Lee Weinstein, 57, has followed a long path to reclaim his Jewish, liberal, entrepreneurial heritage.
He served on the staff of a congressman and a governor, developed the first AIDS nutrition news source in the nation and spent 15 years on Nike’s communication team. Then he quit the corporate world to launch his own boutique public relations firm. He was recently elected president of an international PR network.
His current persona as a liberal Jewish business owner is closer to that of his immigrant great grandfather, Israel Weinstein, than to his far-right grandfather, Archie Weinstein. His father, Sanford Theodore (Ted) Weinstein, was not raised Jewish after Archie married Delta Frazier, daughter of the sheriff of Harney County.
After an impressive employment journey through political, nonprofit and corporate spheres, Lee owns and operates his own business, Weinstein PR; he converted back to Judaism during college; and he is a staunch Democrat who worked for Congressman Ron Wyden (now Oregon’s senior senator) and Governors Neil Goldschmidt and Ted Kulongoski (though not during Ted’s term as governor).
Israel’s Family Story
Israel Weinstein fled the pogroms in Rovno, Russia, and brought his wife, Clara, and two daughters to New York City in the late 1890s. The family, which by then included three sons, moved to Portland in 1905, perhaps with the encouragement or support of great uncle Abe Weinstein. According to an oral history from Lee’s great aunt Rose Weinstein Radding Marks, Uncle Abe helped many branches of the family relocate to Oregon. Israel owned mercantile stores in Portland and later in Burns. He was also one of the few Democrats in Oregon during that era – he attended at least two Democratic national conventions and knew FDR, says his great grandson Lee.
Israel’s son, Archie, on the other hand, was “very conservative – further right than Attila the Hun; not of my ilk,” says Lee. A flamboyant self-made millionaire who served as a Lane County commissioner and once ran for governor, Archie owned seven army surplus stores in the southern Willamette Valley.
Archie wanted to be a lawyer, but was refused admission to the state bar; he claimed because he was Jewish. Lee says it is just as likely he was denied admission because he ran moonshine with his brothers (when his father’s Weinstein’s General Store in Burns was sold and remodeled decades later, a still was found above the ceiling).
Lee claims his own business success can be attributed to luck, timing and “who you know.” But it might also be the work ethic he shares with Archie. In a 1979 article in Oregon Magazine, Archie attributed his success to the fact that “I always did the work of three or four men.”
Lee admits that some would call him a workaholic, but says, “I love working. Work is my hobby as well as my profession. I’ve been lucky to have great jobs.”
Living with his single mom who worked at the cosmetics counter at Nordstrom, he joined the workforce at age 13, working as a busboy. He hasn’t stopped working since.
Lee’s father, Ted, and mother, Mel Lee, returned to the liberal politics of Israel. Lee recalls that after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, Ted stopped selling guns in his store.
Growing up around his parents’ political friends, including Neil Goldschmidt, who was his babysitter, Lee became immersed in politics, assuming he would someday run for public office. “Watching him become (Portland) city commissioner and then mayor was inspirational,” says Lee.
In sixth grade, he wrote to members of Oregon’s congressional delegation to urge action on the environment. He also started a neighborhood newspaper, which he sold door-to-door. Before his parents’ divorce, he attended seventh grade at an alternative school run by Quakers, where he met numerous draft resisters on their way to Canada.
Appeal of Judaism
He attended Caitlin Gable School and then transferred to Lincoln High School, where his journey back to his family’s Judaism began. When he was sick with mononucleosis, his stepfather gave him The Chosen by Chaim Potok and QB VII and Exodus by Leon Uris.
“In my misery, reading those three books changed my life and opened my mind,” says Lee.
When he enrolled at Lewis & Clark College the next year to study political science, he signed up for a class taught by Rabbi Emanuel Rose of Congregation Beth Israel.
“I was turned on by my family’s history,” says Lee. “It related to me in my soul.”
A second class with Rabbi Rose followed, and Lee discovered Judaism resonated with both his beliefs and his family history. Knowing he wanted to someday have children, he decided to continue studying with Rabbi Rose to convert. “I took back my roots,” Lee explains.
He did have children with his first wife, Jessica Litwak, a theater professional, to whom he was married eight years. Emma, now 25, and Sophie, 22, both became bat mitzvah. When the children were young, the family belonged to Havurah Shalom. Following the divorce, Lee says he called every night to say goodnight to the girls until they left for college. They maintained a strong bond with their father even as their mother’s successful career as a multidisciplinary theater professional took them to the East Coast.
During the interview for this article Sophie called her dad; he warmly told her he’d call her back soon and then gushed with praise for his daughters’ accomplishments. In May, Sophie graduated from Oberlin, where she was involved in Chabad all four years, with a joint major in studio art and Jewish studies. She is teaching first grade in Cleveland through Teach For America, which recruits college graduates to commit two years to teaching in high-need schools. Yale Press recently selected one of Sophie’s illustrations for the cover of the book The House of the Mother.
A New York-based theater and film director, Emma is a graduate of Smith College and is the Cullman Scholar in Yale School of Drama’s MFA Directing Class of 2019. She is working on a new commission for Working Theatre that she will write and direct; the play is about blacks, Jews and racial relations during100 years in Detroit.
“Emma would love to direct in Ashland (at Oregon’s famed Shakespeare Festival),” says Lee, noting the girls spent weeks each summer with him and grew to love the state.
Political World Beckons
While he was in college, Lee worked for Lee Hames in the Portland Planning Department – this was the first step in his “knowing the right people” to launch his career. As graduation neared, he decided he wanted to work for a member of Congress.
But he was stunned when he got a call from newly elected Oregon Congressman Ron Wyden. Ron told him, “I was talking to Lee Hames and she says you’re pretty good. I’m looking to fill my first congressional staff and I’d like to meet you.”
Lee landed an internship straight out of college. “I was the first one to the office and the last to leave,” says Lee. So he soon got a full-time job offer – as the receptionist in Wyden’s office. “I drove them crazy. I didn’t have enough to do so I was always dusting.”
To keep him busy, Lee’s job was soon shifted to answering constituent mail and entering names in the database. Since there was a campaign under way to take away the mortgage deduction on taxes, Lee says he had thousands of postcards he was responsible for answering.
“Ron had a great press operation and is very media savvy,” says Lee. “That’s where I got the marriage of media and politics.”
Lee and Ron are still friends, and Lee says Ron is always quick with a story about him.
Lee returned to Portland to work at Lewis & Clark recruiting students. Then he spent two years at the executive assistant for future governor Ted Kulongoski when he was Oregon insurance commissioner.
When his old babysitter Neil decided to run for governor, Lee became an active volunteer. After Neil was elected, Lee was hired to work in the administration. He served as Neil’s deputy press secretary for two years.
When Jessica landed a job teaching theater at San Francisco State, Lee and Jessica moved to California, where Emma was born.
For the first time, Lee didn’t have the “who you know” connection, but he did have the luck. He got a job from a classified ad. For two years he worked for the nation’s first food program for AIDS patients. As marketing communications director for Project Open Hand, he responded to the lack of nutritional information available to people with HIV. That work is among his proudest achievements, he says.
“We hired two dieticians and started a newsletter,” he says. “Positive nutrition is essential. If you lost muscle mass, you would die. … Hopefully we helped people live longer.”
When Jessica wanted to have a second child and stop working, Lee realized that the growing family couldn’t survive on one nonprofit income. So they decided to return to Portland, and Lee turned his attention to landing a corporate job with Nike.
His “luck, timing and who you know” again played a crucial role. While in the governor’s office he had worked with Kay Bryant, who had become head of internal communications at Nike.
“When I called her, she said my timing was great: ‘I’m writing your job description right now,’ ” says Lee. Lee joined Nike writing the employee newspaper. “I was the writer, photographer and designer of the Nike World Record.”
When he joined Nike in 1992, the $2 billion company had 2,000 employees. When he left in 2007, the company had grown to $17 billion and 17,000 employees. During those 15 years, he met and wrote about Nike executives and top athletes. He worked on the company’s PR efforts for the Sydney and Salt Lake City Olympic Games. He wrote about the need for Nike to embrace soccer if they wanted to become a global company (not an immediately popular idea when he wrote about it).
From 2002 to 2005, he directed Nike’s corporate responsibility communications, where he developed a strategic communications plan to build Nike’s reputation as a responsible company.
“I loved Nike,” he says. But during that project he said he realized he had a mission he wanted to pursue – to make the world a better place than he found it, which fit with both his Jewish and personal beliefs.
His Own Enterprise
“It took time to figure out,” he says. “I wanted to get reintegrated into Oregon. I love our state. There’s no better place to live. … I thought of lots of different business. I have all this PR experience and political experiences and Nike … I decided to start a boutique PR agency.”
Weinstein PR is a joint project with his wife of 16 years, Melinda Gadwood, who handles the books; she had been Nike CEO Mark Parker’s assistant. The business has no other employees, but they work with 20 “phenomenally talented people who work from their home offices.” Lee says most are moms who want work/life balance. Lee is involved in every promotion or project the firm works on. The client list is impressive, ranging from corporate giants such as Google, Facebook and Nike to nonprofits and government entities.
Lee describes one of the corporate giants as being the source of his greatest contribution to helping Oregon.
“In the height of the recession in 2009, Facebook wanted to build a plant in Prineville,” says Lee. “Crook County was really suffering. People were leaving, suicides and domestic violence were high … It was great to help those people. Now technology is one of their main industries.”
He also shares his PR chops with other boutique PR firms in 16 countries around the world. As a member of PR Boutiques International for several years, Lee has enjoyed having a global cohort with whom to discuss challenges and best practices. This year he completed nine years of serving on the Maryhill Museum of Art board of trustees, one of his many volunteer commitments; since he had some extra time, he accepted the PRBI presidency. He’s already instituted a monthly conference call he named “PRBI Jam” for members to discuss PR or business topics, such as how to retain talent and how to manage millennials.
“It’s nice to know you’re not out here all by yourself,” says Lee.
Though Melinda is not Jewish, she enjoys joining Lee at seders, High Holiday services and b’nai mitzvah celebrations. “She loves the faith and culture,” says Lee. Lee says they do not belong to a congregation since they spend most of the week in their home south of The Dalles, where no Jewish congregation exists. Lee generally spends two to three days a week in Portland conducting business from his 23rd floor unit in the Ladd Tower in the south Park Blocks.
Whether looking out over Portland’s growing city or enjoying the sunshine at their home south of The Dalles, Lee and Melinda are doing their part to ensure Oregon continues to be a wonderful place to call home.