Are Businessmen Better at Running Jewish Non-profits?

The appointment of a litigator to the top post at UJA sparks debate over how appropriate it is to hire executives from the for-profit sector.

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NEW YORK — When Eric Goldstein was hired late last month as the incoming CEO of the largest Jewish federation in the United States, many at UJA-Federation of New York welcomed the news. Outside, however, others worry about what hiring an attorney — a litigator, no less — who is also a long-time volunteer at the federation means for those trying to work their way up in Jewish communal service.

In the online publication eJewishPhilanthropy, the hire was described as “a tsunami for communal professionals — particularly the up and coming working in the North American federation system.”

But while Goldstein’s new post is significant because of what the New York federation represents, in both size and influence, bringing people in to run Jewish groups in senior executive positions from the for-profit world is a recently growing practice.

New ‘fetish’ 
for business world

“There’s a trend in the nonprofit world in general of fetishizing for-profit, both in terms of leaders and ideas. There’s a lot to learn in both directions, I think, but the suggestion that for-profit leaders are, by definition, better, worries me - especially as we’ve seen how well some such leaders have done in managing Wall Street,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of T’ruah, an organization that seeks to galvanize rabbis behind human rights causes. In non-profit Jewish work today, Jacobs added, there is “a lot of attention to the new hot business book or idea. Next year it will be something else.”

To be sure, Goldstein, 54, who UJA-Federation press representatives said was not available for an interview, has an impressive volunteer track record. Goldstein is a partner in the litigation department of major New York law firm Paul, Weiss. He has recently represented JPMorgan Chase “in numerous regulatory matters and class action litigations,” his law firm bio states. He previously represented Michael Milken, who in 1989 pleaded guilty to securities fraud and served nearly two years in federal prison.

Goldstein has been a lay leader at the New York federation for about 25 years, they said, including as chair of the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, and for the past four years as a member of the federation’s executive committee, the subset of its board of directors in charge of day-to-day governance. He is also a member of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors and a board member of the New York Legal Assistance Group.

Goldstein is active with organizations that reflect his identity as a Modern Orthodox Jew as well; chair of the board of the yeshiva Manhattan Day School, a Ramaz School board member, and president of the Beth Din of America, the Jewish legal court affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America and Orthodox Union.

At a time when New York’s Orthodox population is soaring, as a study by the federation here shows, it doesn’t hurt to have an Orthodox man at the organization’s helm, said Alisa Doctoroff, president of UJA-Federation of New York, who also chaired the search committee.

That “he is a Modern Orthodox-practicing person is all to the good. There is an explosion in the ultra-Orthodox community and Eric will be able to speak to that community,” she said. “It certainly wasn’t the only criterion” in the job description, she noted. The federation was looking for “someone who could represent all members of our community, from the most unaffiliated to the most Haredi.”

Crossing over from volunteer to professional, while not entirely new, remains unusual at the most senior levels. In the view of John Ruskay, however, divisions between the two roles have become less relevant at an organization as large and complex as the New York federation.

“I find a distinction between professional and volunteer at the most senior levels a little anachronistic when we have people both volunteer and professional spending 30, 40, 50 hours a week on the Jewish present and Jewish future,” Ruskay, the current CEO of UJA-Federation, who is retiring in June, told Haaretz.

“It used to be that you were from one place and you stayed there. Period,” said Shifra Bronznick, president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, and a business consultant who has done work for the New York federation. Today “you’re seeing many more collaborations inside and across sectors, as well as a narrative that says people will work in many professions and sectors. Crossing from lay to professional doesn’t feel at all impossible anymore.”

Coming from outside the Jewish organizational world clearly seems to be regarded as an asset by search committees today. But does a hiring like Goldstein’s reflect a disadvantage to those who are already working in the system? “In my experience working with search committees and doing placement, I don’t think that there’s a stronger sense that someone outside the field brings a better set of qualifications,” said Elissa Maier, a vice president at the Jewish Federations of North America, the federation system’s umbrella body, where she heads the Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence. Four other large city federations are currently trying to hire new CEOs, she said.

‘Perfect storm 
of ignorance’

Richard Wexler, a long-time Jewish federation lay leader based in Chicago, who has for several years been openly critical of JFNA, said that hiring from outside the federation system for top jobs results in poor performance. “Most of those who get the position do not have a commitment or understanding of the values and the activities upon which our federations have built their greatness,” he told Haaretz. “With a national organization that lacks institutional memory, they get no training, no mentoring, they’re essentially on their own. We have this perfect storm of ignorance that endangers the hopes and dreams of our people.”

But hiring “outside the box” has become more the rule than the exception for Jewish non-profits, and there are many examples, from Ruth Messinger’s move from New York City politics to the American Jewish World Service, to the lay-to-professional crossover of Ariela Dubler. A Columbia University law professor and board member at the Abraham Joshua Heschel day school in Manhattan, Dubler was hired last month to be its new head of school. In fact, it has become more noteworthy when someone is promoted to a top job from within, as Stosh Cotler recently was at Bend the Arc, a social justice non-profit.

Of Goldstein, the New York federation’s Doctoroff said, “In some ways he is out of the box but he is within the family. He knows us very intimately. He brings an outside perspective, which is very helpful for us as well. We’re always seeking to achieve our mission as well as we possibly can. To have new eyes is a helpful thing.”

A Jewish community center in Brooklyn.Credit: Natan Dvir
Eric GoldsteinCredit: Courtesy

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