Their love story reads like the script of a rom-com. Three decades ago, Ilana and Zachary Liss “met cute.” Literally. They were classmates at Hillel Day School. As Ilana attests, “Zachary may not have noticed me, but I was aware of everything he was doing from the second grade on.” By 8th grade, they held hands, sang and danced together and kissed for the first time on stage as co-stars in Bye-Bye Birdie, the school play. “Eighth grade was pretty early in the game,” Zachary admits, “But with every ounce of me, I can say, I must have the best foresight ever to know that Ilana and I were meant to be together.”
From Hillel, Ilana and Zachary went on to high school at Cranbrook, then to graduation from the University of Michigan. Together throughout, they married in 2006.
Ilana is graduate of the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan. Prior to joining Schechter Wealth where she creates custom solutions and WOW experiences for clients, she worked as a client service advisor for a hedge fund in Chicago. A graduate of U of M, Zachary attended Colby College in his freshman year and spent a year abroad in Mexico. In pediatric surgical practice now for five years, Zachary completed his Urology residency at Wayne State University School of Medicine and his fellowship at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, one of the top-rated children’s hospitals in the country.
All in a Hillel Day School family
It doesn’t take long into a conversation with Zach and Lan (as they affectionately call each other) to learn that they are “very big Hillel people.” They are the parents of Hillel students Lily (10), Eden (8) and Ruby (4). Ilana serves on the Hillel Board of Trustees and was a participant in the cohort of the community’s prestigious OnBoard™ program.
In the community at-large, each in their own right, Ilana and Zachary are a part of a growing cohort of promising leaders in Jewish Detroit on several fronts. Active with Federation’s Maimonides Society, they are Co-Chairs of Federation’s second Forman Leadership Group, culminating in September 2019 with a mission to Israel for healthcare professionals. Ilana also serves as a member of the board of the United Jewish Foundation, as Co-Chair of Detroit’s National Young Leadership Cabinet and Jewish Federation’s Young Women’s Philanthropy. A Past President of Federation’s YAD (now NEXTGen Detroit), Ilana is a recipient of the Mark-Lis Young Leadership Award (2013). Zachary currently serves as an Adjunct Member of the Board of Directors of Hebrew Free Loan (HFL) and, now joins his wife on the Federation’s roster of awardees as the 2019 recipient of the Frank M. Wetsman Young Leadership Award.
Residents of Birmingham, Michigan, Zachary and Ilana are also quick to point out that Adat Shalom Synagogue is the congregational home to three generations of both sides of their families.
Ilana and Zachary Liss on family backgrounds and influences
myJewishDetroit: Please share a little about your family, your educational background. . . the influences in your life that have led you to your leadership roles
Ilana: My grandparents on my father’s side are Holocaust survivors; I was raised to know the blessings of a close-knit family that always stressed the importance of our Judaism. We lived in Windsor until I was 10 years old, and one of my most vivid childhood memories was driving to Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills in a carpool arranged by my parents and a few other families. I believe that drive that my parents had – the fact that they spent nearly an hour every day to get me to school – laid the groundwork for my education and left me with the lasting impression that it is crucially important to have a strong Jewish foundation. I always laugh when Hillel parents complain about the drive up and down Maple to get to their kids to Hillel minutes away from their homes. I think of my mother, driving that van from Canada.
Zachary: I agree that our parents set the example for us. We want our kids to have that exact same foundation – that generational link with our family history and shared identity with the Jewish community.
Ilana: Something Zachary often says is that he grew up in a household where his siblings were much older. They did not go to Hillel and he felt that being sent there was a privilege.
Zachary: That’s true. I have an older brother and sister and neither went to Hillel. The fact that my parents chose to send me to Jewish day school certainly changed the dynamic in the family. Around that time, we also started to keep kosher in our home. I celebrated my bar mitzvah at Masada in Israel, and by the time I entered high school at Cranbrook, I was fairly fluent in Hebrew.
myJDet: Beside your parents and influences of your Jewish education, who do you count among your mentors?
Ilana: My mother-in-law, Beverly Liss – what better role model than a career volunteer – now President of the Jewish Federation
Zachary: Dr. Jeff Forman. I would not be where I am today without him. I met him when I was an undergrad, did some research with him for a summer. There is no doubt that he has shaped my path as a physician, a volunteer and a community leader. And there’s Danny Aronovitz, who exemplifies the professional-personal balance and “menschiness” I hope to one day obtain.
On community work and philanthropy
What drew you to the work of the Jewish Federation?
Ilana: I moved back to Detroit from Chicago a few years before we were married; Zach had just started med school and had a very busy schedule. My social circle had all but disappeared. None of my high school or college friends were still in town. It was 2004, and the Jewish community here was just starting to rethink the ways to engage and attract young adults back into the fold. For me, Federation was the best way I could think of to meet people and make new friends. So, I joined the Young Adult Division (YAD, now NEXTGen Detroit). It’s been fun to embrace all the changes in our community over the past years and it’s been my privilege to find ways to bring young people together. What was formerly a “division” at Federation has turned into a movement for so many of us – back home, back to our roots.
Zachary: I grew up in a family where Federation was a huge factor in our social and community life —always a topic of our conversations with family and friends, and always well supported. But my community involvement came much later. It wasn’t until recently that I experienced first-hand some of the many facets of Federation’s work and its partners in our community. That depth of experience came through the Forman Leadership Program and its first mission to Israel.
What I have come to realize is that there are only so many days we have in our lives; I want to live each day doing something meaningful; that’s why I chose to be a physician, and that’s what I strive for every day at work. But I seek fulfillment outside of work too – and for me that includes taking care of the Jewish community, where there’s so much need that is still unrecognized.
Ilana: I would add that Zach and I are extremely fortunate. Through all the different community activities where I have been involved, and now through Zach’s work with the board of HFL, we can make a real impact on lives and we’ve been able to have many really fun experiences too.
Zachary: I’ve learned that it’s difficult to grasp the outreach of Federation. As I’m beginning to understand this, my giving to Federation has taken on new meaning. The who, what, why, where and how is actually quite clear. Today, there’s much more need to bring people into the process of understanding this and giving back to the community.
In your view, how has your role as a Jewish community leader grown?
Ilana: I always say the role has been additive. The more I do, the more I want to add. When people ask how I have the time — a working mom with three young children, juggling a demanding career — my answer is that I get far more out of my investment of time and energy than I put in. (And that’s my professional opinion as a wealth manager — because the way we spend our time can be one of our greatest assets.) I try to impart that to my friends who say, “Oh, I couldn’t do one more thing.” I tell them that if you care, and you want it, you’re going to get something of value out of it.
Zachary: I think Ilana and I are good examples of the different approaches to getting involved in Federation. Ilana is savvy in planning and organizing. I don’t have the mental real estate to be as involved as she is, but I use what little time I have outside the realm of medicine to serve in any way I can as a connector. My goal is to bring people in by getting more people involved and understanding the long and rich history Federation has in Detroit. More importantly, recognizing the increasing need in the future.
Ilana: As far as the enthusiasm and passion for community work, Zach is 100% there. Everyone in the Forman Leadership group was so pleasantly surprised to meet him and discover his passion and exuberance for everything. Especially in Israel.
Zachary: I’m so excited to go back with the mission in September. We’ve recruited a dynamic group of 16 physicians and their spouses, several of whom have never been to Israel or involved with Federation.
On missions to Israel
myJDet: Describe how your missions to Israel have played an essential part in your communal work.
Zachary: Being Jewish is a major theme in our lives and Israel is certainly a part of that. We like speaking in Hebrew. (Our oldest daughter’s language skills are fabulous, by the way). Going to Israel, being in Israel and having a relationship with Israel is rejuvenating for me. I’ve been to Israel three times and, each time I leave, I find myself longing for the next opportunity to come back.
Ilana: I’ve been to Israel five times – twice in the past year. Most recently I participated as the Hillel representative in a board development program (OnBoard) for Jewish organizations. There were 20 in the group – ranging from early 20s to 60 in age – and representing a wide diversity of backgrounds and organizations from Detroit and Pittsburgh. As they say about so many of our community trips to Israel, the experience is once-in-a-lifetime and an opportunity to make lasting friendships with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet.
On the power of agencies at work in Jewish Detroit
myJDet: Together, over a relatively short period of time, amidst busy careers, you have both taken on numerous roles as community leaders. In what roles have you derived the most satisfaction?
Zachary: My participation in Federation’s Maimonides Society, the Forman Leadership Mission and certainly my growing role as an advisor to Hebrew Free Loan.
Ilana: I have found the most fulfillment helping other people find their passion – those things that most interest them – then encouraging them to take action in leadership roles. I don’t feel I’ve mentored others per se, but I find it gratifying to watch people grow from their first steps into communal activities to leadership roles.
As fundraisers, what do you tell people when they question the role of Federation?
Zachary: It’s easy to misunderstand that Federation is all about raising money. Federation’s purpose is more about doing, building the strength and future of our community. Its role is more complicated than most people can comprehend. I believe that until you pick up an oar and row, you’re missing the boat.
Ilana: What I would say – and I think Zach feels the same way – is that we are blessed to do what we do. It’s gratifying to invest our time and money knowing that we’re doing what we’re meant to do as a Jewish community: to share, to be kind, to care for one another, to give tzedakah. I’ve always felt it’s my honor to give. It’s a mitzvah.
Restaurants: We’re not up on Detroit’s latest and greatest. We keep kosher at home and eat veg or fish anytime we eat out. Phoenicia probably qualifies as our neighborhood favorite.
Places to meet for coffee: Maple Café, although most of our coffee drinking happens in the car.
Building in the Detroit skyline: Z: Joe Louis Arena I: Shaarey Zedek, because I remember driving up the lodge as a kid from Windsor to school, I always felt it was my landmark, that we were almost there. Shaarey Zedek always feels like a point of pride as a Jewish landmark in Detroit.
Place to take kids/ visitors: TheZoo, Birmingham, Downtown Detroit, Ann Arbor. We generally just try to get outside. Anywhere outside.
Vacation places: Michigania, Duck Key and Palm Beach Gardens in Florida.
Sports: Z: Fishing, hockey, golf. I: Exercise, yoga, hiking
Jewish Food: I: My grandma’s babka and challah. Z: Gefilte fish or cholent.
Jewish holiday: Yom Kippur. You come out and never feel better. I highly recommend the Neilah Service at Adat Shalom.
Jewish expression: Ungapatchka’d (ridiculously over decorated), Farmisht (confused)
Guilty pleasures: An uninterrupted night’s sleep
Ways to unwind: We like to take walks, be with the kids, try to get outside, we like to fly kites.
WORDS TO LIVE BY:
Z:.Be nice. Do the right thing. Try your best.
I: Be grateful.