Neil Zalenko

by Vivian Henoch

Accounting for the many goals achieved in his 76 years, Neal Zalenko’s profession has served him well. As Neal observes, “The cool thing about being an accountant — and a trusted financial consultant — is that you see more about people than their doctors, their lawyers, their psychiatrists — even their spouses. And you get paid to do it. Show me a checkbook and I can tell a lot more about a person than they might care to show, because everything we do comes down to how we spend our dollars over time.”   

A proud alum of Wayne State University’s School of Business, Neal started his own accounting firm in 1972. As the practice grew to a successful business, so too did his career as a financial adviser and community volunteer. In 2005, at the age of 60, Neal sold his practice, “with plenty of meat still on the bone,” to merge with Virchow Krause & Company (now Baker Tilly) and turned full throttle to the work of a community volunteer.

To name a few on a long roster of his leadership roles in charitable, cultural and educational organizations, Neal is President of the Marjorie and Maxwell Jospey Foundation and has served on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, the United Jewish Foundation, United Hebrew Schools, Kadima, Hebrew Free Loan, Yad Ezra, Adat Shalom Synagogue, JCC of Metropolitan Detroit, the Jewish National Fund, Bar Ilan University (Detroit Region), The Carr Center, The Greening of Detroit, Walsh College and Wayne State University’s School of Business.  

Reflecting on a life lived well

The Zalenko family

Partners for life, married 53 years, Neal and Esther Zalenko have come through the long months of Covid in good health and with gratitude, first and foremost for their growing family:  Jennifer Z. Goodbinder in Philadelphia (married to Todd, with children, Ella, Zoe & Regan); and Karen Weinbaum in Huntington Woods (married to Brandon, with children Aden, Jonah & Callie).  “All things considered in a pandemic year, I would say we’re doing well,” said Neal. “We have our family; we have our health. We have our friends and community. What more can we ask?”

In Conversation with Neal Zalenko

On navigating uncertainty in the months of Covid

myJewishDetroit: As most conversations begin these days, let’s start with the question, how are you? How have you and your family fared through Covid?

Neal: Generally, I would say we’ve been happy to be alive — happy to be active and productive as always. Esther and I have been blessed (and I don’t use that word often). Other than our 16-year-old granddaughter who was in quarantine with mild Covid symptoms months ago, it’s amazing to me that in this terrible pandemic, virtually everyone in our immediate family and circle of friends has stayed safe and healthy.  

Last March, we came back from Florida, and I said to Esther, we haven’t seen our kids for a year, we’re driving to Philadelphia. So off we went, in the midst of Covid; we packed salami sandwiches, got into the car, drove nearly 12 hours straight to the Jersey shore to meet our kids, had a great time and drove back a week later.

Honestly, I mean it when I say, I’m not afraid of Covid, I’m afraid of not living life to the fullest. At 76, I may be at the “end of my game,” but I still love a good round of golf (a sport I took up at 70 with a handicap of 36). I’m proud to own a Harley that I still can ride, and I love a 20-mile spin around the neighborhood on a motorized bike. 

myJewishDetroit: As a member of Federation’s Board, what were your observations in facing the challenges of the community this past year?

We were prepared to see the worst and came out far better than we ever expected, and I think that speaks to the intrinsic fiscal strength and health of our community. Economically? We thought it would be the middle class that would be hit hard, but that turned out not to be the case. Hebrew Free Loan did not see the dramatic increase in requests we anticipated. Even Yad Ezra did not have the doubling in demand for food that we expected to see.

And Federation has done what it has always done in response to every challenge. In 2021, we hit an ambitious campaign goal of $34.2 million from 10,000 donors. And, talk about shots in the arm, welcoming the reopening of public spaces, Federation recently offered a series of clinics in partnership with JARC, vaccinating 3,500 members of the community. 

Our life goes on. That’s true in a pandemic, true in a crisis, true in our history . . . life goes on. That’s been our story. And wherever we are in our story, there are people who will remind us that we are Jewish. So, we don’t get too comfortable and never forget that we need each other.”

On marriage, mentors and lasting partnerships

myJewishDetroit: Neal, please share a little about your family background, how did you and Esther meet?

Esther and Neil Zalenko

I grew up in Detroit, the son of immigrant parents. Esther grew up in Toronto, born after WWII, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. We met, post-college, in Madrid – both of us traveling with friends in Spain. We met, reading our street maps, standing on the corner in front of the Prado Museum. Our conversation started with a jaunty bit of Jewish geography: My mother was born in Canada, I had a Canadian Bubbie and a cousin living in Toronto, and that cousin just happened to be one of Esther’s favorite schoolteachers. Esther knew nothing of Detroit but had a cousin in Brooklyn. On and on it went as we discovered how much we shared in common. Love and marriage followed, then two daughters.

I started our accounting practice at zero; once the girls were in school, Esther joined the company to become its comptroller. Three decades later, when we merged with Baker Tilly, we were a successful company of 50 people with hundreds of faithful and satisfied clients.

And some of those clients David Hermelin, William Farber and Maxwell Jospey — were visionary leaders who changed the course of my life. They didn’t push me. They were my mentors – partners who showed me the way to give back – through fundraising and philanthropy. 

On the art of asking and giving back

myJewishDetroit: As an accountant to clients of wealth and influence in the community, what have you learned about fundraising?

I’ve never been embarrassed to ask clients for what I myself was doing for the community. No pressure, but a gentle nudge sometimes helps . . .  with the understanding that the worst thing people might give you is the answer “no.” My practice was not to teach people how to give tzedakah, but to see that those who were receptive could learn of the opportunities to give. In most cases, people just don’t know where or how to begin. As I learned myself, it’s all about educating and connecting people. I’ve had the knack and I have found it very rewarding.

My feeling about charity is that you don’t get to keep what you don’t give. I’m not a religious person, but in Rosh Hashanah it’s written and Yom Kippur it’s sealed: the books get closed every year, it’s already decided how much money you’re going to make and how much you’re going to spend. That money for tzedakah? In my book, it’s untouchable and to be given with full intent. That’s my “theory” — and my practice.

myJewishDetroit: Over the span of your professional career, you have also served as financial advisor to numerous Jewish organizations, as well as in leadership roles in the community. What has been your motivation for your long record of volunteerism?

My simple answer for that is that I need to be needed. It’s not about me. Or ego. I don’t want to be a part of something where they don’t need me. And for sure, I’m not looking to be out every night at board meetings. Maybe it’s my short attention span, but I’d rather think that I have a wide interest in helping others in our community. Over the years, I have chosen to spend my time and energy in service to organizations that interest me. And that has led me to the rewards of building partnerships, not only in the Jewish community, but throughout Metro Detroit. 

For example, there’s the Carr Center — a creative incubator and stage to promote, present and preserve African and African American cultural arts. I fell in love, not only with their mission, but with their real estate, a fabulous building in Midtown across from the Detroit Athletic Club. I got involved to help them get on a path of financial sustainability. And, once they got there, they no longer needed my service on their board. My feeling is this, I’m happy to help and when I have met a goal, I’m just as happy to move on.

myJewishDetroit: What initially drew you to the Jewish Federation and what kept you involved?

Esther and I had friends going on a couples’ mission to Israel in 1981 and they encouraged us to join them. We were young and profoundly moved by the experience. You can’t come home from a Federation Mission to Israel without thinking you’ve had the greatest time ever. And so, it was for us. A different time, a different age. And all the more difficult to replicate for young people today. 

But we came back from Israel all the more determined to support Federation and, with the encouragement of friends and opportunities presented to me by clients like David Hermelin, we got involved. Step by step, one committee at a time, I found my way to seats on agency boards and my first leadership position as President of the United Hebrew School.

myJewishDetroit: What do you see in Jewish Detroit that gives you the most inspiration today?  

The amount of money that our little community raises year-in and year-out! When I look at the United Fund supported by General Motors, Chrysler, Ford — and think of the consumer power of all these corporations – and see that they raise $70 million every year from everybody — Jew, Gentile, White, Black, everyone — the fact that our little shtetl in the Jewish community raises over $34 million annually — not to mention those who make special gifts and endowments — it’s just amazing to me. 

The strength of our community is mind-boggling.  And it’s the thing that makes me proud and keeps me motivated to do more.   

myJewishDetroit: What do you tell young people to encourage them to get involved in the community? 

I tell them it’s easy. And you’ll get far more out of it than you put in. People tell me, “They don’t need me, they don’t want me, why bother?” And to that I say, “It only seems like that to you, just get over it. Our community needs you more than you know.” 

A groundbreaking event for Walsh College

On volunteerism and philanthropy: giving forever forward

myJewishDetroit: As you reflect on your many volunteer roles that have made an impact on lives in our community what projects stand out as most satisfying for you?

In particular, three projects come to mind:

First: I was intimately involved in the merger of Beth Achim and Adat Shalom Synagogues. At the time, no one would have imagined how the two congregations could possibly merge, but it happened right before my eyes in my office, and I played a part of coordinating it. I clearly remember looking around the table and saying, “Let’s see if we can’t do something that’s good for the Jews. . . not good for just the congregation.” And, with the help of guys like Ed Kohl, David Schostak and others, we made it happen. I loved that we were able to do that. And best of all, that merger still exists today. 

On a trip to Israel

Second: This was not on the scale of a temple merger — but a small gift of a more personal nature to create a warmer welcome to the Beth El Community Transformation Center (BCTC) located in the historic Albert Kahn building on Woodward Avenue. If you like old real estate as much as I do, you appreciate the architecture and the history of that old building (formerly Temple Beth El) and now undertaking an ambitious development campaign and renovation. When I took a tour of the building with Pastor Aramis Hinds a couple years ago, I noticed that one of front doors was missing. Where four stately 15-foot engraved wooden doors should have been standing, there were only three. When I asked about the door, Pastor Hinds explained that they had sent it out for repair when they bought the building but couldn’t afford the price quoted for the repair and had to let it go. Well, how can you have a community center with a boarded-up entrance? So, Esther and I bought the door from the repair shop and had it installed by Richard Broder and Todd Sachse. That little project didn’t feed the hungry, didn’t clothe the naked, didn’t shelter the homeless, but it sure did put a brighter face on a beautiful building on Woodward Avenue and a welcoming new door to the community. And I just loved putting it there.

Third: I am President of the Marjorie and Maxwell Jospey Foundation – and proud to be in that position because Maxwell, of blessed memory, was a client and a good friend of mine. Max was a guy who loved charitable people. As President of the Franklin Hills Country Club, he used to host fundraisers for charity. Long story, short: Max liked me and I liked him too and he asked me to serve as President of his foundation. He left a list of charities he supported in the past, but no instructions or restrictions on where the funds should be directed. The decisions have been our Board’s – as I imagine Maxwell would have wanted – focusing on the needs of the community in Southeast Michigan. 

myJewishDetroit:  Of all your achievements, what has made you most proud?

My LinkedIn profile says I’m a “professional partner” and I think that’s the best description of what I am most proud to do: getting to know people, getting to work and partnering with them. I like to encourage people and be encouraged by them. I’m a guy who doesn’t like to be alone. If I see an opportunity, I want to share it with my friends and with others.

I often run into people who say to me, “You know, Neal, what you once told me turned out to be so helpful. I may not remember the words I used, but I do know that I never told anybody anything that didn’t come from the heart. I tell people like it is, what I think, and if they remember me for it, that’s great.   

At the end of the day, I would like people to say of me, “Yeh, Neal Zalenko was a good partner – in marriage, in friendship, in business.

Words to live by:

Say “yes.” It’s a short word that goes the distance to open doors.