COVER STORY: Who will fill these shoes?: Shortage of executives impacts Jewish organizations

Dick Rosenberg gazes out the window of his downtown San Francisco office. Somewhere out there, across the fruited plain, is the next chief executive officer of the S.F-based Jewish Community Federation.

More than a year ago Sam Salkin stepped down as the federation’s CEO. Phyllis Cook, executive director of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, stepped in as interim CEO, while Rosenberg, a former top executive with Bank of America, immediately established a search committee to find a permanent replacement.

The committee sifted through resumes, conducted interviews and even hired two executive-search firms. “If you want the best,” Rosenberg says in a Boston accent thick as Yankee bean soup from a Southie diner, “it takes a long time.”

He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.

The federation is not alone. According to a 2004 study, Jewish organizations are experiencing “a persistent undersupply of well-trained and experienced Jewish communal professionals.”

Inventory is low. Locating, recruiting and hiring qualified senior executives has never been tougher. The old “farm system” model of developing lay volunteers into leaders is under strain.

This is true up and down the Jewish organizational food chain. In day schools, synagogues and social service agencies, there is no “deep bench” to speak of. The federation’s top spot is only the most visible local indicator of the trend.

The Institute for Jewish & Community Research study pinpointed several reasons for the dearth of qualified leaders. Among them: low remuneration, heavy workloads, a persistent glass ceiling for women and endemic tensions between lay and professional staff.

The study also cited statistics showing as many as 50 percent of Jewish communal professionals leave their organizations within their first five years. In addition, many communities fail to invest in adequate leadership training and professional development programs.

While some observers have dubbed the situation a crisis, others say that term does not accurately describe the local situation.

“You’d be hard pressed to say there’s a crisis of leadership in the Bay Area,” says Gary Tobin, co-author of the study and director of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research. “You really do have some of the most talented and respected people in their fields here.”

Tobin cites individuals like Anita Friedman of Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Abby Snay of Jewish Vocational Services, Nate Levine of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and Doug Kahn of the Jewish Community Relations Council as among the best in the business.

“At the top, you’ve got national leaders throughout the professional field in the Bay Area,” he adds. “But if we started having to look for a new JFCS or JCC director, these national searches are very difficult. Federations and other institutions all over the country are having trouble finding people.”

Many experts have weighed in as to why.

“Things have changed over the last generation,” says David Steirman, current president of the S.F.-based federation. “For one thing, people are less willing to further their careers by moving. We have spoken to people who were very interested [in the CEO spot], but the spouse was at a point in their career where they felt they wanted to stay.”

Steirman cites another factor, which will come as no surprise.

“It’s hard to get people to move to San Francisco,” he says, “and it’s well known why: the cost of living and housing. We are willing to put together a housing package for the right person, but there’s still this perception that it’s a tough place to live in.”

On a beautiful spring day in the city, that’s hard to figure.

Still, this is a very different world from the one in the immediate postwar years. In those days, there were higher levels of Jewish community participation, lower levels of intermarriage and intense unity regarding the young state of Israel, especially during the wars that threatened its existence.

In those days, a powerful federation was the central address of a given Jewish community, with almost all funding for local, national and international projects funneled through that single pipeline.

No more.

Like their fellow Americans, Jews have become focused more on individual than communal needs. Major donors today are less inclined to mail a large check to federation. Instead, many prefer to earmark their giving for specific programs, projects and building funds, and fewer for general funds. The result is added financial pressures on those in the top jobs.

“No question, the federation system is experiencing difficulty right now,” says Rabbi Brian Lurie, former CEO of the S.F.-based federation. “Its purpose and significance are being questioned. People of significant wealth are going their own way.”

Being an executive in the federation system “is a job that requires skills that are common among cat herders,” jokes Jon Friedenberg, former head of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose and now president of the El Camino Hospital Foundation.

Leading a federation is “not perhaps as simple and straightforward as other kinds of positions that are equivalent in terms of salary and stature,” he says.

Adding to the stress, many Jewish donors contribute to multiple non-Jewish causes, spreading their Jewish community dollars thin. Growing assimilation means fewer potential donors and leaders have the deep-rooted connections to Judaism or Yiddishkeit than their parents or grandparents.

Then there’s that pesky built-in culture clash between professional and lay leaders, which may flare up at any Jewish communal organization. While not rising to the level of lions versus zebras, the problem often seems intractable.

“Professional leaders complain about micromanagement by lay people,” says Tobin. “Lay leaders complain the pros run the organizations and they’ve lost control. There is a disconnect between how organizations should be run and who has responsibility. That can cause friction.”

Even worse, in Tobin’s opinion, is the manner in which entry-level lay volunteers and professional staffers are often treated at various organizations. It’s a situation he describes as “the food stinks and there’s not enough of it.”

“You ask people to work really hard at all times with relatively little respect and not much money,” he says. “We found entry-level folks not getting mentored very well. You get people wide-eyed and dedicated, then we bring em in, chew ’em up and spit ’em out.”

Add it all up and the squeeze is on.

Insiders agree that when it comes to securing the future of Jewish communal leadership, prevention is the best medicine. Local federations run ongoing programs designed to develop young leaders to take over the reins in the years ahead.

The Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay has tried to short-circuit potential problems with its own leadership development programs.

Steve Goldman is a former chair of the leadership development committee of the East Bay federation and currently serves on the federation’s executive board.

“We put a priority on getting the next generation trained and developed,” he says. “We put a lot of resources into our Young Leadership Division and we’re starting to see it pay off. In the 20 years I’ve been on board, we’ve had a good track record of strong lay leadership.”

Starting out early in a federation environment is one way to create future activists, though this was a more common practice in earlier years, as former S.F-based federation president Ron Kaufman can attest.

A Tucson native, Kaufman followed the example of his father, who was a federation leader in the 1940s and ’50s. The younger Kaufman moved to the Bay Area to attend U.C. Berkeley, and later became a board member of JFCS as well as a member of the national board of United Jewish Appeal.

According to a study completed last year by the S.F.-based federation, the average synagogue affiliation rate in the West Bay is 22 percent, which is much lower than the rest of the country (the South Peninsula has a higher figure, 36 percent).

Such statistics suggest a clear fall-off in Jewish communal involvement since Kaufman’s youth, but he doesn’t fear for the future.

“I see a number of really bright, dedicated young people getting involved,” he says. “If you give them an intense experience, they will commit.”

He cites local federation leadership training efforts and the acclaimed Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, which trains future leaders, as examples of the Jewish community laying a foundation.

The United Jewish Communities’ Mandel Executive Development Program attempts the same kind of training on a national level (participating in the next UJC Mandel program will be Lisa Gurwich of the S.F.-based Federation).

Then there’s the 100-year-old Jewish Communal Service Organization, which sponsors training seminars and courses and prints publications aimed at fostering young leadership.

“The federation itself is the only organization that can do the kind of outreach necessary to keep Jews in the Jewish community,” says Lurie.

Meanwhile search committee chair Rosenberg isn’t worried. In fact, he’s rather sanguine about it all. Because the federation is relatively stable financially, he isn’t feeling as much pressure as he might have.

“The federation has been in very good shape,” he says. “We hit a new high with a million-dollar increase [in donations]. The volunteers have done a terrific job, and Phyllis Cook is such a trooper.”

So with those ducks in a row, Rosenberg says his committee will take its time finding the best person for the job. “We’re looking in the national federation family and we’re looking outside the federation family.”

Adds Lurie, sounding like a hawker for a San Francisco tourism council: “This is the most desirable community to be in. Good volunteer leaders, good system, good agencies, a vibrant growing community: It’s a plum!”