who otherwise may not have known about us, and vice versa.
“I feel honored that I got to know and work with Lisa during my early years as Head of Heilicher. She embodied the resilient, loving, and courageous spirit of the Minnesota Jewish community. I am sure I am among many others who can say that we are better Jewish communal leaders because of Lisa Heilicher.”
Beth El Rabbi Alexander Davis said that there was no obstacle that could hold Heilicher back.
“Lisa was a force with which to be reckoned,” he said. “She was tough as nails [and] held strongly to her convictions. But here’s what is essential: All of that was born out of her tremendous caring, her desire to help and do good in the world, out of her love.”
Education at large was a passion that was passed down from her grandfather, Menachem, who taught at Talmud Torah in 1914 after arriving in the United States. Lisa spent several years on the Talmud Torah Board of Directors and was on the transition committee which helped it become the school of Beth El and Adath Jeshurun.
“She was able to change and listen,” said Lev Buslovich, who was the Talmud Torah president at the time of the transition. “She put her money where her priorities were. There are things that wouldn’t have been done without her. She played a big role because she put her reputation and money on the line to say ‘it’s the right thing to do.’
“She wasn’t just an instigator; she was a doer. And a serious doer. She moved the ball.”
Wieberdink, who was featured on the Who The Folk?! Podcast in June, was asked if there is added responsibility or pressure to being a Heilicher. He said both – but it’s something he embraces.
“It’s a glass half full kind of thing. I used to see it as half-empty, but now I see it as half-full,” he said. “I’ve traveled a lot, and how lucky am I to have been born a white, male American to a Jewish family that has some record in a city and is known? I feel incredibly fortunate. Born into the Heilicher family, I think there’s a little bit of pressure, but it’s a good pressure. I can make a difference. I embrace it now. I don’t run from it like I used to.”
Minneapolis Jewish Federation CEO Jim Cohen said that Heilicher is an example of selfless giving.
“This was a lady who had firm convictions, no pretenses, a love for life her family and community,” he said. “It was wonderful to see her relationship with her grandson Andrew, who now sits on our board and learned so much from his grandmother. Her lifelong commitment to our community, her candor, and her warmth will be missed.”
Davis’ Beth El colleague, Rabbi Avi Olitzky, said that your path probably crossed with Heilicher at some point – and that interaction would be course-altering.
“She’d give unsolicited advice that you later realized was 100 percent spot on or an introduction to someone you didn’t realize you needed to meet,” he said. “Unadulterated, constructive, and measured feedback that you couldn’t find elsewhere; eternal optimism in the face of doubt and frustration; and most important a bridge to family and friendships over food and stories and Yiddishkeit that made everyone feel a part of the Heilicher family.”
Heilicher’s interest in community organizations extended beyond the old and established. Jewfolk, Inc. founder Leora Maccabee said that Heilicher was instrumental in helping this newer non-profit get going by opening doors to other donors.
“I can’t think of any Jewish organization in Minneapolis that doesn’t have Lisa’s fingerprints left on it. From the oldest and largest organizations to the smallest start-ups like ours, Lisa was woven into the fabric of this community,” said Libby Parker, Executive Director of Jewfolk, Inc., TC Jewfolk’s parent organization. “Her family was aware they had to share her with us and we have each benefited in countless ways from her tireless advocacy, fundraising, volunteerism, and philanthropy. She has shaped so much of this community and it will certainly not feel the same without her.”
Said Naiman: “Lisa, to no one’s surprise, had an edge about her. When you scratched away her style and abrasiveness, it all melted away when looked at her heart. Her heart was huge for her family, the community, and the Jewish people.”
Elissa “Lisa” Heilicher was preceded in death by parents, Amos & Celia Heilicher; brother, Ira Heilicher. Survived by children, Marty Kloner (Tara), Debra Wieberdink (Byron); grandchildren, Andrew (Samantha), Colin, Elijah, Dylan, Jackson; sister-in-law Jackie; nieces Melissa Goeltz (Jason), Hannah Heilicher. Funeral service: 10 a.m., Tuesday, December 4, at Beth El Synagogue (5225 Barry St. W., St. Louis Park). Memorials preferred to Jewish Family & Children’s Service or donor’s favorite charity. Shiva: Beth El Synagogue Tuesday and Wednesday 6:30 p.m.