“Please, let’s not overdo stating what we do.” So begins a conversation with Sue and Alan Jay Kaufman about their longtime activity in the community. Emphasizing her point, Sue is clear: “I’m the type of person who wants to be under the radar with giving – doing what is necessary and meaningful. But sometimes you just have to let people know what you are doing, because it signals to others the possibility that they can be doing the same.”
Choose a topic of conversation with the Kaufmans – almost any topic – business, education, sports, camp, Israel, art – even the new penguin exhibit at the Detroit Zoo – and, invariably, it all comes back to caring for families, here in Detroit and in Israel.
“With the support of the Sue and Alan Jay Kaufman Family” – those are the words often attached as footnotes to community programs like NEXTGen’s annual EPIC fundraiser, Teen Missions to Israel, Birthright and PJ Library. Family always has been a key theme and incentive for the Kaufman’s philanthropic decisions. Together, as a family, they have built and sustained a foundation largely devoted to enriching the educational opportunities of children and young adults. The pattern follows with the Kaufman’s adult children – Jodie, Emily and Daniel – who have grown into community leaders and philanthropists in their own right. Every November, the family gathers for a Foundation meeting to select the recipients of funding for the coming year.
Entrepreneurial in spirit, a visionary in business and a practicing attorney with Kaufman, Payton & Chapa, the law firm he founded over 30 years ago, Alan leads the H.W. Kaufman Financial Group/Burns & Wilcox Ltd, a highly successful insurance business founded by his father, Herbert W. Kaufman (z”l). In a bold move 20 years ago, Alan purchased the publicly-held company and took it private. With Alan at the helm, and particularly with acquisitions including subsidiaries overseas, the growth of the company has been exponential. “Even though we have over 1,600 employees in a global network of offices, I still think of ourselves as a family business,” says Alan.
And, indeed, with Jodie and Daniel now anchoring key roles in the company, the Kaufman Financial Group is in a good position to perpetuate the family business. Jodie is Corporate Vice President and Managing Director for Canada. Daniel – now in his eighth year with the company – has recently been appointed to the Board of Directors. In his role as Senior Vice President, he is Managing Director of the Chicago office and oversees other corporate projects. Engaged to be married next year, Daniel plans to move from Chicago back to the Detroit corporate offices, headquartered in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
And down the road? There’s the growing Kaufman mishpacha. In Toronto, Jodie and her husband Jamie have two girls and a baby boy; in Chicago, Emily and her husband Josh are the parents of a boy and two girls. And, with a wedding on the way, Daniel’s fiancée, Morgan, joins the family next summer.
On family background, early years and influences
Sue: I was born and raised in Detroit until I was 12. My brother and I were less than a year apart and, when my sister came along ten years later, my parents moved to Southfield. My father was a home builder in business with his father and brothers [J. Singer & Sons] and we moved to the neighborhood he was building – Sherwood Village. From Southfield High School, I went to the University of Michigan, where I graduated with a B.A. in Journalism. I considered a career in advertising, but chose instead to go on to University of Detroit to get my law degree.
Alan went to Michigan State – I call it a “mixed marriage” – all three of our kids went to U of M undergrad, and Jodie went to MSU Law School . . . so we’re a “blended” family.
Alan: I identify as a longtime Detroiter, loyal to the city and to Michigan. Like many families in the late 60’s, my parents moved from the city to the suburbs, but I finished high school in the city because I ran track and played football and Detroit was the best place for sports at the time. I’m a proud Spartan (and, in fact, serve on the board of the MSU College of Business Alumni Association). I earned my J.D. from the University of Notre Dame Law School and also studied international law at the London School of Economics.
How involved were your parents in the Jewish community?
A: My grandfather was a founding member of Adat Shalom Synagogue (where I serve on the Board today). My father was involved in the Jewish community. I recall how my mother used to collect for March of Dimes door-to-door. It was not until later in life, that my parents could fund anything in a major way, but my mother believed in the importance of volunteer work, rather than just writing a check. She volunteered for Yad Ezra for years and would take our children to share the experience. Both my parents had a very positive impact on our children because they saw how important it was to give back.
S: Was my mom active with Federation? No, but back in the day, she belonged to the Sheruth League – a Jewish women’s group that is now defunct. My dad was busy working, making a living.
I do have fond memories of my Grandma Sarah: she was this little old Jewish lady from Russia – they used to call her “The Poppy Lady” because she sold those bright red paper poppies on the street every year for Jewish War Veterans in memory of the son she lost during World Two – that was my Uncle Jack. Also, as I mentioned in remarks at Federation’s recent Lion of Judah meeting, I ran across an article in the Detroit Jewish News Archive online describing a tea my grandmother hosted, much like the fundraising events we do today. And there was a photo of my grandmother, proud of her achievement – raising $50 for those in need in our community.
As the Women’s Campaign Chair, I often think back on those early years of fundraising. I’m the last person that I ever thought would be calling people and asking them for money. But I came to realize that we’re not asking for ourselves, we’re asking for the greater good of our community. I believe that everyone in need should have the opportunity to be helped by Federation. Most people just don’t realize the breadth of the work we do — how many people Federation touches.
On professional and volunteer paths
How did the two of you meet?
S: A good friend of mine introduced us. She was insistent that there was a neighbor down the block – a young lawyer she really wanted me to meet. One night after work, my friend and I were out at a bar and Alan happened to be there. It was just a hello, end of the story. But sometime later, I was interviewing for a legal job. I had time to kill and stopped at Northland Mall for a bite. Alan’s law office was near there, and he happened to be there for lunch as well. We started talking, he took my number. Fast forward, I got the job, and the job was in the same building he was working in, on the same floor, in the office suite next door. Alan often used the library to work, and my office was the library, so that’s our story. We were married in 1979 and spent our honeymoon in Israel.
What got you started your paths to Federation and community work?
A: Sue and I started with various activities and fundraising efforts in Federation’s Junior Division. I then served on the national level in UJC’s Young Adult Leadership Cabinet. In my late 30’s, I took a pass for a while to concentrate more fully on our family and the demands of my profession and growing the family business.
S: I took an “early retirement” from the legal profession to start our family. Throughout the kids’ school years, Alan and I both stayed involved in our kids’ schools — first at Hillel, then Cranbrook. At Cranbrook, I served as President of the Mother’s Council; Alan was President of the Dad’s Club.
A: I would say that we’ve become more active in Federation within the past 20 years – as our family has grown, so too has our capacity to give back to the community with time and money.
On the Foundation Board now, my involvement is more on the financial /investment /allocation side – a good fit for my personality and experience.
S: Here’s my attitude about giving to Jewish organizations: Anyone can give to the charities, universities, arts and cultural institutions of their choice – but all those “anyones” aren’t giving to Jewish causes. If not us, then who? So when we give to U of M, it’s to Jewish Studies. Our gifts to Michigan State, too, support Jewish Studies – though Alan recently established an Endowed Professorship in Insurance to provide for academic leadership at the MSU Eli Broad College of Business.
A: Overall, my charitable thinking is mostly focused on education: from preschool through college programs, our giving has quietly been to the schools – Hillel Day School, Frankel Academy, Cranbrook, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Walsh College, Jewish Theological Seminary, Israel’s Technion and Bar-Ilan University.
On best achievement, sweetest memories, proudest moments
Of all the work you’ve done and support you’ve given the community, what are some of the standouts?
A: When I think about giving to educational programs, I often think of my late father who loved sports. We started an athletic program at Hillel Day School to support kids who couldn’t otherwise afford to participate in the sports offered at the schools.
S: For me it’s Federation’s Missions – and visits to the Partnership2Gether Region. Personally, there’s nothing like a Federation trip to Israel, because they take you to places you wouldn’t know about.
Alan and I have taken numerous trips to Israel. We were Co-Chairs of Federation’s Fisher Mission IV, we traveled to Cuba with Federation, but one of my sweetest memories was going to Israel with my daughter Emily to meet with Teen Mission in 2012, which Alan and I sponsored. We traveled with the Mission for five days – and here’s just one example of the amazing things that come full circle on a Federation Mission: we met a young man on the Teen Mission in Israel who came up to us to thank us for what we were doing in the Detroit community. Fast forward, as it turns out, he is the first cousin of our future daughter-in-law!
A: There have been many presidencies and professional recognitions, but recently, there are two particularly gratifying projects that come to mind: The first is a task force that I’ve been assigned to work with the Jewish Community Center, re-imagining the agency and securing its future. Even though we have just begun the process, I feel confident that we’ve been doing a good job given some of the challenges we face. In addition to that role, I am the Chair of the Foundation Real Estate Sub-Committee with the task of reviewing all the property held by Federation.
S: Of course, my present role—serving as a Chair of Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy Campaign – is one I count as a highpoint of my volunteer career.
Another standout experience for me is serving on the Board of HFL. What I love about Hebrew Free Loan is to see firsthand how our community helps people with all kinds of needs. You interview clients, and you know that you are helping them get through a financial crisis, or start a business, or get to a doctor to try to start a family.
A: More than anything, being active in the Federation has given us an overview of families who encourage their children to perpetuate their philanthropy. I came to the conclusion years ago that I wanted our children to know all about the ways we give and to be active in the Jewish community, each in their own ways. And today, Sue and I can proudly say that our kids are deeply engaged in volunteering and giving for the right reasons – not for the thanks and notoriety – but for the opportunities to make real differences.
S: Our daughter, Jodie, was the President of her Federation’s equivalent of NEXTGen in Toronto. And subsequently, she’s been invited to join the Federation Board, where she has the distinction of being its youngest member. Emily was on the Federation’s NEXTGen Board in Chicago and is now active in her son’s school and on the Junior Board of Lurie Children’s Hospital. Danny and Jodie are both on the UJC Young Leadership Cabinet, and Danny also serves on the Hillel Board of Greater Chicago and on the National Board of City of Hope Insurance Council. Really we couldn’t be prouder to have our three great kids following in our footsteps.
Words that describe your management/ leadership styles: Integrity, loyalty, strategic, creative, future-thinking
Restaurant: Bacco Ristoranti and Phoenicia
Meeting place for coffee: Starbucks for Sue. Alan is not a coffee drinker.
Building in the Detroit skyline: For Sue it’s the Renaissance Center, where she once worked.
Place to take kids and visitors: The Detroit Zoo, DIA, Cranbrook
Destinations or locations in Israel: Jerusalem, Jaffa, Safed and Michigan’s Partnership Region of the Central Galilee.
Sports: For Sue, hockey was her life until Daniel graduated; now it’s Pilates and walking almost every day. For Alan, it’s golf (and the joy of sponsoring pro golfer Jimmy Walker) cycling, swimming, running
Jewish Food: For Alan it’s brisket; chicken soup for Sue.
Jewish Expression: Sue favors oy vey! For Alan it’s meshuganah.
Guilty pleasure: For Alan, it’s ice cream. Sue can’t resist carrot cake.
Never leave home without: A Fitbit and a book.
Sue’s book, Karolina’s Twins by Ronald Balson/ Alan’s choice Lincoln and the Jews: A History by Jonathan D. Sarna
WORDS TO LIVE BY:
A: Be prepared. S: Enjoy every day, it beats the alternative.