Friday, October 16, 2015


As the beloved Yogi Berra, z'l, said: "You can observe a lot by just watching." And, as those who read this column regularly are aware. I have been doing a lot of watching over the years and, in particular, over the years in which the titular leadership of JFNA have either led the organization into the state it's now in or stood by and just let it happen. There is so much going wrong at the same time that it's very hard to focus on just one area where JFNA could, were it a capable organization of excellence, make a difference.

But let me try; let's look at the profession JFNA should be working to enhance; an area where it has such little expertise (make that none) that it has farmed out almost all responsibility for building the profession to the Mandel Center for Excellence where, best I can tell, there is today an almost matching lack of federation-based expertise to that of JFNA. 

Let's look at some history, shall we:

  • Back in the day (that's long before the birth of JFNA) Large City Federation CEOs took great pride in training the next generation of federation CEOs and sending them out to the field with their continuing support and mentoring: Stanley Horowitz, z'l, Sandy Solender, z'l, Steve Solender, Darrell Friedman, to name but a few, created an entire cadre of leaders who would succeed them and others. The system, for a while at least, was the beneficiary of their wisdom in, first, hiring, then nurturing and training, then boosting the men (it was mainly men) and women who could and, in many instances, would lead so many communities to greater success. But...
  • ...this next generation who these terrific LCE hired, trained, nurtured and placed, at least by their action or non-action, seemed to have had little, if any, interest in following the sages who did for them. Sure, in many instances, they trained their successors, in other instances, they just did nothing other than to privately complain about how the profession is "going to hell" while scratching their heads as if the responsibility for the deterioration in communal leadership was not their fault. In so many ways, the fault was not in the stars but in themselves...and in us.
  • Oh, there was at least one effort at JFNA: and it was a tragic-comic (ok, maybe just tragic) one, painfully short-lived and deservedly so. It was the JFNA Executive Development Program. Its purpose: to take the best and brightest young professionals already in the system and provide the expertise, nurturing, training and placement to those who aspired to become CEOs and were identified as such by their communities. JFNA assigned some of the best and brightest of its own professional staff to direct the program. Here was an opportunity for the system to do what it was supposed to do; what, unfortunately, the sitting CEOs were no longer doing. And, then, those self-same CEOs screwed this one up. The program was clearly defined -- eligibility was for those who had professed an interest in and been identified as the best the system had to offer as future CEOs no matter city-size. Sorry, said the LCE, if we're funding this, we'll pick the participants essentially pro rata according to our federation's financial support for the program, those selection criteria be damned. 
  • The results as they say spoke for themselves; (1) federations sent fine young professionals to the first year of the program, the super-majority of whom had no becoming a federation CEO (unless it would have been in their hoe communities, if then)  (2) from that first "class" only one "graduate" ultimately moved up to CEO (and this superb professional first left the system for a number of years); (3) the JFNA professional leaders of the program themselves left JFNA (and neither of them is serving as a federation CEO [though one is a Large City COO]); and (4) the program having been an initiative under Steve Hoffman was terminated by his woeful successor at JFNA. 
  • In the meantime, the organizations dedicated to Jewish communal professionals, AJCOP and the JCSA, merged in 2011, JCSA the "surviving" organization. I attended several of their annual meetings the highlight of which was usually honoring one of their own -- a long-serving, accomplished federation CEO. It strikes me that JCSA might have once been the place where a community professional might turn for job placement or external advancement within the system but that now, if not back then, it is the place that is effectively ignored for those purposes. And...why...because, at least in large measure...
  • The paradigm for the most senior professional in the communal system was changed when good people let it happen and, upon the timely close of Howard Rieger's regime as CEO at JFNA, good people, well-meaning lay leaders all, lined up like sheep to approve the selection of Jerry Silverman as JFNA President and CEO -- a man with no previous experience within or with a federation before his hiring. From everything I have heard since that moment in time, Jerry was hired because he delivered a presentation to the Search Committee that "knocked it out of the box." I have heard nothing more that qualified Jerry for this position other than he led the small Foundation for Jewish Camp (where long-time leaders purportedly asked  when told of Jerry's hiring: "Can you believe this?") Here are the questions that should have been asked but weren't: "What is your educational background?" "What was the amount of your last pledge to your community Federation?""What are the transferable skills you learned at Dockers (or Sketchers) that would apply to the federation system?" "What is/are the purpose/purposes of JFNA?" "What is the relationship between JFNA and the Jewish federations?" "What do you believe to be the priorities of JFNA?" (Of course those same questions and more could be asked of Silverman today, 5+ years after his hiring and, again, this year, upon the extension of his contract.)
  • Oh, the argument went, there were no experienced federation professionals who would have taken the position -- to which I say "b.s." There have been other examples of reluctant communal professionals being approached by a group of respected Continental lay leaders and the professionals' peers and successfully recruited to a senior leadership position. There were two problems with such an approach here: (1) JFNA's Chair at the time, Kathy Manning, dictated to the Search Committee that it "...must think 'outside the box'" and break the monopoly the LCE held on the JFNA CEO position; and (2) most if not all of the respected Continental lay leaders had either been kicked to the curb by the then Board Chair and her predecessor or had lost interest in the system. "Thinking outside the box" produced Jerry Silverman.
  • It has been no coincidence that since Silverman's hiring, multiple federations seeking a new CEO have chosen a similar path -- to the point that "thinking outside the box" today means hiring an experienced federation professional. It has appeared to many seeking to move or move up within the federation system to a new community that they have been subtly or not so subtly "blackballed" by an express preference -- steered by JFNA or Mandel or urged by Silverman himself -- for those with no direct federation experience.  Thus a Camp director became, for a brief period, the CEO of one Large City; while a sitting CEO seeking a new position was not considered apparently because he/she had fired a staff professional hired with Jerry's glowing reference and at his insistence...and on and on.
  • The professional system had been breaking down for the past 5+ years, maybe longer. Unless the most powerful CEOs in our system have been living under a rock, they must be fully aware; yet, out of indolence or disinterest or a preoccupation with their work in their home communities, they have allowed the very system, the very profession that made their compensation, their perks (clubs, cars, First/Business class air, pensions, etc.), their comfort possible, to be kidnapped without a word. (I remember a time, shortly after the merger, when Steve Hoffman, then as now the Cleveland CEO, was approached to ask if he would support a specific lay person for JFNA CEO. As I was told, Steve responded: "Never. There will never be a lay person serving as CEO. Over my dead body." It was true then. I am informed that Steve Hoffman is still with us. Thank G-d.)
  • And, if Jerry had any background at all, ostensibly it was as a marketer for a pants company. Yet, there is no evidence of any marketing skills in anything Jerry did at JFNA before the lay Chair demanded that Renee Rothstein step in as Sr. V-P, Marketing and Communications. All Jerry was able to demonstrate in all things was that he was always making what has been characterized elsewhere as "the classic marketers error:" letting his promises about program, fund-raising...everything...get far out front of reality. (Maybe he was no more than a pants salesman after all.)
And, friends, here we are. There are many lay leaders or professionals from non-federation entities who are successful or moving their communities forward  -- from, e.g., Jewish communal television, United Way, or AIPAC, or government service or elsewhere. But, I believe each of them would admit, at least privately, that they have had to climb a learning curve far more steep than had they some prior experience in the federation system, if even as a lay person. As one Commentator has noted:
"Change at JFNA is impossible without the buy-in of certain LCE's who are perfectly happy to have a do-nothing, know-nothing CEO at the top of JFNA." 
Will the LCE step up? Will the schools of Jewish communal service, so many with excellent prepatory programs for Jewish communal professionals dry up if potential participants can no longer see a career path to top organizational positions because they have actually served in the system? Is that not standing logic upon its head? Or is that the logical end to "thinking outside the box?"

Just asking.



paul jeser said...

The change in the name of the LA-HUC School of Jewish Communal Service to Jewish Non-Profit Management underscores this issue.

The late Prof. Gerald Bubis used to tell my colleagues who said that the were 'Jewish Professionals' that they were wrong - that they were members of the 'Jewish Communal Service' - not a insignificant difference.

Serving the Jewish Community is a much broader (and satisfying) responsibility than just managing a non-profit.

There are so many issues that have influenced the decline of this 'Service'. We are all paying the price for allowing this to happen.

Anonymous said...

Hey Richard, How about you and other friends of the blog who complain about the lack of professional leadership at JFNA actually taking on the responsibility for change?? You can moan and groan about the "other" but a savvy leader could/should develop coalitions of pros and lay leaders to reorient a system which is off the rails. If asked, there are few who would say that the Mission/Vision of JFNA is understood and applauded. So, why are veteran leaders such as yourself accepting this "new normal"? Forget about the LCEs or top tier JFNA leadership as change agents. The first have their day jobs and the second is concerned with the optics of "their term". This is the responsibility of the "Royal You". You and others who know what the system has been and what it could be. By the way, the change won't come from me. I'm a pro in the system but my voice is not going to be heard. I am self aware enough to know that I'm not a voice of any difference. Been there, don't that. That said, I care so I make the charge to people who can make that difference. Time is not a friend. The system is losing credibility and those who could make a difference in that top seat in relation to respect and experience aren't getting any younger. interested in your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

My Exec is too busy quoting Jonathan Sacks, and forgetting how awful his true record is.

Anonymous said...

I think Richard prefers to shoot from the sidelines.

old pro said...

To anon 7:54 ... if the exec in question is in her/his first CEO position then a bit of smart mentorship wouldn't hurt. And it's not that the good rabbi isn't worth quoting on occasion or that execs can't show their cerebral side. That would actually at times be refreshing. However, the Federation exec is primarily community builder and fundraiser-in-chief ( not to mention listener-in-chief), a position that demands that theological and moral posturing be left off the job description or at least served up as infrequently as a good slice of kishka. If the exec in question is from Boston, well that's their problem.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 7:54 here. I don't mind my exec posturing theologically and morally. I just don't want him to quote from a hypocrite who attacked Reform and Masorti Jewish leaders as not Jewish enough, and then claim he's a moral Jewish leader. That's all well and good in England, but not here.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous at 7:55 p.m., obviously you don't know Richard and you are only a recent visitor to this Blog. Why don't you look at his "CV" in Jewish communal life; you might be educated. Then when your own communal resume rises to his level of experience, you will have earned the right to criticize him.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 7:55pm here.

I do know him (that's why I'm anonymous ... duh).
And the reason I wrote that he's shooting from the sidelines is BECAUSE of his level of experience. Time for him to step up.

With respect,
An educated and quite-frequent-reader of Richard's blog.