Ivan Wolkind, 56, Worked to Secure Jewish Los Angeles

Wolkind committed himself to protecting synagogues, schools and hundreds of other Jewish sites — and he did it with love, resolve and foresight. 
June 12, 2024

Walk into any Jewish institution in Los Angeles and you likely will be safer today because of Ivan Wolkind.

The former senior executive with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is credited with overhauling community security in Jewish Los Angeles. Wolkind committed himself to protecting synagogues, schools and hundreds of other Jewish sites — and he did it with love, resolve and foresight. 

Wolkind died May 10, two days after suffering sudden cardiac arrest while working out at a gym. He was 56 and leaves behind his parents, wife and their three children, age 18, 21 and 23. 

Hundreds gathered on Mother’s Day to mourn Wolkind, who served as the Federation’s chief financial officer and chief operations officer for 13 years, and who also volunteered as an LAPD reserve police officer. 

During his funeral, attended by more than 500 people at B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Pico-Robertson, Wolkind was remembered as a “gentle giant” who cared deeply for the Jewish community and a carefree soul who loved a good prank and a bad pun.  An athletic 6-foot-3 Brit with a mischievous smile, Wolkind treasured his family and friends and focused his professional and volunteer efforts on ensuring the safety of those around him.

In 2012, working with then-Jewish Federation CEO Jay Sanderson, Wolkind launched the Community Security Initiative (CSI), the first-in-the-nation community-wide effort to link Jewish institutions through a security network. Seeded with a federal grant, CSI provided access to security resources for Jewish institutions and became a national model for critical incident coordination, information and intelligence sharing, safety and security training.

“Ivan’s legacy, among all the other things he did, was that he cared about all of us so that we could daven safely, send our kids to school safely and be Jewish safely.” – Jay Sanderson

“Ivan’s legacy, among all the other things he did, was that he cared about all of us so that we could daven safely, send our kids to school safely and be Jewish safely,” Sanderson said at the funeral. “We all owe Ivan Wolkind our safety and our lives.”

Wolkind’s work with CSI opened other avenues in the world of law enforcement. In 2014 he attended the Los Angeles Police Academy and was sworn in as an LAPD reserve officer. He was assigned to Wilshire Division Patrol, and he worked on community relations and outreach as well as counterterrorism efforts. 

At his funeral, a police Honor Guard presented an American flag to his family.

In 2017, Wolkind was invited to join the InfraGard National Members Alliance Board, which he eventually chaired. InfraGard serves as a bridge between the FBI and the private sector to foster communication and cooperation to help prevent terrorism and crime.

Wolkind volunteered as a security expert at the Jewish institutions where he and his family were involved, including B’nai David-Judea, The Happy Minyan, Shalhevet High School, and Hillel and Maimonides day schools. 

In 2023, Wolkind became CEO of Magen Am, a nonprofit security agency and training center for the West Coast Jewish Community. Just 10 days before he died, he had been announced as the new CEO of the Houston Holocaust Museum, a position he would have started later this summer.

Ivan Wolkind was born in East London in 1967, the middle of three children. His father, Stephen, was a child psychiatrist and his mother, Leeanne, was a child psychologist. 

Wolkind was a proud alumnus of the Illford County School for Boys, where he was Head Boy. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Keele University and subsequently earned a degree as a chartered accountant.

Wolkind’s family was deeply connected to Israel. His grandparents, Leonard and Nettie Wolkind, retired to Israel in the ’70s and his grandfather is buried in Netanya. Ivan made frequent trips to visit his grandmother in Netanya while growing up. As a teenager and young adult, Ivan worked in the banana fields of Kibbutz Amiad in the North and spent six months as a scuba instructor on a dive boat in the Red Sea. 

As a young professional, he quit his job as an accountant at KPMG in London, sold everything he owned and moved to Israel with his younger brother, Phillip. 

When he arrived in Israel in 1996, Wolkind spoke virtually no Hebrew, so he answered the only English-language ad in the classifieds and joined the software quality assurance team at a high-tech start-up called SuperStudio. By the time he left a year later, he had been named CFO and had met his future wife, Leah Lesch, a Chicago native who was running production at SuperStudio. When SuperStudio was sold to The Learning Company and operations were moved to the U.S. in 1997, Ivan and Leah moved to Palo Alto in Northern California. They were married in March 1998.

Over the next dozen years, Ivan rode the dot-com boom, adapting his London accountant skills to the fast-paced, high-risk environment of Silicon Valley. He worked as an executive in several biotech and financial services start-ups, and founded and sold a company, eLease.com.

In 2001 Ivan and Leah, with new daughter Rosie, moved to Los Angeles. Wolkind stayed in hi tech until 2011, when he was approached by the Jewish Federation.

Though he had never imagined moving to nonprofit work, he was eager to take on the challenges of applying his process-oriented approach to a 100-year-old communal service organization. Wolkind stayed at the Jewish Federation for 13 years, overhauling the organization’s budgeting processes and harnessing data and technology solutions to improve efficiency and performance.

His colleagues at Federation, Magen Am and law enforcement described him as a beloved team builder — demanding but fair and always focused on the people he served. His friends spoke about his good humor, his passion for life and his love for diverse topics, including World War II, quantum physics, music, Judaism and birds.

Wolkind’s death came as a shock to his family and community, not least because he was an athlete — a competitive swimmer who completed several triathlons and enjoyed hiking, skiing, biking and running. 

One of his proudest accomplishments was winning the annual Wife Carrying Competition in Maine in 2007, when Ivan completed an obstacle course while carrying Leah on his back.

At his funeral, Wolkind was remembered as a loving husband and father who was the foundation of his family.

“I stand today, diminished, depleted and bereft, without the strong, brilliant, beautiful, clever, funny, sassy, often competitive, determined, irreverent and wonderful man we call Ivan,” Leah said in her remarks. 

Wolkind’s children also paid tribute to their father.

Lenny, 21, said his father could make friends with anyone, anywhere – including with survivalists they encountered at a truck stop on a father-son road trip. “I think maybe he was happier in a troubled world, where he could help fix it,” he said.

Even with his busy professional and civic schedule, he never missed a night of dinner with the family, said his daughter Rosie, 23. “My dad loved deeply and loud,” she said. “And if you ask any of us, I bet that we’d each say that secretly, we thought we were his favorite.”

Nettie, 18, spoke of spending the rest of her life trying to make her father proud. “My dad empowered me in every part of my life,” Nettie said. “How lucky am I to be the daughter of Ivan Wolkind—to have his DNA, his bad sense of humor and his love, as part of who I am.”

Wolkind is survived by his wife, Leah; his children, Rosie, Lenny, and Nettie; parents, Stephen and Leeanne; brother Phillip (Maria) and sister Helen Rostron (Chris), as well as nieces, nephews and friends.

Donations can be made in Ivan Wolkind’s honor to Magen Am, The Holocaust Museum of Houston, or Shalhevet High School.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, former senior writer for The Jewish Journal, is a writer and content creator for USC Shoah Foundation.

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