May 25, 2006
The Private Man in L.A. Jewry's Most Public Job
On Feb. 26, more than 150 volunteers gathered early at the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for the annual Super Sunday megafundraiser. Having filled up on conversation, coffee and bagels, the enthusiastic, well-dressed men and women sat side-by-side at tables holding banks of telephones.
In 12 hours, 1,700 volunteers at three locations knew they had to raise almost 10 percent of The Federation's entire annual campaign. Super Sunday can set the tone for the year. And with government funding shrinking, The Federation's 22 aid agencies counted on this day as never before to help them meet the growing demand for their services. The Federation is a like a Jewish United Way; it acts as a single central source for donations, which it then distributes to various worthy causes. More specifically, The Federation supports Jews in need and programs that reflect on Jews here in Los Angeles, as well as around the world.
Before things kicked off, with so much at stake, the assembled got a final pep talk, but Federation President John Fishel, the man who holds possibly the single most important Jewish job in Los Angeles, didn't deliver it. On this, the most important money-raising day for The L.A. Federation, where was Fishel?
Over the past 14 years, Fishel, a young-looking 57, has quietly, firmly and steadily led the Jewish philanthropic organization, determined to somehow unify the Southland's geographically dispersed and largely unaffiliated Jewish community. In a city that prizes glitz and glamour, Fishel has shunned the spotlight, the backslapping and the glad-handing, preferring a low-key, almost professorial approach that places a premium on methodical problem solving. Whether attending the 50th anniversary party for the Westside Jewish Community Center, lobbying politicians to loosen the purse strings for Jewish nonprofits or taking a potential donor on a tour of Beit T'Shuvah, a Federation beneficiary agency that treats addiction partly through Jewish spirituality, Fishel routinely works six- or seven-day, 70-hour weeks.
"He's the James Brown of the Jewish community, the hardest-working man in L.A. Jewry," Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss said. "I see him everywhere."
Although in some ways, Fishel is everywhere but nowhere. A bearded, slender man with a direct gaze, the shy Fishel seems to prefer keeping his own counsel. He sometimes materializes at events in his well-tailored suits and then slips away after talking to but a handful of folks.
Like Howard Hughes, The Federation president keeps his private self private. It is unlikely that many in the community know that the buttoned-down Fishel once sported long hair and promoted blues festivals in the early '70s, or that he has never had a bar mitzvah.
Still, Fishel has left a notable mark in the Jewish world. He holds a bachelor's in anthropology from the University of Michigan and once considered becoming an academic, and he has earned praise for his efforts on behalf of Jews abroad, especially in Israel. An internationalist in a largely domestic job, Fishel helped create the successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership and has put the plight of Ethiopian Jews on the North American Jewish agenda.
Closer to home, his calm, analytical demeanor has allowed him to react effectively during crises, from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake to Hurricane Katrina. When others might panic, he coolly devises a plan of action for bringing far-flung members of the community together.
Fishel has fared less well on some of The Federation's bread-and-butter everyday challenges. On his watch, several Jewish community centers have shut down and the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) has lost influence and standing (see stories on page 17). Most important, The Federation's annual campaign, has grown sluggishly at a time when community needs have exploded.
So where was Fishel?
On this year's Super Sunday, he was just where you'd expect: at The Federation's Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. In keeping with his low-key persona, though, Fishel stayed in the background, while others delivered inspiration to the volunteers.
Arriving at 7:30 a.m. -- a full hour and a half before the fundraiser officially began -- he greeted participants with a smile and expressions of thanks. Fishel spoke with Federation staff members to ensure that everything was under control. Then, he called potential donors and gave an interview to a KTLA reporter: "It's wonderful to see people who live in different parts of the community, with different backgrounds and different ideologies, come together in a unified manner," and chatted with bigwigs, including Councilman Weiss.
Fishel was just getting started. Around 11 a.m., he and a couple of Federation lay leaders left headquarters for the phone banks in the Valley. Later, he made his way to the Super Sunday fundraiser in the South Bay. That night, The Federation president returned to Wilshire Boulevard to mingle with the last shift of volunteers, mostly college students. He finally left The Federation to return to his Cheviot Hills home sometime after 10 p.m. -- logging more than a 14-hour day.
This year's Super Sunday raised about $4.4 million, about $100,000 less than last year, but still a solid financial foundation. And those involved included young and old, the religious and nonreligious, Israelis, Persians and Russians -- an unprecedented rainbow of Southland Jews.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is the central address for the local Jewish community, from helping to underwrite the cost of Jewish burials to subsidizing free groceries for the poor, The Federation is involved in myriad vital facets, big and small, of Los Angeles Jewish life.
"If we didn't have The [L.A.] Federation, we would have to create it," said Steven Windmueller, director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. "Ultimately, a community needs an infrastructure for prioritizing, organizing, programming and crisis management."
Federation initiatives include literacy programs for elementary and preschool students, a venture philanthropy fund that invests in fledgling businesses that benefit the Jewish community and, most recently, a program that coordinates services to Jewish children with developmental or severe learning disabilities.
The Federation most often makes its presence felt through 22 beneficiary agencies. Federation dollars help subsidize the SOVA Food Pantry Program for the hungry, pay for job training offered by Jewish Vocational Service and support the Jewish Free Loan Association, which offers Jewish couples interest-free loans of up to $10,000 for fertility treatments, among other programs.
"There are old people, children, homeless people, the disenfranchised and other people who constantly need help," said Terry Bell, a former Federation chair who headed the search committee that recommended hiring Fishel. "We do extremely important things that people aren't even aware of that wouldn't get done without The Federation."
The Federation's reach goes well beyond Southern California. In times of crisis, The Federation has raised millions to help struggling communities around the world, most recently in Argentina. Federation allocations support everything from sending local college students to Israel to subsidizing Jewish day schools. Overseas, Federation dollars have helped support the renaissance of Jewish life in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
In some ways, The L.A. Federation is flourishing as never before. The charity's international programs are stronger than ever. Under Fishel, the organization has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to respond to emergencies both at home and abroad, despite the bureaucratic nature of the federation system. The Federation has raised millions for special campaigns for Israel, Soviet Jews and other causes, and has an endowment of $67 million.
Locally, KOREH L.A., a literacy program that is reaching more students than ever, has burnished the Jewish philanthropy's reputation, introducing scores of volunteers and clients in need to The Federation and its mission. Moreover, at Fishel's prodding, The Federation increased its annual allocations to the Bureau of Jewish Education by $1 million, funding scores of scholarships for Jewish day school students and capital improvement projects at their schools.
But The Federation's annual campaign, its lifeblood, has grown anemically during the Fishel era. In particular, The Federation has been largely unable to reach Hollywood money or attract huge donations from affluent Jews not already involved. A shrinking and aging donor base poses a real threat to future giving. And there's the looming challenge of appealing to younger Jews, a group more attracted to non-Jewish causes than past generations.
WHO ARE YOU?
Federation supporters know surprisingly little about the person most responsible for The Federation's current and future prospects.
Ask board members, even those who consider Fishel a friend, and a steady stream of generic adjectives tumbles out: "Kind," "brilliant," "committed," "thoughtful" and "hard-working," come up most frequently. A JDate profile would provide more than that.
What about anecdotes?
Bell, the former Federation chair, said she and her husband hosted Fishel; his wife, Karen, and their daughter, Jessica, for one week at their home, back when Fishel was undergoing a second round of interviews for his current job. The Fishels, Bell said, were "easy to feed, easy to be around," she said. "They didn't demand anything."
And what about John Fishel? What's he like?
He's well-read and interested in "everything under the sun," conversant about art, politics, food, music and wine, Bell said.
Another Federation board member said he once saw Fishel materialize late one Saturday night at a jazz club clad in a leather jacket. They exchanged pleasantries.
Who is John Fishel?
He's someone who wants to reveal the answer to that question on only a need-to-know basis. Through The Federation's spokeswoman, Fishel turned down a request to trail him for the day during Super Sunday or to spend a large block of time watching him in action. Nor would he agree to a lunch or dinner appointment. Near the end of a second recent formal interview -- and after years of contact -- Fishel opened up, a little.
He was born in Cleveland in 1948. His late father, Richard, owned a company that manufactured sweaters. His late mother, Adelee, stayed home to care for John and younger brother Jim. His family belonged to a local Reform synagogue, where Fishel was confirmed but never bar mitzvahed.
At a young age, Fishel decided that he wanted to venture into the larger world. Even then, other cultures fascinated him. He majored in anthropology at the University of Michigan and later began, but never completed, an anthropology master's program there.
Leaving the university, Fishel parlayed his interest in blues and jazz into a turn as a music promoter in the early 1970s, partnering with his brother, Jim. John Fishel promoted shows featuring B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and went on to produce the famed Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He developed enough of a reputation that Rolling Stone once quoted him.
Tiring of the hectic life of a promoter, Fishel decided to become a social worker. Graduating from the University of Michigan in 1972 with a master's in social work, he soon landed back in Cleveland as a caseworker in the Welfare Department. A year later, he headed to Africa for an extended backpacking adventure.
His Jewish journey began a few years later, when Fishel took a position doing community work for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. There, he began to consider issues of Jewish identity and, on his own, studied Judaism and Jewish history. In effect, he began applying his anthropological training to his own roots. Fishel soon became an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement.
Two years after arriving in Philadelphia, he moved on to became director of the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, which has helped Jewish and other immigrants coming to the United States for more than 100 years. Through his new job, Fishel developed a deepening appreciation for the plight of Jews around the world, especially those fleeing post-revolutionary Iran and the Soviet Union.
Years later, after becoming executive vice president of the Jewish Federation in Montreal, Fishel finally made his first trip behind the Iron Curtain. In 1986, he visited Moscow and Lithuania. He came armed with hard-to-obtain Judaica and blue jeans that he gave to local Jews. He also secretly met with Refuseniks, Jews denied permission to emigrate.
In Lithuania, Fishel joined a group of Refuseniks who, in a park near the capital city of Vilnius, placed homemade Jewish Stars, fashioned from cardboard, where Nazis had executed Jews.
"I was really scared," Fishel said. "But you want to know something? I figured, what's the worst thing that's going to happen? They'll detain me and then let me go. I'm an American citizen. Those guys were stuck there. They were truly courageous."
THE GOOD; THE NOT SO GOOD
Fishel never visited Israel until after he turned 40, but he has since traveled to the Holy Land more than 50 times, spending time with prime ministers, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and fellow leaders in the Jewish communal world.
"I happen to believe that Israel is our Jewish state," he said. "I think that the centrality of Israel as a focal point of Judaism and Jewish life historically and in contemporary times is very unique and very special."
Fishel has played a major role in the successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, a 9-year-old program that fosters cooperation and connections between local Jews and Jews in Tel Aviv in education, health, culture and economics.
Under the multifaceted partnership, 18 Tel Aviv and 18 local schools have been "twinned," sharing programming and lesson plans and frequently interacting via video conferencing and e-mail. In addition, curators from museums in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, including the Getty and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have participated in institutional exchanges. Federation and other community leaders also successfully lobbied Israeli politicians to allow Tel Aviv to become the first Israeli city to issue municipal bonds (the proceeds funded a parking garage). The list goes on.
The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership is "a jewel and an unusually creative and innovative approach to relating to Israel in a new way," said Gerald Bubis, a former Federation vice president and the founding director of Hebrew Union College. "That is, as a partnership rather than the old liberal, colonial way of sending money to a benighted people."
More than that, participating local residents have gained a greater appreciation of the larger Jewish world, their own Jewish identity and the importance of The Federation, experts said. The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership later spawned the successful Federation-sponsored Los Angeles-Baltics Partnership.
The Tel Aviv program might never have been birthed without Fishel's dedication. Originally, the Jewish Agency, which called on federations across the United States to fund regional development in Israel, wanted The L.A. Federation to link with either Galilee in the north or the Negev in the south. Fishel, with the support of the lay leadership, rejected those options. Instead, he chose Tel Aviv, a large metropolis more appealing to local Jews because of its accessibility, sophistication, cultural life and large pool of potential individual and institutional partners.
Fishel's willingness to defy the Jewish Agency, the bedrock of the Jewish communal establishment, reflects his ability to think, in his words, "out of the box," especially on international issues. The Federation president would again employ that out-of-the-box thinking for the Jews of Ethiopia (see sidebar) and for Argentina's Jewish community.
In December 2001, Argentina's economy crashed. Almost overnight, the country's middle class was plunged into penury; families lost their life savings. The crisis hit the Jewish community hard, with an estimated one-third of Argentina's Jews falling into poverty.
Diana Fiedotin, a member of The Federation's Israel and Overseas Committee, viewed the economic collapse firsthand while visiting the country in February 2002, to attend a wedding.
After Fiedotin returned to the United States, she started the Lifeline to Argentina with local Rabbi Sherre Z. Hirsch of Sinai Temple. Fishel suggested that Fiedotin expand her fundraising to synagogues across the city. The Federation president put Fiedotin in touch with Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
Fishel later made an unsolicited gesture that floored Fiedotin: The Federation would offer a matching grant of up to $1 million to Lifeline to Argentina. The campaign eventually reached that target and, thanks to Fishel and The Federation's generosity, Lifeline contributed $2 million to alleviate the suffering.
"He's always open to new ways of raising money and creative ways of bringing different elements of this community together," Fiedotin said. "I never could have done this without John. I and the Jewish community of Argentina owe him."
Fishel's international efforts, dating back to his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry, have won him widespread respect from colleagues, said Bob Aronson, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. "We turn to him for advice and guidance," he said.
Still, some in the community think Fishel focuses on overseas issues at the expense of a domestic agenda. Carmen H. Warschaw, a longtime Federation board member and former Southern California chair of the Democratic Party, said Fishel's international emphasis meant less money for such important beneficiary agencies as Jewish Family Service and Jewish Vocational Service.
"There has to be more of a balance, with more of an emphasis on things in our front and backyards," Warschaw said.
Fishel said he believes The Federation allocates its resources well to ensure that the nonprofit meets both local and international needs. He makes no apologies about helping Jews in need wherever they are.
"I'm very committed to the concept of Jewish people-hood," Fishel said.
About 70 percent of every dollar the local Federation raises in its annual campaign supports domestic programs. Thirty percent goes for overseas programming and relief.
COOL IN A CRISIS
Fishel receives consistently high marks, even from detractors, for his ability to bring the community together in times of crisis.
Within 48 hours of the devastating Northridge Earthquake, The Federation president had overseen the production of a manual containing names and numbers of the agencies victims could call for counseling, health care, shelter and other services, said Irwin Field, a Federation Executive Committee member and past Federation chair.
"He was the one who really got everything rolling, made things happen and saw them through to the end," said Field, who also chairs the board of L.A. Jewish Publications, publisher of The Jewish Journal. (The Journal is not affiliated with The Federation.)
At the same time, Fishel had to ascertain whether The Federation staff would have to leave the 6505 Wilshire headquarters because of earthquake damage. After experts concluded the structure had become unsafe, Fishel oversaw the evacuation and move into temporary quarters. He later helped raise $22 million to renovate and retrofit 6505, said Herb Gelfand, former Federation board chair.
After the 1999 shooting spree by a white supremicist at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, Fishel quickly showed up on the scene. The Federation helped arrange counseling for traumatized victims and took measures to improve the center's security.
Fishel recently again displayed his knack for quick response. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Fishel contacted Jewish federations and other agencies in Baton Rouge, La.; Jackson, Miss., and Houston to find out what evacuees fleeing to those cities needed. In just a few days, the L.A. Federation had raised $600,000 to help the Jewish and non-Jewish refugees.
The philanthropic group also brought local Jewish agencies together to provide therapy, job training and other services to homeless Katrina victims who made their way to the Southland. In addition, The Federation rented about a dozen trucks that transported clothing, canned food and other supplies collected by area synagogues to the Gulf Coast.
The Federation, at Fishel's behest, also gave Hillel $20,000 to help underwrite the costs of sending students from USC and Cal State Northridge to the Gulf Coast to help with rebuilding efforts, said David Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. The Federation's generosity, he said, has improved its image among many Jewish college students, a demographic the philanthropic organization desperately wants to reach.
"John may be at his best when things are at their worst," said Gelfand, the former Federation chair.
But some community leaders offer a more mixed assessment when it comes to issues not so clear-cut as providing emergency aid. One such complicated task is community building, which embodies the challenge of raising and distributing money, while simultaneously fostering Jewish identity.
The Boston Federation oversees two innovative adult Jewish education programs that have touched the lives of more than 2,700 area Jews and, in the process, strengthened ties to The Federation.
Me'ah (which means "100" in Hebrew) is a two-year, 100-hour intensive learning program that includes immersion in core Jewish texts, including the Hebrew Bible and rabbinics. More than 1,800 Bostonians have graduated from the course, which is heavily subsidized to maintain the low tuition price of $500 per person. The Boston Federation and Hebrew College also offer Ikkarim ("essence" in Hebrew), which provides Jewish education (and free child care during classes) for the parents of preschoolers.
"We want people to think it's just as important to know Maimonides and love the Torah as it is to love Plato, Homer or Shakespeare," said Barry Shrage, a leader of the effort and president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.
The Boston Federation's investment has probably already paid off. From 1995 to 2006, the annual campaign of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies increased by 57 percent to $34.2 million in a city of 200,000 Jews, growing at a significantly higher rate than the nation's federations as a whole.
In contrast, a high-profile community-building effort in Los Angeles proved a bust.
In 2001, Fishel's Federation lured Rabbi David Woznica to come West from New York City's prestigious 92nd Street Y. In New York, Woznica oversaw thousands of hours of adult Jewish education and 35 high-profile lectures per year. More than 1,200 Jews regularly attended his High Holiday services. His travels and lectures around the world enhanced both his and the Y's reputation.
In Los Angeles, Woznica was hired at a six-figure salary on the eve of Federation layoffs.
Then, critics said, The Federation never maximized Woznica's talents by establishing forums for him to reach large numbers of Jews. So adrift was The Federation that it formed a special committee months after hiring Woznica to figure out how to best use him. The respected rabbi ended up becoming The Federation's best-kept secret; he spent much of his time offering private tutorials to well-heeled donors and Federation executives. He left The Federation in 2004 for a rabbi's position at Stephen S. Wise Temple.
"Fishel never really followed through," said Pini Herman, a demographer and former Federation research coordinator who was laid off. "You would have thought that he would have paved the way for the success of a high-value personnel acquisition like Woznica, but he didn't. Fishel left him kind of twisting in the wind."
Woznica could not be reached for comment for this article. In the past, he has said he worked tirelessly at The Federation to help elevate the role of Judaism there and throughout the community.
Fishel responded that, in time, The Federation would have figured a better way to expand Woznica's community visibility and impact.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Fishel has the challenge of raising money in a wealthy but difficult market. Failing in this task literally would mean fewer free meals for the hungry, the elimination of job-training programs or even the shuttering of homeless shelters.
On a macro level, federations, including Los Angeles, are "very healthy institutions, when you include all their assets, including endowments," said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.
But there's reason for concern. The nation's federations raised a total of $859.5 million in their 2004 annual campaigns, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That's up only 4 percent from 2000.
Time was, federations received the lion's share of Jewish charitable giving. In a world with virulent anti-Semitism and constant threats to Israel, federations were seen as the protector and exemplar of Jewish values and interests.
That began to change, though, as Jews became more assimilated. Hospitals, symphonies and universities that once shunned Jews not only began to accept their money but appointed them to their boards. That mainstream acceptance led Jews to give less to federations and more to secular institutions. Suddenly, the federations' pull on Jewish giving began to wane.
"If you used to ask somebody about their Jewish giving, they would tell you about a nonprofit that had the word Jewish or Israel in its title," said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, which represents more than 1,000 Jewish family foundations. "Now, especially with younger donors, they talk about charities that reflect their Jewish values, which could be a gift to a local food pantry or an environmental organization, rather than to a Jewish organization."
Over the past eight years, the number of Jewish family foundations has exploded, jumping from about 2,500 to 8,000. Those foundations, Charendoff said, control an estimated $30 billion in assets and give to a variety of causes, ranging from AIDS research to education. They have undoubtedly siphoned money away from federations, which some megadonors see as distant, unresponsive bureaucracies.
Another problem is that L.A.'s Jewish community is geographically dispersed, lacking the traditional powerful machers who enforce community giving elsewhere. Recently, competing Jewish institutions such as the Wiesenthal Center and the Skirball Cultural Center have appeared on the scene, further complicating things.
And surveys show that Californians, including Angelenos, give less per capita than Americans in many other places. They also volunteer less, said Donna Bojarsky, a Jewish Community Relations Committee board member and a Democratic Party public policy consultant who advises such celebrities as Richard Dreyfuss.
"L.A. is a particularly hard nut to crack," she said.
Fishel's Federation has made some noteworthy attempts at trying.
In response to donor demands for more control, The Federation helped create the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund of Los Angeles. Over the past four years, this self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to start-up and existing nonprofits that benefit Jews, including the teen magazine, JVibe, and a Jewish Vocational Service program that targets Jewish Russian and Iranian immigrants for training as certified nurses.
Several Venture Philanthropy participants, each of whom has contributed at least $10,000, were first-time L.A. Federation donors, said Andrew Cushnir, vice president of planning for The Federation and staff head of the Venture Philanthropy Fund.
"John has been a major champion of the fund," Cushnir said. "He has been more than willing to let the fund experiment, learn and grow."
The Federation has also greatly improved outreach to young Jews -- tomorrow's big givers. The Federation replaced a money-losing leadership program with the apparently more successful Young Leadership Division, which, unlike its predecessor, places more emphasis on Jewish education and spirituality, although a social component still exists. The Federation also funds Taglit-birthright israel, the New Leaders Project and young leadership groups within its women's, real estate and entertainment campaign divisions.
Federation-supported programs have touched the lives of thousands of young Jews, said Craig Prizant, The Federation's executive vice president for financial resource development. That outreach has more than paid off, he added. "On a yearly basis, our young leadership initiatives are now raising about $5 million, or nearly 5 percent of our annual campaign."
Not good enough, say critics. In 2005, The Federation's annual campaign raised $47.3 million. (Overall, The Federation raised $55 million, when one-time gifts, special campaigns and other targeted giving are included.) Although last year's annual campaign total represented a 6 percent increase over 2004, that's only 2 percent more than the $46.4 million raised in 1990.
"I think at this point we ought to be around $60 million or $65 million," said Leo Dozoretz, an ex-Federation board member and former president of the Valley Alliance, The Federation's San Fernando Valley operation. "We're the second largest community in the world behind New York. Los Angeles even has more Jews than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem."
Dozoretz doesn't hold Fishel responsible for The Federation's middling performance. A weak lay leadership, among other factors, has contributed, he said.
Others are less understanding. They point to Fishel's lack of charisma, The Federation's alleged indifferent treatment of donors who are not megarich and Fishel's inability to entice Hollywood Jews and other potential megadonors.
Former President Bill Clinton meets John Fishel.
In Southern California, charisma counts. An actor, director or producer with a megawatt smile and engaging personality can get farther than an equally talented but bland counterpart. What's true for Hollywood can also hold for the corporate and nonprofit worlds. That partly explains why a gregarious charmer like Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal center can so easily coax big donations out of supporters, said a former high-ranking L.A. Federation fundraising executive.
Fishel, by contrast, often fades into the background, appearing ill at ease at social gatherings. He lacks "star power," said the fundraiser, who asked not to be identified.
Fishel's low-key, no-nonsense manner might serve him well in a down-to-earth place such as Minneapolis or Milwaukee but is no asset in Southern California, the land of Botox and BMWs. "Look, people live next door to movie stars here. They want entertainment value," the fundraiser said.
Fishel responded that he'd prefer being perceived as honest, ethical and committed, rather than as Mr. Personality.
Another former Federation fundraising executive said he thought the organization treated donors giving less than $25,000 with indifference. Sure, a $10,000 donor might get invited to a special dinner or to participate on a mission to Israel, but Federation officials, he said, make little effort to make that person feel special. That absence of a personal touch has turned off some givers, leading them to give elsewhere, the ex-fundraiser said.
"The attitude some donors have is that you come to me once a year, you get my money and you come back when you want more," he said. "And, in between, I'm not really thought of a great deal."
Fishel said The Federation tries to be accessible and engaged with the broadest base of donors, although, given the number of contributors, that can sometimes prove a challenge. Still, Fishel said, he personally calls or has the appropriate staff member phone all donors -- and non-donors -- who contact him for assistance.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
Critics say that one of Fishel's greatest failings has been his inability to tap into Hollywood. Imagine, they ask, how much bigger the annual campaign would be if such Jewish entertainment royalty as Barbra Streisand, David Geffen and Michael Eisner began writing million-dollar checks? Supporters counter that Hollywood is a narcissistic world unto itself, virtually deaf to appeals by anyone outside its small circle of players.
Some of the industry's Jewish titans are "self-hating Jews," said Lynn Pollock, a Federation board member and a former vice president at Paramount Pictures. Others have long identified more with "American Protestant" traditions, she said, rather than Jewish ones in their films and in their lives.
"How in the world is John supposed to accommodate these types of whimsical people, who are used to getting whatever they want and living in a kind of la-la land?" Pollock said.
Former Federation Chair Gelfand remembers his own brush with Jewish Hollywood and its unhappy ending. In the late 1980s, he persuaded two powerful entertainment executives to co-chair a major fundraising campaign for Soviet Jewry. The co-chairs -- one a former studio head, the other a former talent agency bigwig -- hoped to attract $10 million from their Jewish colleagues. After just three weeks, the pair resigned, having raised a grand total of zero dollars, Gelfand said.
Not everyone gives Fishel a pass. Movie producer Scott Einbinder said The Federation missed an opportunity to engage young, Jewish Hollywood when it unexpectedly pulled its sponsorship from Vodka Latka, a party/fundraiser he co-founded, which raised money for Jewish nonprofits. Vodka Latka also increased young Hollywood's awareness about The Federation and funneled dozens of new members to the Jewish philanthropic organization, he said.
"Vodka Latka was definitely meant to be a bridge to The Federation, to show young Jews in the entertainment industry that The Federation could be more than an organization that just asks for money," Einbinder said. "We wanted to help The Federation compete with sexier philanthropic organizations around L.A., organizations that are considered cooler and have more celebrities involved."
After the 2002 event, which attracted more than 1,000 revelers to the Hollywood Palladium, The Federation bowed out. At the time, Federation executives said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time. Fishel suggested the event was terrific but on the verge of becoming stale. The Progressive Jewish Alliance now holds the Vodka Latka soiree.
In the entertainment business, as in some other industries in town, Fishel said, "there's no clarity in terms of what makes them want to be engaged Jewishly."
The same apparently goes for potential new donors among the megarich, said Bubis, the former Federation vice president who has such praise for Fishel's international work. The Federation president, Bubis said, has failed to provide an overarching vision that would inspire those givers.
Last year, The Federation received no million-dollar gifts for its annual campaign. The organization has made going after large donors a bigger priority going forward, Federation executives said.
And there's some good news on that front. Earlier this year, an anonymous donor made a $3 million unrestricted gift, sources confirmed.
So has Fishel done a good enough job making The Federation attractive to donors?
Fishel himself believes more needs to be done.
"When need outdistances the means to do all of the good things brought to The Federation for support, you always want to raise more," he said.
Fishel took the helm of the L.A. Federation in 1992, during a period of great uncertainty. The Southland's recession had taken a bite out of the annual campaign; the institution was in turmoil. Fishel righted The Federation's finances through spending cuts and layoffs.
Besides restoring stability, he also worked on inclusiveness, several Federation leaders said. Over the years, Fishel reached out to Persian, Israeli and Russian Jews, said attorney David Nahai, a Federation board member.
Fishel has received mostly positive marks from Federation watchers, despite much dissatisfaction over the handling of the Jewish community centers and the Jewish Community Relations Committee. Tobin of the Institute for Jewish Community Research called him "one of the most thoughtful and really analytical executives in The Federation field." UJC President and Chief Executive Howard M. Rieger called Fishel "one of the best we've got."
The pressures of running The L.A. Federation have sometimes gotten to Fishel. A few years back, he briefly considered leaving The Federation after other Jewish organizations expressed an interest in him, including the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. These days, though, Fishel insisted that he couldn't be happier.
"I've had 30-plus years working in Jewish communal life. I've had a lot of really amazing experiences meeting some extraordinary people here in this country and around the world, " he said. "I love what I do."