This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on October 30, 2011 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project and for inclusion in the Archive Collection of Congregation Beth Tikvah. The interview is being recorded at Wexner Heritage House…nursing home in Columbus, Ohio. My name is Nancy Pawliger and I am interviewing Gordon Hecker. Let’s start with some background information. What is your full name?
Hecker: Gordon Elliott Hecker.
Interviewer: All right. When and where were you born?
Hecker: I was born in Toronto October 18, 1961.
Interviewer: Does that mean then you have dual citizenship or are you?
Hecker: I do.
Interviewer: You do? Oh. Do you ever use your Canadian citizenship? Laughs, that’s a little bit off the topic.
Hecker: I do in Toronto all the time.
Interviewer: I assume you know your Hebrew name? What is it?
Hecker: It’s Gershon Ephriam ben Chaim Veshivra.
Interviewer: And for whom were you named?
Hecker: I’m named…Gershon was my mother’s great-grandfather.
Interviewer: How nice. And what was your father’s full name and where was he born?
Hecker: My father is Harvey Stanley Hecker and he was born in Toronto.
Interviewer: Oh, as well. What was your mother’s maiden name and where was she born?
Hecker: My Mom is Sheila Ruth Collins, her maiden name and she was also born in Toronto.
Interviewer: How interesting. What were your grandparents’ or your great-grandparents’ countries of origin?
Hecker: So three of my four grandparents were born in Poland and one we believe was born in Russia although the border was always in question.
Interviewer: And when did they come to this country?
Hecker: They all came to Canada, not the United States, but they all came to Canada in between 1910 and 1920.
Interviewer: And where in Canada did they go to and did they stay there?
Hecker: They all settled in Toronto and stayed in Toronto.
Interviewer: So Toronto has been an important part of your life, huh? Well I didn’t know that.
Hecker: Always was and still is.
Interviewer: Okay. It’s a wonderful city. When and where were your parents married?
Hecker: My parents were married in Toronto, as they always remind me in my grandmother’s basement. My father said they were served Kentucky Fried Chicken for the reception and they, let me see, so they’re coming up on 53 years of marriage.
Interviewer: Mazel tov.
Hecker: So that means they were married in ’57.
Interviewer: And where did your family live when you were growing up? Should I guess? (Laughter)
Hecker: You won’t be wrong. The whole family was from Toronto.
Interviewer: And how did your parents earn their living? Was it just your Dad who was working?
Hecker: Yeah. My mother was a teacher until the kids were born. And then she stayed home. And my father was an accountant. In fact, he became the Chairman of the firm Laventhol and Horwath in Canada. Which at the time was not one of the big eight accounting firms but about number 10 or 12.
Interviewer: Did you have siblings and where were you in the birth order?
Hecker: I have an older brother, Joel, and a younger sister, Karen.
Interviewer: And where did you go to elementary school and high school and was being Jewish important to you at that time?
Hecker: So all three of us went to elementary and middle school at the Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto which was a Labor-Zionist school where, really my mother’s background with Habonim is what influenced us to attend the school like that. So Tefillah, prayer, was very much secondary to Zionism, love of Israel, love of our background and our culture. That said, we did belong to a Reform synagogue, Temple Emanuel in Toronto, which is where I was a Bar Mtizvah.
Interviewer: So and was your family involved in the Jewish community when you were growing up?
Hecker: When I was growing up, being Jewish was an important part of who we were but it wasn’t all-encompassing. So yes, my parents sent us to day school but we weren’t really religious. We were still primarily High Holy day Jews when it came to synagogue. We would have Shabbat dinners every Friday night, but we would also, when we were growing up, have pepperoni pizza. You know, so there was this, as in every family; there’s a mixture of some ritual, some religion, some just being North American.
Interviewer: And was the Zionist part of your school experience important in your parents’ life too?
Hecker: Zionism was very important to my folks so, that said, we all took our first trip to Israel together in 1973. So I was 12 years old and I know it left an indelible mark on me. This was just before the Yom Kippur War and we were in Israel on the 25th anniversary of the founding of the State.
Interviewer: Oh how memorable that must have been.
Hecker: So seeing the military parade, seeing the people literally dancing in the streets for joy was such a contrast to what we did at home where we would sit down on a blanket and watch fireworks to celebrate the birth of the nation. It made me realize what a special place Israel is and what a special time I happened to be alive.
Interviewer: And maybe even the strength of the country that people who live here would not have seen?
Hecker: The, absolutely because you remember at the time, people were living off a high, both here and there, but you could really feel it there between 1948, the birth of the State and then the Six Day War in ’67. And then there was the Yom Kippur War, there was the raid on Entebbe. Each one of these things just increased the pride and even when the Munich Massacre occurred at the Olympics in ’76, you know, that only seemed to strengthen the resolve of the people in the land and kind of unified the Jewish people abroad in the Diaspora.
Interviewer: So that was then before you were even in college when you said you were twelve? So did you go to college and graduate school and was being Jewish important to you in the institutes where you attended?
Hecker: So when I was in high school, I went to a high school that was predominantly, call it 50% Jewish. And when I decided to go to university, I actually wanted to get away from it at that fence. And it’s interesting, there’s a prayer, there’s a reading in synagogue that talks about if you want to fuel a fire, you’ve got to space the logs appropriately. If you space them on top of each other, you’ll smother the fire. It needs air. I went to Stanford University starting in 1980 and given that there was probably only, oh maybe 3-5% Jewish population there, there was lots of air coursing through those logs during that time period. .So while I made an attempt to date Jewish girls while I was there and I went to services for the High Holydays, I was really pretty marginally involved in the Jewish community. I rarely went to Hillel at Stanford.
But when I graduated from Stanford in 1984 with a B.A. in Public Policy, I really wanted to stay in the United States. I didn’t want to be forced to go back to Canada. And, but I couldn’t get a job because I didn’t have a Green Card. So I stayed in the country by going to Graduate School and I went to the University of Chicago to get an MBA. So in the summer of ’84 I moved to Chicago and while the University of Chicago had a much larger percentage of Jewish students, I’m now guessing 15 or 20% of the students were Jewish and Chicago itself had such a concentration of Jews.
Again I was only marginally involved in the Jewish community while I was in Grad School. I’m sure I went to High Holyday services, but no more than that.
Interviewer: But it just wasn’t that important at that time?
Hecker: Right, that’s right. That said, I would always, whenever a girl walked in the room and I thought, “Okay, I wonder if she’s Jewish”, you know, I, my interest would be piqued.
Interviewer: How did you meet your wife, talking about girls and how long have you been married?
Hecker: So Donna and I met in 1987 when we were both working at the Clorox Company and it is a funny story because I, and I remind Donna of this, there were 20 of us who were all starting in the Marketing Department at the same time. There were two cute girls, girls that I found cute, around the table, one of whom was Marcy Radlauer who I figured she might be Jewish and the other one was Donna Johnson who clearly was not Jewish. I ended up becoming friends with Marcy and today she’s Marcy Abramowitz, married to a close friend. And Donna and I started to, well actually we started off as friends complaining about our dating lives because she knew that I would only date Jewish girls. And after a period of time we realized we were attracted to each other and we started dating in the fall of ’88 and she knew, though, that if we were to get any more serious that she would have to convert in order for us to get married. And…
Interviewer: Was that because it was important to you or to your family?
Hecker: Important to both, very important to me, absolutely vital for my family. My family had gone through their own journey which I’ll touch on in a minute.
Hecker: So Donna and I started dating in the fall of ’88, got engaged in February of ’90 and got married October 21, 1990. So we just celebrated our 20th anniversary last week.
Interviewer: Oh my word, isn’t that exciting?
Hecker: My family has gone on their own Jewish journey. My older brother Joel went away to University of Western Ontario in 1978 where he started rooming with a guy named Rob Shore. Rob started to become involved with an organization called Aish Hatorah. Both Rob and my brother ended up at the University of Toronto two years later, transferring. They both got more involved with Aish Hatorah and when my brother graduated from University, he actually moved to Jerusalem to study with Aish Hatorah
Interviewer: Is that the Chabad organization or?
Hecker: It’s an Orthodox outreach organization, the largest outreach organization really in the world. And, but at the time, back then, many people thought this was some kind of cult. But it was growing very rapidly. There was a very charismatic leader, Reb Noah Weinberg, who was growing this organization not only in Jerusalem but around the world. My brother quickly became Orthodox between about ’82 and ’84. My parents went to visit to find out what this was all about with their Reform son becoming Orthodox. So over a period of time my parents became very involved with Aish Hatorah became Baal Teshuvah so they themselves are now modern Orthodox and my father was actually the International President of Aish Hatorah for almost 25 years.
Interviewer: That’s impressive.
Hecker: So meanwhile my brother split with Aish Hatorah, came back, moved to New York, got a, his smicha at Yeshiva University, his rabbinic degree, then he got a Ph. D. at NYU and today he is a Professor of Kabbalah at the Reconstructionist College in Philadelphia and he has also been tapped to be one of the three people globally who is translating the Zohar. So that’s quite an honor.
Interviewer: Yes it is.
Hecker: My younger sister and I have both religiously remained Reform but been very involved in the community. My sister has helped to establish a new synagogue in Toronto and has worked on their Capital Campaign and has sent all of her kids to day school. So this Judaism thing runs pretty deep in our family.
Interviewer: Yeah, I mean, the commitments and contributions that all of you made to Jewish life is really quite impressive. I didn’t even know that about you, you know? I’m so glad we’re doing this day (Laughter). So you met your wife when you were working together at Clorox? Did she continue to work after that?
Hecker: Donna, yeah, so we got married in the fall of ’90 and our first child was born a year and a half later. Emily was born in June of 1992 and Isaac was born in November of ’93. Donna continued to work throughout. Although she started to back off from full-time in Marketing to part-time in Market Research and then over the course of the next few years she continued to back off until when we moved to Columbus in 1995. Part of our agreement was that she wouldn’t work outside the home any more.
Interviewer: Well she had a family now.
Hecker: It’s a very important job.
Interviewer: It is, it is. So you mentioned your children. How old are they now?
Hecker: Emily is 18 and Isaac and Kendall both share a birthday, November 17th…
Interviewer: I noticed that.
Hecker: Four years apart. So Isaac is about to turn 17 and Kendall is about to turn 13.
Interviewer: And what was, when they were growing up, you weren’t in Columbus then, right?
Hecker: We moved to Columbus in November, I moved in November of ’95. Donna and the kids followed several weeks later. So they were three and two when we moved.
Interviewer: Oh so…
Hecker: And Kendall was born here.
Interviewer: Okay. Well there’s a question in here that talks about children and grandchildren. You’re too young for that. So the next cycle around, we’ll need to talk about that. So you’re obviously still working?
Interviewer: And so you started out with your major in Public Policy and ended up in Marketing at Clorox. Was that your first job then?
Hecker: Actually my first job, when I finished my MBA, I had the same situation I had after my B.A. I couldn’t get a green card. So I took a job with the Kraft Foods Company in Montreal and I spent a year working there and we made an agreement that after three years they would be able to make the case to transfer me to their operation in Chicago. But after being in Montreal, back in cold Canada for about six months, I found a loophole in the new immigration law and was able to secure a green card.
Hecker: And so literally the day that I got my green card in June of 1987, I quit my job and within a matter of about six weeks, I had two job opportunities in California and I moved out to California later that summer, the summer of ’87. I went to work for the Clorox Company. I spent, I only spent about 18 months with Clorox and I got lured away to another company in San Francisco called Specialty Brands. They were a couple ex-Clorox guys who were working at this much smaller, much more nimble company that was a spin-off of Nabisco and the major brands they managed included Spice Island spices and Fleischman’s yeast. And while I was there over a period of about eight years, the company doubled in size from about $100 million, well we went from, actually we tripled. We went from about $l00,000,000 in size to about $350,000,000 in revenue.
Hecker: So it was largely through the acquisition of Durkee’s and French’s from the Recklitt & Coleman Company. And I played a role in that and I ended up as the Manager of the Spice and Seasonings business for the company. We were the second largest in the country. But by 1995,
Donna and I had made a decision that we really didn’t want to raise our kids in California. We’d lived through the earthquake in 1989, the Oakland hills fire in 1990, the mudslides in ’91, the forest fires in Yosemite in ’92…
Interviewer: And where were you in California then?
Hecker: We were in northern California, in and around San Francisco. And really once the Northridge Earthquake happened in Southern California in ’95 and then the whole O.J., chasing him through the streets of Los Angeles in ’95, we just said, “This place is meshugana and there’s got to be somewhere better”. And I started looking for job opportunities in the Midwest. My wife Donna had grown up in Pittsburgh. I’d grown up in Toronto. We thought, you know, somewhere in that neighborhood would be nice. And lo and behold I was recruited to be the Head of Marketing for the Scott’s Turf Builder business in Marysville, Ohio and I started that job in November ’95.
Interviewer: But you didn’t live in Marysville?
Hecker: We didn’t live in Marysville. Actually when we moved to Columbus, we really only looked at two neighborhoods. We looked at Bexley because we were told it was the Jewish neighborhood. But we had just been living in an older house in California, which was very expensive, and well Bexley wasn’t the cost of living in California, we really didn’t want to move into a fixer-upper and we wanted to be closer to where my work was in Marysville. So when we were looking around Marysville, we found, there were really three criteria. We wanted to be close to work, close to a synagogue and close to a Jewish pre-school. And so Beth Tikvah in Worthington, the Jewish Pre-School, the JCC not too far away, we ended up moving to the Wedgewood…Community in Powell and we were there for our first seven years here in Columbus.
Interviewer: Now were you involved in the Jewish community before you came to Columbus?
Hecker: In San Francisco, we belonged to a synagogue. I did some work for the Federation in San Francisco. I did, I think two years in a row I did the training for Super Sundays, teaching people how to make the calls. But we really weren’t involved in the Jewish community in and around the synagogue. We had a havurah, a group of friends who would spend all of our holidays together and we would discuss Jewish topics and I had taken Donna to Israel after we’d been married for a year, actually right after she had her, she had a Bat Mitzvah, after, right around the time that Emily was about a year old. So somewhere in ’93 Donna had a Bat Mitzvah and then we went to Israel. But we really weren’t all that involved in the Jewish community at that time.
Interviewer: And then how did you get involved with Beth Tikvah?
Hecker: Actually the first person we met in the Jewish community in Columbus was Liz Myers who at the time was working in the office at Beth Tikvah. And so as soon as we moved to Columbus we joined Beth Tikvah. We knew we would want to send the kids…
Interviewer: So what, ’95 you say?
Hecker: At the end of ’95. So really we joined Beth Tikvah probably in the spring of ’96, after we’d gotten out of our temporary housing and into the house in Powell. And so we started sending Emily to the Parent-Tot program. Diane Sacks was teaching that program and Diane and the Sacks family and the Heckers family have been friends for years since then. I still remember they invited us to be part of their fun club havurah and that was really the first time anyone had reached out to us to make friends. In early ’90—, well no I guess it was the fall of ’96, I reached out to David Lamden who at the time was the head of our Religious School program and I had offered my support to be involved. And it’s interesting, I was just…I keep a diary, so I was looking back at the diary today for any pertinent things and I saw a note in there that said that I was actually disappointed that I made an offer to several people to get involved and nobody ever called me back. And I suspect that’s common. But in about…it must have been the spring of ’97, I think that’s when it was, when I was asked if I would be on the Religious School Committee and then I found out there really wasn’t a Religious School Committee and that I was asked to be its head, the Religious School, the Chair of the Committee and I looked at the list and there was no list.
And so I became Chair and I ended up on the Board at that point. I guess it was the, I would have gotten onto the Board at the Annual Meeting in ’97. And so I was the head of the Religious School Committee at Beth Tikvah from ’97 till ’99 and then I was, became First Vice President ’99 until ’01. While I was doing that, I did Leadership 21 program for the Federation. While that was finishing, I was asked to be part of the Wexner Heritage Leadership Program which I ended up starting in the summer of 2000 and then I became President of Beth Tikvah in 2001 and was President there until 2003.
Interviewer: So when you became President in 2000?
Interviewer: 2001? So you had already spent like three or four years knowing a lot about the Congregation at that time?
Hecker: Yeah, learning, starting from ground zero, you know, literally being a new member to the community, a new congregant, to being the Head of the Religious School Committee, the first time ever really being on a lay Board so the first two years of something like that are somewhat of a fog. I was just trying to understand who the players are, what the politics is. Of course at that time Beth Tikvah was just starting to try to determine if we were going to move or not, what was going to happen. There was a Capital Campaign.
Hecker: So, but it all happened very quickly.
Interviewer: So during that time that you were President, what were some of the significant things that you remember?
Hecker: The single most significant thing that I remember when I was a congregant was, or when I was President, was everything surrounding the construction of a new building. So when I became President in the spring, I guess June of 2001, we had had a Capital Campaign and we’d raised some money but it was a little stall. We were battling with the City of Worthington over whether they would allow us to build the building which we had designed and there was a lot of consternation within the community about what we should do. And when I was officially voted in, I made a pledge that within six months I would have a plan that we would put in front of the Congregation and we would vote on.
And so I was fortunate to have Diane Sacks agree to be my First Vice-President during that time and she was terrific. And we worked very, very hard with architects and real estate people and the realtors. We were trying to find somebody to buy our building and we were trying to find, get approval from Worthington, and actually I remember that it was, we were reaching a critical point on a date in September where two days in a row we were going to have forums where we were going to give focus groups at the synagogue. And the first one was scheduled to be on September 11, 2001, 9/11. And I remember after the planes went into a building in New York and the Pentagon, at some point that morning I called Rabbi Huber and I said, “Gary, we’re supposed to have people show up at the synagogue tonight. Maybe we should cancel it.” We talked it through and we agreed that it was the last thing that we wanted to do was cancel for several reasons. Number 1, people were going to want to come to the synagogue.
Interviewer: Sure, just…
Hecker: And they did, they flocked into the synagogue. And 2, we sure weren’t going to let any And so we still had the forum that night and the following night and we had a massive turnout.
Interviewer: So it was held as originally planned?
Hecker: As originally planned. We must have had a hundred and fifty people that first night, maybe a hundred the next night and actually I remember on the Friday night, ’cause I just read my notes, there were four hundred people who showed up for Friday Night Services after 9/11.
So after that, after we got the feedback about what we would do with the new building, Diane located several parcels of land at the corner of Snouffer and Smoky Row that were available and we began to negotiate for their purchase and on, I believe it was November10, 2000, we had a vote as a Congregation and the vote was something like 260 to 30 in favor of going ahead and purchasing this land and moving to this new parcel. And so again, over the course of the next year and a half, we put a huge effort into fund raising, designing the building, and trying to sell the current building. And so as I think about my Presidency, those are really the memories that are the most lasting and it was a lot of work…
Interviewer: You had some challenging moments?
Hecker: Absolutely. There are challenges with the Congregation itself. Certainly there were people who were concerned about finances. There were significant challenges working within the Jewish community. But we actually were at a, we were able to achieve a degree of commonality in the larger Jewish community that everybody had been hoping for so that the JCC agreed that they would move with us to this new site. They would build with us. We designed the structure together and they were committed to put a million dollars into the new facility. The Columbus Jewish Federation agreed to sell the land that they had purchased years earlier on Olentangy River Road and to use $700,000 of the proceeds against the construction of the new community center/synagogue at the corner of Snouffer and Smoky Row.
So we actually had those two organizations committed to 1.7 million dollars. And that was one of the reasons why I pushed very hard for the Congregation to proceed even when we were having trouble selling our current site and even knowing that, if we sold it for only a million dollars, we would still have to raise another million and a half dollars. I felt like we were at a point in time where all the stars were aligned. And that, you know, out of a Congregation of almost 400 families, we ought to be able to raise another million, million and a half dollars.
Interviewer: And what did happen?
Hecker: Unfortunately we were unable to find a buyer for the property for a long time and when we finally did find a potential buyer and we had to vote as a Congregation, and this was now after my Presidency. This was now in, I believe, the fall of ’05. The By-Laws called for a 60% plurality for us to do anything with real estate and there was a long and acrimonious debate in the synagogue, hundreds of people there, and somebody called the question and the vote was 59 to 41 to move. And actually, given the number of people who actually voted, it literally came down to one vote. So with that one vote the Congregation said, “No, we’re not going to proceed with the sale to this party.” Now that deal ended up falling off the table anyway, but at that point in time the Congregation really took a step back and started questioning once again, “Okay, maybe we shouldn’t move.”
Interviewer: What was that like for you having worked so hard on trying to make it happen?
Hecker: It was devastating, absolutely devastating. And I, we, Donna and I had moved to Bexley two years earlier and started to meet people outside of the Beth Tikvah sphere and really after that vote we decided that it was just too painful to continue as congregants of Beth Tikvah. And while I maintained membership for a couple of years there, I really stopped attending and ended up joining Temple Israel.
Interviewer: Has that been a good move for you?
Hecker: Absolutely. You know, for me where I attend synagogue is, it’s important to me because I like to go to services and close my eyes and sing songs in Hebrew and that helps me feel spiritual. And we’ve met some nice people at Temple Israel. We also have a lot of good friends from Beth Tikvah. But really, you know it’s interesting, I’m all the way through this interview, I have never mentioned Columbus Jewish Day School once.
Interviewer: Well I know, I know about it.
Interviewer: Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten.
Hecker: We’ll get there.
Interviewer: But you know why you haven’t? You haven’t I don’t think because these other issues were more important in your mind at the time that we were just referencing before.
Hecker: Yes, that’s true, yeah. It’s true. In fact Donna and I had almost made an agreement that she would do the school and I would do the synagogue and I would do the other community stuff and we didn’t want to have our worlds collide.
Hecker: So yes, so we joined Temple Israel and while Emily was Bat Mitzvah at Beth Tikvah, Isaac was Bar Mitzvahed at Temple Israel and Kendall will be Bat Mitzvah at Temple Israel in a couple of weeks.
Interviewer: Just to stay with the Beth Tikvah part, do you think that Beth Tikvah has changed from the time that you knew, in other words as you look at it now with the perspective of a little bit of distance, do you feel that things have changed now from the time that you were there or even that the Columbus Jewish community has changed recently?
Hecker: I think the community continues to evolve. I’m not sure if change is the right word. But you know, I continue to hear people in and around Federation and in and around Bexley talk about outreach to the northwest part of the city. I at one point made a demographic study of 2000, better than probably just about anyone in the community because I was using that to get financial support from the Federation. And there was, there’s an enormous Jewish population that lives in the swath of land between Hilliard, OSU, and Lewis Center, many of whom are folks who belong to Beth Tikvah. So that, I think Beth Tikvah continues to serve as the magnet for many of those people in and around those communities. In some cases, they’re folks who are, I hate to say, marginally involved…
Interviewer: Yeah I think so.
Hecker: It’s probably true. And I think that, I continue to think there’s an enormous opportunity in and around that segment of town that is growing so rapidly, Hilliard, Dublin, Powell, that we could do more, there could be more of a Jewish presence there.
Interviewer: Yeah I agree, I agree. So I know you’ve been involved in the greater Jewish community and maybe even the Columbus community. I don’t know about that. But would you like to share some of that now?
Hecker: You know, probably my entrée to the broader Jewish community was through “Leadership 21” which…
Interviewer: And “Leadership 21” is?
Hecker: “Leadership 21” is a program that’s sponsored by the Columbus Jewish Federation that chooses about 20 young leaders pretty, now it’s every year before it was a bit more sporadic. And they teach you about your Jewish culture and heritage over the course of about 12 sessions or 10 sessions, over the course of one year. And so that was a terrific introduction. I started to meet people. I think only one of the 20 belonged to Beth Tikvah and then when I became better known through that program, I was also invited to be on the Wexner Heritage Foundation program which was probably the best leadership experience of my life.
Interviewer: Tell me a little about that. I don’t really know much about that.
Hecker: Well that program which has been running for about 20 years now. It is, this particular program, they pick 20 leaders in each of two cities in a year to begin a two-year leadership journey. And during those two years, it starts with a summer week retreat in Aspen for you and your spouse and the 20 people from the community, their spouses and the other community that’s been chosen.
So you’ve got 40-odd people showing up in Aspen, all expenses paid. And they bring in unbelievable scholars to teach you about history, culture, heritage, for about five days. I remember Debra Lipstadt was one of our teachers. She still has a very tight bond with our Columbus community. And in fact the verdict on her libel case in England, the verdict was announced while we were all together in Aspen. And they had musician Debbie Friedman, the song leader, come and she would lead Tefillah in the mornings. And it was unbelievable. So we were all together there in Aspen and then we came back and for 10 months we’d get together for four hours every other week. They’d fly in the best scholars to teach us.
And then the second summer they took us to Israel for a week and then back to studying during the year and then the third summer they took us to Utah, to Snowbird, and that’s where we had our graduation. And that was a fantastic opportunity, not only to learn and to become more self-confident about my own Jewish knowledge and therefore my ability to lead Jewish organizations, but it also let me to become friends with probably 20 of the most influential under-forty or about 40-year-old people in the community.
Interviewer: And what was the partner-city with Columbus?
Hecker: It was San Francisco and then as they brought in new cities the second year, they brought in Chicago. But this was, I was part of the third time that they’d done this in Columbus. They did it twice before and actually just this week we’ve been nominating people for the fourth class for Columbus because it’s coming back again. So, you know, both “Leadership 21” and Wexner Heritage Foundation were seminal for me in terms of my introduction to the community. When I became President of Beth Tikvah, you automatically become a member of the Board of the Federation so that was my introduction to the Federation. Concurrent with all this, Donna and I had been invited to be on the Board of Columbus Jewish Day School which started in ’98 and we started sending our kids there in ’99 and…
Interviewer: And that perspective for the Day School is essentially what?
Hecker: The perspective?
Interviewer: In other words, how religious is it?
Hecker: The Columbus Jewish Day School is a pluralist school so there are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and probably Atheist kids who all go to the Day School.
Interviewer: Interesting. I think sometimes in the community and also personally with me, I was not aware of what the affiliation was.
Hecker: Yeah, it fights very hard, it doesn’t fight, it’s just, that’s how it goes. Girls wear kippot, boys wear kippot when, during tefillah, during prayer, the rest of the time, no. But unlike Columbus Torah Academy which is part of the Orthodox Union, Columbus Jewish Day School is really independent. So Donna and I were involved there, on and off the Board. The Day School went through its own trouble in 2003 when it was running out of money. It had expanded too fast. We were running out of money and I remember Donna and I not only writing a check to help the school finish the year, but we decided that we had to move to Bexley in 2003 ’cause we were worried that the school may fail and we didn’t want to send our kids to public school in Powell where they were going to be the only kids who were Jewish in their classrooms and we really didn’t want to be the parents coming in and teaching about Hanukkah. So in June of 2003 we moved to Bexley and that kind of further cemented the opportunity to get to know many of the folks who were kind of more established in the community in regards.
Hecker: And it allowed me to start coming to the JCC every morning and getting to know people like that. And in 2004, I, in the spring of 2004, I lost my job at the Scotts Miracle Gro Company and that actually, that was concurrent with being asked to be on the Executive of Columbus Jewish Federation. So I remember going on a trip, Les Wexner was trying to reinvigorate the Executive and he actually gave the new Executive Board the use of his jet and we went to London and Prague and Berlin for four days.
Interviewer: And this was at the time that you had just left Scotts?
Hecker: Right when I had just left Scotts and I remember sitting at the back of Les’ plane and getting about half an hour with him, just asking his advice about how to do a job search. And then over the course of the next few months I did put together my own methodology for a job search which has since been dubbed the “Hecker Networking Method” and you can google it and find it on line and I now teach it to people, probably about 150 people in the last three years. But one thing led to another and that brought me to a job at Nationwide where I was head of Marketing at Nationwide Financial Business, in 2004. So I started at Natrionwide Financial. The Day School found a way to stay in business, although they closed the Middle School.
And in the summer of 2005 I was now not only done with my term as President of Beth Tikvah, not only done with my term as Past President of Beth Tikvah, I was now a year into my job at Nationwide. I was done with my Wexner Heritage program and I was looking for something to fill my volunteer time. The President at Columbus Jewish Day School left town and I volunteered to be the next President.
Interviewer: That was a volunteer position or you just volunteered for that?
Hecker: Well it was, the Board was really not a cohesive Board. There hadn’t been many meetings. There wasn’t even a decent budget for the following year. Nobody really was running the Board. And so Sam Fried, who was actually trying to figure out who could be the next President, so I asked Sam and Bruce Soll to get together with me and we all looked at the numbers for the school and I realized, my God, the school has no money. I don’t even know how they can open their doors in two weeks. There’s no President. And I said, “I’ll be the President,” I volunteered. And it was a really tough situation. There were 63 kids that had dropped from a high of about 112 to 63 kids. They dropped the Middle School and there was no money.
Interviewer: This was 2003?
Hecker: 2005. And over the course, I ended up not only staying on for the one-year-term I agreed on at first, but then for another two-year-term and another two-year-term. And during that time period we totally changed the trajectory of the organization. So by, we were in, the school was in a rented school building that had been renovated with borrowed funds. We owed the Huntington Bank 1.3 million dollars. We were living in a building that we knew we were going to have to give back to New Albany at some point. We had declining enrollment.
People in the community were trying to determine, okay, is this even viable or should we just fold into Torah Academy? What do we do with the debt? So I put together a new Board. We got another line of credit from the bank. We strung out our receivables, pardon me, our payables. We put a lot of effort into developing a vision and the vision all became around three things that literally were the touchstones for five years. It was recruiting and retention, financial development and location plan and each one was intertwined.
Interviewer: And your location originally was where?
Hecker: The school started in Temple Israel but after a year it literally outgrew Temple Israel and moved into this facility in New Albany, a 75-year-old school building that the New Albany School District no longer needed. We spent 1.3 million dollars renovating that building in ’99 and 2000, moved into it, I think it was 2000. Maybe it was 2001. And, but the deal was that we would have five years rent free and then start paying rent. So by the time I became President, we were about to start paying rent on a building and we just, we had no money. But we were able to make things work and over the course of the next few years we grew enrollment from 63 to 80 to 100 to 112 and when I left it was at 119.
Interviewer: Very impressive.
Hecker: We went from having a debt of 1.3 million to when our current deal with the bank ends, we’ll owe $850,000. When we found out that we were losing the lease on the building we worked closely with the Jewish community and with the JCC, who was also subletting space from us in the building for their Pre-School. We were fortunate that the New Albany Company donated land to the two of us and we began planning for a new building in New Albany which was, we had the groundbreaking in the summer of 2008 and we moved into it in the summer of 2009. CJDS’s portion of the construction was two million dollars. We had a successful capital campaign and actually raised closer to two and a half million dollars and so we’re now in a place where I’m hoping to use the incremental half million to continue to pay off the debt. So…
Interviewer: You’ve been a busy man?
Hecker: Yeah, knowing that the end of my term was coming in 2010, June of 2010, I was approached by Jeff Coopersmith, Steve Tuckerman and Marcia Hurwitz in about January of 2010 and asked if I would be Campaign Chair for the Federation. And I had been the head of the Bureau of Jewish Education for the Federation, I had been the Secretary for the Federation and again, knowing that my latest crusade was coming to a close, I agreed that I would be the next Campaign Chair.
Interviewer: And that’s for the year?
Hecker: So that term I guess really officially began in the late spring of 2010 and it will run for two years with the understanding that for two years after that, that I’ll be Board Chair for the Federation.
Interviewer: Busy guy?
Hecker: Give thanks to busy people.
Interviewer: Well you know I’ve worked with a lot of volunteers in my life and one of the things that I like to think about is you’ve given a lot of volunteer service. Are their things that you’ve learned through that volunteer service that you think would have been hard to acquire otherwise?
Hecker: Absolutely. I think that the most important thing that I’ve learned through volunteer service is just the importance of it. I’ve always assumed that anybody has the skills to run a meeting, to gather consensus, to listen to people and find compromise and I found they don’t.
Interviewer: Do you learn a lot about yourself while helping other people, right?
Hecker: And it’s been an unbelievable example to my kids. You know, they know and they see it, well much of my volunteer work is very, very public. Donna is volunteering probably six hours a day in the behind-the-scenes stuff which she prefers to do. But the kids have learned the importance, and, you know, I hope it’s an example for other people. to, look you can be, I’m the Chief Marketing Officer at Nationwide Insurance for God’s sakes but I spend hours and hours and hours volunteering in the community. Why? Because it’s important. Who else is going to do it?
Interviewer: Well one of the questions I have here is what values did your family instill in you that you live by today?
Hecker: You know it’s funny. I was talking to my parents about this before I, well specifically we were talking about tzedalah and, you know, I told my parents that a number of years ago Donna and I made the decision that every year we were going to tithe. We were just going to decide what our gross income was for the year, or what it was going to be for the year, and we were just going to pretend like that, it’s not ours, other people need it and I thanked my parents for setting the example for that. My Dad said, “We didn’t teach you that.” He said, “Sure we gave money to charity.” But now I try to tell as many people as I can that we give 10% of our gross income to charity because I think that’s one way of getting other people to recognize the importance of recognizing that there are so many people in the world who don’t have what we have. And we are living, I say this to the kids. We are at the top 1% of all people in terms of financial means and comfort in our life, the top 1% of all the people probably who have ever been on the planet.
And so who are we to just take it for granted. So yes, we give money away and we spend time volunteering and, you know, we also happen to be alive at this singular point in time where the State of Israel exists. And for two thousand years Jews dreamed of having a state of their own. We happen to be alive right now, God willing there will be a state in hundreds of years. None of us know what will happen. So who are we not to visit Israel and spend time in Israel and I’ve now been to Israel ten times. And I would love to find the opportunity to spend more time in Israel. So I try to take all of this really seriously.
Interviewer: Well my last question was going to be, if you could give a message about life and love to your children and grandchildren in generations to come, what would it be and I think you’ve already answered it.
Hecker: I think so, I think so.
Interviewer: Thank you Gordon.
Hecker: Thank you Nancy.
Interviewer: I really appreciate it.
End of interview
* * *
Transcribed by Honey Abramson
Edited by Rose Luttinger