It wasn’t easy being the child of Jewish immigrant parents, growing up in a small town in western Pennsylvania in the 1970s and ’80s, but that didn’t stop Estee Portnoy.
Not one bit.
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor father and Israeli mother, Portnoy was raised in New Castle, where there were not too many Jews. She was somewhat isolated in school, and experienced anti-Semitism there.
But for the past 17 years, Portnoy has been employed by one of the biggest names in sports: Michael Jordan.
The charismatic blonde manages the day-to-day business and marketing activities of Jordan, working directly with “His Airness” and his key financial, legal and business advisers in growing his brand, and overseeing his business activities with companies such as Nike and Warner Brothers.
So, how did a Jewish girl from New Castle get so far?
Portnoy does not hesitate for a second.
“BBYO,” she said.
And, because it was BBYO that gave her the confidence to reach so high, she is giving back to the Jewish youth organization by using her now-polished skills to serve as the chair of the international board of directors for BBYO.
Portnoy left New Castle for the University of Michigan after graduating high school, sent there by her parents “to meet Jewish people,” she said. She now lives in Bethesda, Md.
But she still considers western Pennsylvania her home.
“I tell people I meet that I am from Pittsburgh,” Portnoy said, adding that she is still a big fan of the Steelers, the Penguins and the Pirates.
Ironically, it was the success of the Pirates that postponed her planned address to the BBYO Keystone Mountain Region on Wednesday, Oct. 9, to help kick off its program year. Her scheduled talk would have conflicted with the decisive game five of the National League division series.
“I’m kind of sad that I won’t be speaking to the teens and adults,” she said, “but I get it. It wouldn’t have been fair. I will try to sneak back to Pittsburgh when they re-schedule.”
Raised in a “Conservative, kosher home, where I stayed home from school for all the holidays,” Portnoy recalled being a “typical Jewish teenager.”
“After I did my bat mitzvah, I thought I was done with Judaism,” she said. Being a child of immigrants with a name like “Estee Mermelstein” in New Castle, she recalled, “being Jewish was not something I was always proud to be.”
But when she joined BBYO along with a handful of other Jewish teens in New Castle, her outlook changed.
Jewish teenagers from small BBYO chapters in Altoona, Uniontown, Johnstown, Charleston, W.Va., and New Castle “would come to Pittsburgh to the JCC to meet other Jewish kids,” she recalled. “BBYO kind of saved me.”
Not only did Portnoy meet her husband, Elliott, at her very first BBYO convention when she was just 13, but her involvement in the organization gave her the opportunity to develop leadership skills that would come in pretty handy down the road.
“I was running meetings and planning conventions in BBYO, and speaking in front of people since I was 13 or 14 years old,” she said. Eventually, she became a campus leader at the University of Michigan, which led to her ultimate career managing the affairs of Jordan.
After the Washingtonian Magazine ran a piece about Portnoy in 2003, calling her “The Woman Behind Michael,” in which her mother, Yaffa, cited BBYO as a huge influence in her daughter’s life, BBYO came calling.
“I got a call from BBYO asking for money,” Portnoy said with a smile, and was soon tapped to serve on its board. She has served as its chairman since 2010.
One of her goals as chairman, she said, is to revitalize the Pittsburgh area group.
She appears to be succeeding.
The Keystone Mountain Region, which serves teens from 13 different communities around Pittsburgh and Morgantown, W.Va., now has a full-time program director, Chuck Marcus, and serves 532 teens. Just two years ago, the chapter only had a part-time director, and was serving 259 teens.
“Kids need something fun and meaningful to make those bonds [to Judaism] early,” Portnoy said. “Studies like the recent Pew survey are so horrifying. I believe we have to do a better job with our youth, and to start earlier.”
Engagement in Jewish youth groups, along with day schools and Jewish camps, are big predictors in maintaining involvement with the Jewish community, she said.
While Portnoy finds the Pew study “incredibly disturbing,” she believes the work she does with BBYO is a way to “stem intermarriage and create community,” she said.
“I think kids want to connect,” she said. “And BBYO gives kids a safe place to connect.”
With a recent increase in funders, BBYO has seen a lot of growth in the last year and is poised to keep growing, Portnoy said.
“Two years ago, at our international convention in Atlanta, we had 850 kids,” she said. “Last year, we had 2,000 kids in Washington. This year’s convention will be in Dallas. Registration opened four days ago, and we already have 1,800 kids signed up.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)