The Cheatham family.

Honorable Menschion: Tom Cheatham

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Honorable Menschion: Tom Cheatham

The Cheatham family.

Tom Cheatham’s life has brought him from childhood homes in Marlborough and Sudbury, Massachusetts, to Anchorage, Alaska, and the state of Israel, before settling in Swampscott. In Israel, he lived on a kibbutz, learned fluent Hebrew, served in the Israel Defense Forces and earned a college degree. He is the former president of Temple Shalom in Salem, and currently works at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead. Tom and his wife Suzie have three children – Baki, Andrea and Lauren – and 10 grandchildren.

Can you tell us a little about where and how you grew up?

I was born in Marlborough and grew up there and in Sudbury. My grandparents on my mother’s side were Hester Trumbull and Myles Standish with all the lineage. My mother went to Dana Hall and Connecticut College. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a Marine Corps major, so a classic Southern South Carolinian military family. My dad attended the Coast Guard Academy and three of my uncles went to The Citadel. My dad got his PhD in electrical engineering from MIT. My grandfather on his side was named Thomas Pope Cheatham Sr., My dad was named Thomas Pope Cheatham Jr., and I am Thomas Pope Cheatham III.

My parents divorced when I was 9. I started going to school in Sudbury, then went to the Middlesex School in Concord for three years, then back to Sudbury, but in the middle of my senior year, I Ieft home on my own and went to Anchorage where I graduated from West Anchorage High School.

How did you meet you wife Suzie?

My wife Suzie and I met at the Jewish Agency before embarking on our Sherut La’am six-month volunteer trip to Kibbutz Yiron in Israel in December of 1968. My memories of our time on the kibbutz are very fond. In fact, that experience drove us back to Israel as new immigrants a year later. I worked in the apple orchard and in the cotton fields. Suzie worked in the kitchen and in the children’s houses. We also studied Hebrew in an ulpan taught by a kibbutz member. We became real lovers of kibbutz life, and the two years before we came back to the States we spent on Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, and our kids were in the children’s houses – it was great! We were married in June 1970, and we made Aliyah to Israel in July 1970.

You have lived in a few foreign countries. Can you share what you were doing in each and how that’s helped to shape your life?

Suzie and I moved to Israel in 1970 and lived there until 1983 (we did spend two years, 1977 to 1979, in Minneapolis when Suzie’s dad was passing). One of the most amazing men I met on the Kibbutz was a diehard kibbutznik named Arnan Azariyahu who was Israel Galili’s personal secretary in the War of Independence. We hitchhiked all over Israel during our stay and even got into some mischief.
I am a graduate in mathematics from the University of Tel Aviv and served in the Computer Corps from 1974 to 1983. I developed a strong Israeli identity over those years and speak Hebrew well. We returned to the US in 1983 to be close to my mom.

The family spent two years in Yokohama from 1989 to 1991 – I was a joint venture liaison between my US company and a new Japanese joint venture. We made great Japanese friends and worked hard to learn some of the language. This trip had a huge impact on our kids.

Tom Cheatham (left), in the IDF, in 1972.

What drew you to Israel and Judaism?

I sought and was drawn to Israel for the adventure (and had a history of being adventurous for several years before). Over time, I became Israeli. After returning to the US, I found Judaism bit by bit and converted in 1986 in time for my son’s bar mitzvah. The trend continued, and I am now an active temple participant.

Tell us a little about your family life and where you all live.

We have been in Swampscott since 1984, so nearly 40 years. Suzie and I have three children – Baki, Andrea and Lauren – and we are blessed with 10 grandchildren. Baki and Angie have four children and live in Haddonfield, N.J. Andrea and Jacob have four children and live in Reykjavik, Iceland. Lauren and Ian have two children and live in Denver, Colo.

I visit Iceland every February for our granddaughter Zelia’s birthday, and fully intend to keep up that tradition! I also attended Lazer’s birth in 2010.

You were the president of Temple Shalom in Salem and helped them accomplish a merger with Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly. Can you share what that experience was like and the ways that you have stayed involved at the new congregation?

I spent two years as president of Temple Shalom, and then another three years working the merger process which ended in the successful merger with Temple B’nai Abraham in 2014. The decision to merge with Temple B’nai Abraham was secured by a single vote at a congregational meeting. The process was difficult, long, and often frustrating, but we got it done. The merger for me has been spectacular – I love my new spiritual home and am as active as time permits.

You have held a variety of positions in your career, as an entrepreneur in Israel, financial manager of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, and now as the chief financial officer at the JCCNS. Which job has been the most rewarding?

The most rewarding job I held was as the founder of HeliOss, a venture-backed high-tech company based in Yoqneam, Israel. We made wireless transmission systems. The company was about to go IPO when our market tanked, and we had to close way too early.

My second career serving in Jewish nonprofits is a bit of a miracle. I have no financial training, so I have learned the trade on the job. When I started with Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters, I really had no idea what a debit or credit were. My current role at our beloved JCCNS has been especially rewarding. My partnership with executive director Marty Schneer has helped strengthen the JCC financially.

How did COVID affect the JCCNS and how were you able to pivot and maintain financial stability at the JCCNS?

We had a committee of doctors who drove our policy, and our staff were incredibly attuned to the CDC, and state and town regs. We got a lot of advice from our network. In addition, we were very creative in getting camp to operate in 2020, and in fact, we were the only day camp on the North Shore to operate!

I hear that you are a diehard rower at the JCCNS. Also, you take the cold plunge into the ocean every Jan. 1. What other hobbies or interests would you like to share?

I am a member of the Marblehead Rock n’ Row Club – just completed my sixth year. I love it! The Swampscott Yacht Club hosts the annual plunge, and Devens Road (where I live) has always sent a hearty delegation to plunge in the ocean. The Yacht Club raised over $12,000 this year for some good local causes. We host an open house every year at our house to celebrate the plunge and the new year. My newest passion is Arabic, and I am in my fourth year trying to learn it. I belong to a Meetup group that meets weekly, and our coordinator is Chaldean Iraqi. Θ

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