By Deb Silverthorn
Debra Gayle Polsky, 69, passed away on May 7, 2023. Born on Jan. 9, 1954, in Roslyn, New York, she moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee with her family when she was a toddler.
Polsky spent much of her life encouraging, building, sharing and treasuring Jewish life.
She was executive director of the Dallas Jewish Historical Society (DJHS) for the last decade. In an interview with the Texas Jewish Post just a week before her unexpected passing, Polsky said, “We’re always planning, always presenting and constantly bringing more people to the agency. Our stories are who we are and it’s so very important, while we are here, that we tell them.”
Polsky, her sister Sharon and late brother Jack are the children of Sara and Harry, both of blessed memory. Her father passed away when Polsky was just 2. It was the strength of her mother, who worked as a legal secretary and provided for the physical and loving needs of her children, that allowed their family to go on.
“Debra was born on my fifth birthday and while I first thought I’d have preferred a bicycle, it turned out she was the best present ever. Ultimately we became good friends and we enjoyed spending time with one another,” said Sharon Polsky, laughing at the memory that Debra rearranged their shared bedroom the day Sharon went off to college.
“I was so proud of her ability to pick up and move to a new place and become successful. She had that knack of reaching out to people and causing them to love her,” her sister added.
Polsky’s family attended Chattanooga’s B’nai Zion Congregation, where she’d relish time with Rabbi Harris Swift and his rebbetzin Bessie, both of blessed memory. At B’nai Zion, she was one of the first to celebrate a Friday night bat mitzvah; she was confirmed; and she connected to her Jewish roots. When she was a young adult, Rabbi Richard Sherwin, then Rabbi Josef Davidson, both at B’nai Zion, continued providing the Jewish influence she’d value.
“Debra loved growing up Jewish and she brought that to everyone she made an impact on. She was always working toward something,” said Sharon.
As a young child and through her teens she loved spending time at the Jewish Community Center (now the Jewish Cultural Center) and she was a member of B’nai B’rith and Young Judaea youth organizations. Connecting to the greater community even then, she also joined a youth group at a local Episcopalian church.
A graduate of Brainerd High School, at which she was a member of the choir, Polsky then graduated from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and later earned a master’s degree in public administration and social work from the University of Nebraska. Polsky taught at Chattanooga’s Jewish Community Center (now Jewish Cultural Center), where she was also a lifeguard and where she began a career with BBYO.
Realizing Jewish communal work was her passion, Polsky chose to teach about the religion, culture and traditions as director of adults and single services at the JCC and then BBYO regional director.
Polsky met Jaynie Schultz when they and Lane Schlessel were (in Omaha, Kansas City and St. Louis) working as co-regional directors of BBYO. In 1986, Schultz moved home to Dallas to open Garrett Creek Ranch with her mother Leslie, of blessed memory, and Polsky moved with BBYO to San Francisco. Three years later Polsky made Dallas home by taking on the role of BBYO’s North Texas Oklahoma regional director.
“Debra had a love story for the Jewish community and she and I were like sisters. She became our family and Dallas became her home,” said Schultz. “To my children she’s always been Aunt D, whom they’d confide in and laugh with; to my parents she was another daughter; and to our Jewish community she was a gift.”
In 2013, Polsky took on her role at the Dallas Jewish Historical Society.
“Debra was the face, heart and really the soul of the Dallas Jewish Historical Society to our community and to the general community. So many people knew about our stories because she was so vigilant and worked so very hard,” said Jeanette Pincus, DJHS president. Polsky was to be honored next year for her dedication. Donations being made in remembrance of Polsky will be used to create programming in her memory.
“Debra, Jessica and Jenny, our archivist and administrative assistant, were an amazing team and they’ve made so much happen. [Debra] loved the organization and knew of its importance. She connected our past to our future and in that she helped find the stories of those who’ve been here for generations and the more recent transplants. Her great, Southern welcoming style opened doors and hearts.”
Connected to many organizations in Dallas, Polsky served on the boards of the Aaron Family JCC, Southern Methodist University and Tiferet Israel Congregation. She taught for 25 years at the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning at the JCC.
Polsky’s sister reflected on childhood visits to the Tivoli Theatre, where, for 25 cents, they’d get Junior Mints, which would remain a lifetime favorite treat; lollipops; a Western movie and cartoons. In the kitchen, Polsky’s greatest challenge, like her sister’s, was making spaghetti sauce as good as their mother’s.
She enjoyed watching television mysteries and she was an avid reader who from childhood continued to enjoy the “Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians” and “Nancy Drew” series, then Jewish feminism-related books. Polsky also treasured anything and everything by Sholom Aleichem.
“When the heart is full, the eyes overflow,” wrote Sholom Aleichem. So true, and that’s why our community’s eyes now overflow.