‘Mensch’ Jim Meyer shares his time, money, intellect
By Deborah Moon
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Jim Meyer has volunteered so many hours asking the right questions and making insightful observations on boards and committees that other community leaders describe him as “a mensch,” “the best there is” and a “reflection of” the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s theme: “Live Generously, it does a world of good.”
“Jim Meyer lives generously in every aspect of his life—he’s a family person; he’s a community person. He gives his time, intellect, mind and money to the Jewish community and the general community both,” said Stan Marcus, whom Meyer credited as a mentor. “He’s a perfect role model for anybody who wants to know how to live their life.”
“He’s been very much somebody whose life reflects the live generously model that federation espouses,” said Henry Blauer, one of numerous leaders Meyer credited with bringing him into the community in the mid-60s.
Arden Shenker, another of those leaders, said he called Meyer the best because, “Every time you go to a meeting and hear people it’s interesting, but wait until you hear what Jim has to say because that is always the best part. He is steady and wise and he’s there to be counted on.”
Meyer said his fate as a sought-after board and committee member seems to have been sealed in the mid-60s when he was asked to serve on the board of the Jewish Education Association. Soon after his appointment, he said the director of the Hebrew School called an emergency board meeting to announce that enrollment had dropped precipitously, a situation the director attributed to the lack of support from the community’s rabbis.
“I raised my hand and said ‘Parents aren’t registering their children in the Hebrew school. Why should they be sending their kids? … Maybe the school is not clear enough and offering enough so parents know why their children should be here,’” said Meyer.
Although initially told by one board member if he didn’t know the answer, he didn’t belong on the board, Meyer said that ultimately “that question led to a self examination of the program by the board and they started making changes, telling their story better and upgrading what was going on.”
Since then Meyer has served on many boards and committees in both the Jewish and general communities.
“I’m amiable and I guess I help people get their thinking together,” he said of why he has been asked to serve on so many committees.
The list of boards is too extensive to include every organization, but includes: Oregon Community Foundation, Oregon Jewish Community Foundation (president), Jewish Federation of Greater Portland (treasurer and then president at age 35), National Young Leadership Cabinet of United Jewish Appeal (now Communities), United Way, State Human Rights Advisory Commission, Portland’s Civil Service Board, Cedar Sinai Park, Portland School Foundation, Portland Parks Foundation, Northwest Health Foundation and the Portland Art Museum.
When Meyer was 38, Gov. Bob Straub appointed Meyer to the Oregon Economic Development Commission.
When the Mittleman Jewish Community Center was in financial trouble in 2004, Meyer was one of 13 community leaders recruited to deal with “a real community emergency.” Meyer said the board met once a week for the first six months and members ultimately served for three years instead of their initial one-year commitment.
“That’s a lot of volunteering,” he admitted. “I never applied for any one of these jobs unless I was asked to apply.”
Meyer and his wife Lora moved to Portland 47 years ago, the day after he graduated from Harvard Business School because the couple, each raised in New England in small Jewish communities in which their parents were active, wanted to live on the west coast for a few years. A couple years later Meyer said he got the “freaky opportunity” to buy an industrial distribution business with no money down. So at age 24 he became a small business owner.
Unlike his fellow Harvard graduates who worked for large corporations, Meyer said as a small business owner he did not attend management-training programs. So serving on community boards was a way to learn by experience.
Of his early board experiences in the 1970s, Meyer said he thought, “This is great. I can learn from these people and participate. … I’m getting more out of this than I’m putting into it. I’m learning from great people and situations.”
He said he continued volunteering in part because of the other people on the boards.
“I love the people who are active in community things,” he said. “They are great people and almost all are unselfish. Almost all of them are people I’d like to know and this is a vehicle for knowing them.”
The volunteering hasn’t ended with Meyer. He has passed the tradition on to his three sons, two of whom still live in Portland. Tom is married to Rabbi Shawn Fields and lives in Los Angeles, where he is very involved in the Jewish community. Mark and Rich both live with their wives in Portland and have each served on several boards. Both Mark and Rich credit both of their parents for instilling in them the desire to serve their community.
Mark served on the board of Portland Jewish Academy for 14 years including three years as treasurer and two years as president. Now he’s on the joint PJA-MJCC board. He also chaired JFGP’s Super Sunday phonathon a few times.
Rich also co-chaired Super Sunday multiple times, once with Mark. He was active in the federation’s young leadership group and business and professional group in the early 1990s. He recently finished six years on the board of the American Jewish Committee and has served on the Camp Solomon Schecter board. Currently he is vice president of Congregation Neveh Shalom and chair of the JFGP’s Community Relations Committee.
“I’ve tried to stay active … (because of) the example my mom and dad set for us,” Rich said. “Between the two of them, they’ve probably been on every Jewish board in the city.”
“As I get more active in the Jewish community, I find myself calling when situations come up,” said Rich. “Chances are he’s faced similar situations along the line and he has great insights.”
Mark also commented on his father’s insightfulness. He said though he’s never served on a board at the same time as his father, he was on the PJA board while his father was on the MJCC board and the two groups met together frequently.
“He’s very insightful and he has a lot of experience,” said Mark. “He doesn’t have an ego; he just wants to get the job done. He’s the best person to have on a board. He’s level-headed, a good listener and he’s very fair.”
While his sons are among those of the younger generation who are accepting the reins of leadership, Jim Meyer said that many Jewish people who have lots of capability “do their volunteer work in the general community instead of the Jewish community, not in addition to the Jewish community.”
“Finding a balance is really important, because we are all members of both communities,” he said.