The Staenberg name is now up on the JCC, “the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center.”
The Staenberg name was un-known in Denver just a few years ago. Michael Staenberg does not even live in Denver, even as he devotes time and resources to making things happen in Denver.
Still, for me, the Staenberg name will always be associated with another one, this one from Staenberg’s home, St. Louis: Stan Musial.
The Hall of Fame baseball player, who was one of the best of all time, and who was a legend in St. Louis, was brought up by Michael Staenberg the first time we met in my office. He noticed that I had a baseball autographed by Yogi Berra in my bookcase, whereupon we launched into a discussion of baseball. It seems that Staenberg and Stan “the Man” Musial were fast friends, with Staenberg even playing a positive role in the lives of Musial’s grandchildren, with whom Staenberg is still in contact.
A few days after our meeting, an autographed baseball by Stan Musial arrived in the mail.
Courtesy of Michael Staenberg.
Here is a person who, for all of his serious business and philanthropic initiatives, has a playful side; he’s enjoyable to be around.
Michael Staenberg’s major philanthropic focus is JCCs. He’s had a major impact on Denver’s JCC and also on JCCs in Omaha, St. Louis, Kansas City and Minneapolis.
Michael Staenberg does not just write the check or sit on the board; he goes to work as if he were a hired employee, spending countless — not hours or even weeks — but months and years as a jack-of-all trades, digging into everything from electrical systems to programs.
Once I bumped into Michael as he was driving out of the JCC parking lot. We shmoozed a moment and then he winked before he whizzed off. “Got to go — I’ve got my day job, you know.”
He was referring to the JCC, to his self-assigned job there. He assumes heavy responsibilities no one asked him to.
The last time I remember something similar is about 25 years ago when the Allied Jewish Federation was between directors and Robyn Loup stepped in as the volunteer acting director, going in every day. So does Michael Staenberg.
It was only natural when I interviewed Staenberg that we focus on JCC Denver.
Anyone who has been to the JCC in the last couple of years knows that it has a new parking lot, a new entrance and lots else new. The JCC is clearly a work in progress. The thing is, in talking to Michael Staenberg, one gets the idea that the JCC will always be a work in progress, for no sooner does he get one big project done than he sets his sights on another one.
“We’re putting the ‘community’ back in the JCC,” says Staenberg. “The middle C is community.
“People drive by and think they only see a parking lot that’s been redone. So much more has been redone: rebuilding and rebranding.”
On the rebuilding side, Staenberg says that some 40 years of deferred maintenance has been taken care of, piece by piece. This not necessarily visible to the average JCC user, but is critical to the JCC’s continued viability, he says.
A builder of shopping centers, Staenberg is in his element discussing all facets of construction and maintenance at JCC.
He clicks off item by item, as if speaking in bullet points.
“We have now fixed all the utilities and the sewer system — water, storm sewer — and the lights. We now have LED lights and new landscaping, which uses less water, much improved parking and better access — an additional access from Leetsdale.
“And, at Dahlia and Alameda, we now have a dedicated right hand turn, so the traffic flow is so much better.
“We fixed the exterior, painted it, and put up new signage.”
Signage is important, says Staenberg, because when it’s consistent, the JCC “looks like it’s one community area, part of a planned development. “This sends a message: Everyone is welcome.
Staenberg speaks about the nitty gritty — from sewers to signage — because he says that as a developer he has learned that the heart of an enterprise can work only if it’s integrated with the mundane. He passes easily from speaking about traffic flow and JCC programming because, in his experience, everything has to work for the heart to beat.
“You have to have great buildings, great programs and great leadership to make a nonprofit work. It’s about attracting people.
“The JCC entrances make you feel good when you come in. There is a brand new lobby. Beautiful. Makes you want to stay, to congregate.
“We fixed the locker rooms, the board room, the HVAC systems, took care of the electrical issues. The roofs were leaking.
“We do our own in-house maintenance. We redid the locker rooms and the board room ourselves.
“We’ve changed the mode of operation so we are much more efficient in our IT, security and contracts.
“People don’t see all that. Of the deferred maintenance, we’ve now done 90%.”
Then there is rebranding, new leadership and programming. Staenberg warms up, soon clicking off more items.
“We redid the first phase of the early childhood center.
“We have a new marketing department, with Adam Zandman; a new website, new videos, a new director of fitness, Mark Siebert; a new consultant in development, Linda Haley. We promoted Rachel Hagar to run the ECE and have a new director of Camp Shai, Courtney Jacobsen.
“We have the right CEO, Lara Knuettel, and a new comptroller, consultant Rubin Brown.
“We have everyone in the right seat. The right professionals.
“Ranch camp: Noah Gallagher.
“Tennis: Jim Swiggart.
“Still running the MACC is Steve Wilson.
“Gary Wagner is coming back as board chair. We’ve added some nice younger people who are passionate about the JCC.
“My experience in Denver is, you take a blank piece of paper and there’s a dot on it. If they say they see a dot, it’s not the right person.
“Now we have people looking at the whole paper — looking at the larger picture. Who cares about the dot?
“With our new lay and professional leadership, we’ve moved the needle.
“With the leadership in place, we can improve the programming. But MACC already has tremendous programs — the film festival. So does the Ranch Camp. We’ve sold out Camp Shai.
“The community is asking for this.
“These are the things we’ve proud of.
“But we’re going further.”
“The JCC has to cope with the lack of coherent Jewish neighborhoods.
“We’re going to finish the facility and have great programs. We will become once again prominent in the Jewish arena in Denver.
“People need to know that we’re on the verge of something big. We didn’t just build a parking lot.
“The world evolved. We’re more mobile. How do we become more relevant? That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s programming and leadership.
“That’s why I drive extra far to go to the JCC in St. Louis. It’s community. It’s family. Early childhood engagement and day care — and the seniors. We’re inclusive of everybody.”
Then there is process. Staenberg says he knows that all this has left some people frustrated.
“It took some time. There was a lot of frustration. I’m sure everyone wasn’t enamored with everyone. I apologize if I’ve put anyone off. Sometimes you have to take hard measures to move the needle.
“For 2018, we have a balanced budget for first time in probably eight years. It didn’t happen overnight. We’re buying things better. It’s a team effort.”
The man who sent me the Musial baseball and smiled as he sped off to his “day job” playfully offers a “Staenbergism”: There is no ‘I’ in team, but there are two ‘i’s in idiot.
Another Staenbergism: We as Jews have different doors but we all go to the same tent.
That tent encompasses another Staenberg passion: Jewish camping. “I think it’s important,” he says.
Under his leadership, Temple Emanuel’s Camp Shwayder at the base of Mt. Evans has been renovated.
“I’m on the national board of Jewish Camp,” he says, almost by way of apology. He likes to focus locally, not nationally. “If we don’t remember to help Jews locally we won’t have Jews nationally and Israel internationally. You need local things.”
Such as Camp Sabra in the Ozarks, which is part of the St. Louis JCC, and draws kids from as far away as Houston, Dallas and Memphis.
Referring back to “there’s no ‘I’ in team,” Staenberg says the JCC is reaching out to other Jewish agencies in Denver. “How can we work with Jco and Rose and Kavod? These are the things we’re trying to accomplish.
“We didn’t get here overnight and won’t do all this overnight. But we’re in much better shape than we were.”
Staenberg uses the “we” naturally, even though he lives in St. Louis.
What brought him to Denver?
“To help local institutions. I’ve done it in Omaha, Kansas City, Minneapolis.
“Everybody loves the JCC. Its success is important to the community.
“We have a statistic in St. Louis that the federation raises more money because of the JCC.
“The JCC gets Jewish people more engaged.
“More people want to join a synagogue because more people are engaged.
“This is all about engagement.”
Staenberg spends about 35% of his time in Denver, due not just to his community involvement. He owns five shopping centers in metro Denver.
He does not believe that “brick and mortar” will lose out to the internet. “We need to be smarter than we have been and we need to have the right tenants.
“You’ve got to understand your client and what they’re doing.”
In both business and philanthropy.
Oh yes, while Michael Staenberg votes in St. Louis, his football loyalty is to the Denver Broncos.
Not, however, his baseball loyalty.
That’s strictly the St. Louis Cardinals.
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2017 by the Intermountain Jewish News