gala

The Martin Pear Jewish Community Center prepares for the 2018 annual gala.

Neal Kurn has witnessed firsthand the enormous growth of the Jewish community in Maricopa County during his 73 years in the state. And he’s proud to be a part of it.

“We are basically a first-generation community,” Kurn said.

When he moved here as a 14-year-old boy with his family in 1948, he estimates the Jewish community was 1,500 people — max. Now, it’s closer to 100,000 people, according to Arizona State University’s 2019 Jewish Community Survey.

Part of any community’s growth and longevity is the financial health of its institutions, and that’s where Kurn, 87, feels he’s left his biggest imprint. In 1971, as a board member and officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, he prepared the first set of bylaws to form the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix, which assists donors to plan and establish funds for legacy giving.

The Martin Pear Jewish Community Center is honoring Kurn for his legacy at its annual gala on Dec. 4, along with Lindsey Seitchik, a JCC board member.

Jay Jacobs, CEO of the MPJCC, said Kurn and Seitchik are both “great role models for compassion and service as they strive to make our world a better place.”

Kurn spent 55 years as a lawyer specializing in business, estate and charitable planning. He said he always tried to stress the importance of creating endowments and foundations to support institutions, not only in the good times, but also in the bad.

“A lot of philanthropy dried up in this community completely in the ‘08-’09 period of time,” he said.

He’s glad to see the MPJCC, and the entire Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus, now “flourishing,” he said, with a big variety of activities, diversity of members and general “vitality.”

“It’s basically the center of the Jewish community, and to some extent, a Jewish community center is the gateway to the community for a lot of Jewish people,” he said. He appreciates that it is also a pluralistic campus, welcoming people of all faiths. “It’s good that the Jewish community can reach out and touch the lives of non-Jews.”

He’s always believed a physical campus is of great importance for a Jewish community. “It brings people together and strengthens their ties to each other and to the community.”

Kurn is the second recipient of the William S. Levine Family Community Excellence Award, named after local philanthropist Bill Levine, who donated the funds to open the Ina Levine Jewish Community Center, which is named for his late first wife.

“Bill Levine has been a quiet pillar in the Valley and greater community for decades,” Jacobs said. “Neal Kurn, with more than 50 years of service to our community, exemplifies Community Excellence through the numerous boards he has served on throughout the Valley of the Sun.”

In addition to his positions with the Federation and Foundation, Kurn also helped to guide the Phoenix chapter of the American Jewish Committee, and even the National Council of Jewish Federations, now known as the Jewish Federations of North America.

Kurn knows Levine “quite well” and being associated with him is an honor, he said. “It’s hard to turn down an award that has his name attached to it.”

Kurn is also a recipient of the Federation’s 1986 Medal of Honor, which awards a dedication to service for the Jewish community.

Valuing Judaism and the Jewish community is in his nature. “It’s just something I’ve grown up and lived with,” he said, adding he identifies with the Jewish value system and its emphasis on education, literacy, study and achievement. “I’m rather proud of that — proud to be associated with it.”

Marty Haberer, president and CEO of the Federation, said Kurn is the “perfect choice” to receive the Levine award.

“Of the six federations I have worked for in my career, I have never met a lay leader with such a deep and thorough recall of the history of the Jewish community,” Haberer said. “As was the case when Neal received the Federation’s Medal of Honor award in 1986, no one in the community has the ‘command’ of the community’s oral Torah quite like Neal Kurn.”

Seitchik, meanwhile, is the fourth recipient of the Maya Schulder Rising Star Award. Schulder was only 15 when she died during a trip to Israel. “She was a young, bright-shining light lost too soon,” said Jacobs. “The award, named in her memory, is presented to a rising star who gives of their time and talent to help transform lives within our J community.”

Seitchik recently completed her first three-year MPJCC board term. She fell in love with the MPJCC and the ILJCC in 2015, when she moved to Scottsdale with her husband and one-year-old daughter.

“We didn’t — and still don’t — have any family out here, and it can be really hard, especially when you’re moving with a baby,” she said. “I just feel so lucky that we found The J.” Seitchik enjoys the offered social and educational activities, her husband enjoys the gym and amenities and her daughter enjoys the community. “I love that there are intergenerational activities there,” she said.

She and her husband, both political consultants, were eager to find a community to call home.

“I really need to total up how many times I moved from the time I left college, to when we finally found Arizona,” she joked. She’s lived in Miami, Ohio, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Washington, D.C. and New York.

Seitchik and her husband made a commitment to each other that once they found a place to settle down, they would get involved and give back to their community.

“A lot of people want to volunteer or want to help, but they don’t know where to go,” she said. “I credit the staff at the JCC for being able to identify that, both because I put myself in a position to help, but also because they have opportunities for me to help.”

She chaired the MPJCC’s first fundraising “SMILE” campaign and was the chair of the 2017 community-wide Purim carnival.

Seitchik said she is grateful for the people who stepped up before her to create the community and center that exists today.

“If we’ve learned anything over the last two years, your world can be very small. Mine involves The J.”

Jacobs said the gala is the MPJCC’s “most important fundraising event of the year.” Last year, the organization was not able to hold an in-person gala due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but still ran a direct mail campaign that raised over $450,000.

“We are thrilled, after two years, to be together again,” Jacobs said. “We look forward to celebrating and honoring two amazing pillars in our community. After the last 18 months, an event like this shows us we should never take for granted the strength and resiliency of our community.” JN

The Dec. 4 event will include cocktails, dinner, and entertainment. To learn more, visit mpjcc.org/gala21.