John Fishel, who has led The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles since 1992, told his board of directors Monday morning that he will step down on Dec. 31. In an interview with The Journal, Fishel said that after 17 years of 80-hour weeks, he was ready for the next stage of his life.
“Fortunately, I have a lot of energy; I can burn the midnight oil, but I reached a point that I said, ‘As I reach into my sixth decade, maybe it is time to slow down a bit, enjoy life, spend time with my wife; my daughter is going to be returning from college,” Fishel, 60, said. “So it was an opportunity to rebalance my personal and professional personas.”
Fishel’s transition comes at a time of dramatic change for The Federation. Since businessman Stanley Gold took over as Federation chair in January 2008, the umbrella organization’s board has been restructured and its relationship with its beneficiary agencies redefined. Additionally, The Federation and its agencies have been affected, like most everyone else, by the recession and the Bernard Madoff investment scandal.
“Maybe I’m at a time in my life and a point in my career when I have an opportunity to look at my options, and The Federation can get someone who is younger and has different skills and style than I do,” said Fishel, who will remain as a consultant into 2010.
His decision to step aside was not surprising — only the announcement was.
“It wasn’t shocking,” said Richard Sandler, the board’s vice chair. “It’s very unusual for someone in his position to be in that position for as long as he has been. He came here in a very difficult time, and he’s been here through some difficult times. He basically was the rudder that kept that ship on course.”
Gold, who took over lay leadership of The Federation with the stated goal of reforming its operations and increasing its communal relevance, said the board soon will begin a national search for The Federation’s next president.
“It gives us an opportunity to have new ideas and somebody with a new set of eyes looking at our problems and proposing new solutions,” Gold said. “John was supportive of our change in direction and some of our focuses. That may even get accelerated with a new CEO.”
Fishel was paid $410,000 in salary and benefits in 2006, the most recent year for which Federation tax returns are available. Once dubbed “the James Brown of the Jewish community; the hardest-working man in L.A. Jewry” by L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss, Fishel said he began mulling this decision in mid-2008 and took it to Gold and Sandler a few weeks ago. His decision was not influenced by recent changes at The Federation or current challenges in communal fundraising, Fishel said.
After announcing his plans to the board, Fishel sent an e-mail Monday afternoon to the leaders of The Federation’s beneficiary agencies.
“Although from time to time we disagree over communal policy or priorities,” he wrote, “I know each of us has operated in the best interest of the community.”
During the past year, Fishel and his staff began implementing Gold’s efforts to “emancipate” the beneficiary agencies — slowly reducing their rent subsidies and halting auditing and payroll services. These reductions in support have frustrated some. Others have approved but haven’t had a clear sense of the long-term vision and how The Federation was going to implement it.
“It is always interesting when someone has been there for a long time and there is a chance for someone new to assess the organization,” said Mitchell Kamin, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a Federation agency. “Anyone new will be different. The question is how effective will they be at implementing the vision that has been driving The Federation for the last year.”
When Fishel joined The Federation, it was in dire financial straits. Southern California was in the depths of a painful recession in 1992. Home values had plummeted and jobs had disappeared, largely from aerospace and manufacturing. The Federation’s annual campaign fell from $44.5 million in 1991 to $37.4 million in 1995 and, excluding building funds and special campaigns, didn’t surpass its 1990 level of $46.4 million until 2005.
Fishel saved The Federation from financial disaster but continued to take heat for the campaign’s performance.
There were many who felt his leadership was lackluster; that he was too private and shy for the Jewish professional world. On his watch, the Jewish Community Relations Committee virtually disappeared and several Jewish community centers closed their doors. At the same time, independent Jewish nonprofits, like the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, flourished without involving The Federation.
Author Michael Berenbaum, an adjunct professor at American Jewish University who came to Los Angeles in 1998 after creating the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has previously criticized The Federation as being “not central or pivotal” to the Jewish community.
“This is a new opportunity for The Federation, and I think they should use it to re-invent themselves and their role in our community,” Berenbaum said Tuesday. “Lord knows we need it.”
Among Fishel’s greatest achievements was the creation of the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership. Some thought Fishel, who didn’t visit Israel before he was 40 but has since been more than 50 times, was interested in establishing international programs at the expense of local needs. But few would deny the success of the partnership, a program of the Israel and Overseas Committee.
In a 2006 interview with The Journal, Gerald Bubis, a former Federation vice president and the founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, called the partnership “a jewel and an unusually creative and innovative approach to relating to Israel in a new way…. That is, as a partnership rather than the old liberal, colonial way of sending money to a benighted people.”
In recent years, Fishel launched efforts to engage younger Jewish professionals with leadership programs. This initiative has intensified under Gold’s lay leadership and was on display Sunday at USC, where The Federation’s New Leaders Project hosted a daylong symposium on improving the environment, education, civil rights, health care and quality of life in Los Angeles.
“Their involvement helps us to assure the future of organized Jewish life but at the same time forces us to look at how we operate,” Fishel said. “They have changed us and forced us to realize we can’t just be the same organization in terms of how we communicate and how we operate.”
Fishel has also provided a steady hand and a cool head when crises struck, including the Northridge earthquake, the 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, the Argentine economic crisis and support for Israel during the Second Intifada and Israel’s war with Hezbollah.
“A lot of people can say a lot of things about John Fishel, but you can’t find anybody who works harder than he does — right, wrong or indifferent,” said Margy Feldman, president and CEO of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, a Federation beneficiary. “He gives 150 percent of himself and is an incredibly intelligent person working in a very challenging community at a challenging time.”
By making the announcement now, Fishel is giving The Federation 11 months to find his replacement, and it might need it. Even in an economy in which a lot of talented people are looking for jobs, running a nonprofit focused on fundraising and community building will be a tough sell.
“Whoever takes John’s job has really got his work cut out for him,” said Gary A. Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. “It is a tough town. You don’t have multigenerational families of wealth; the entertainment industry is notoriously bad for giving; it is spread out over an incredible geographic area…. It is a tough town.”
Who Should Lead Next?
Who do you think should replace John Fishel?
The president and CEO of the Jewish Federation holds one of the most powerful and important roles in the Jewish community. The Federation president oversees the largest budget and staff of any Los Angeles Jewish institution and has the power to set an agenda and benefit the lives of Jews and non-Jews here, in Israel and around the world.
Is there someone you think could step into the job and inspire and revolutionize the Los Angeles Jewish community? What are the most important qualities the Federation’s board should be looking for? A superior fundraiser? A visionary thinker? A charismatic leader? Should he or she come from the Jewish professional world? Hollywood? The corporate world?
Don’t be shy—tell us what you want in the next Federation president, and send some names in too. Your ideas and suggestions will find their way into our coverage, with attribution if you desire. The Jewish Journal is not affiliated with the Federation (or any Jewish organization), but we all have a stake in the selection.