Jewish Journal

Fishel Reflects on Challenging Tenure

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

Posted on Jan. 13, 2010 at 4:46 am

John Fishel. Photo by Kevin Scanlon

John Fishel. Photo by Kevin Scanlon

For the past 17 years, John Fishel has spent his days handling major crises, instituting dozens of programs and initiatives, fielding hundreds of daily challenges, and representing L.A. Jewry as president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

This month he left that post, opening up his own future and making room for the new president, Jay Sanderson, a former television producer. An article about Sanderson and Federation’s new direction will be forthcoming soon.

“I think we’ve reached a point where there is an opportunity for me and an opportunity for the community to have a fresh look,” Fishel said. “I’d like to believe that during my tenure we accomplished a lot, and I know there are many things that are unfinished. That is the nature of community work, especially in a dynamic community like this one.”

A few weeks before he left his job, Fishel took some time to reflect on the imprint he’s left on Los Angeles since he arrived in 1992.

“I came to a place which was in disarray, with tremendous financial problems, enormous turmoil within the staff, and a lot of turmoil in the lay leadership,” Fishel said. “There was a lack of clarity in terms of priorities. It was a place that clearly needed some strong professional guidance.”

Consensus is that Federation is in better shape today, and Fishel has worked to clarify priorities and improve operations at the $50 million institution, which employs about 150 people directly and provides funds to 114 social service, educational and cultural programs.

“John came here in the early 1990s when Federation had serious problems, financial and otherwise, and he righted the ship. He has taken us through every crisis, and he’s brought the community together in those times. He has done what this community asked of him and then some,” said Richard Sandler, who just began a two-year term as Federation chair.

Fishel, who in 2007 earned $415,000 in salary and benefits (the most recent public numbers), is staying on as a consultant at Federation, working 20 hours a week under a multi-year contract. In addition to serving as a consultant with other nonprofit organizations, Fishel has also agreed to be on the boards of Jewish World Watch and Beit T’Shuvah and to get involved with Grand Performances, which stages free global music and dance shows in downtown Los Angeles.

That’s a new, more moderated pace for Fishel, who regularly worked 80- to 100-hour weeks, popping up at Jewish events and venues across the city.

In the first few years of his tenure, Fishel initiated a strategic planning process that eventually cut in half a bloated staff and board. He streamlined programs and reapportioned funds among mainstays for the first time in decades, shifting $1 million from overseas to local education, for instance, and founding the Valley Alliance, now one of the most vibrant departments of Federation.

Fishel has a passion for global Jewry, and under his leadership, Federation established the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, through which Los Angeles has 18 schools twinned with counterparts in Tel Aviv, and exchanges between human services professionals, filmmakers and artists.

Fishel often traveled to countries where Los Angeles supports beleaguered communities, such as Eastern Europe and Ethiopia, and recently to Darfur and Congo.

Locally, Fishel saw to it that the L.A. Federation was an early and consistent supporter of Birthright Israel, putting up $550,000 annually to send young people on free 10-day trips to Israel. He put new resources into shoring up Jewish overnight camping and reached out to Russian, Persian and Israeli populations. Federation has forged stronger ties with synagogues, mostly through The Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

One of the signature programs nurtured under his leadership is KOREH L.A., which engages volunteer tutors to teach literacy, mostly to minorities.

KOREH L.A. is a program of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, an organization Fishel was criticized for reorganizing and restaffing in 2003. He also took significant flak for not stepping in to prevent the financial collapse of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002.

Fishel says that both in handling crises and in promoting innovation, he always took time to gather as much information as he could to do what he believed was best for the community.

“My whole philosophy has been that you have got to listen, you have got to understand what your community is all about. There is tremendous diversity here,” Fishel said. “Change occurs incrementally, and your ability to make the change lasting, and your ability to make good decisions, comes from being able to think things through.”

Still, some wonder if that analytic approach quashed Fishel’s ability to put forth a compelling vision.

“What I felt was missing here in Los Angeles, and this has as much to do with John as with lay leaders, was that I never sensed that there was an overarching, exciting, articulated vision of what this place called Los Angeles could become, and what Federation’s place in that would be,” said Gerald Bubis, a friend and admirer of Fishel’s. Bubis founded Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s school of communal service and is a longtime community and Federation activist.

Yet Fishel’s understatedness, which some perceived as dispassion, may be exactly what provided the needed, steady hand of calm during the many crises that hit the Jewish community during his tenure. For example, Fishel had to shepherd the community through the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and he oversaw major renovations at the West Valley Milken Campus and Federation headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Boulevard.

After the 1999 anti-Semitic shooting at a summer camp in the North Valley JCC, Fishel was quickly on the scene, and Federation provided security and counseling for months after.

“We were able to respond to crises as they occurred and to do it very well,” Fishel said. “We reasserted The Federation’s role as the most central Jewish address you will find in Los Angeles.”

He rallied major demonstrations and raised millions of dollars to aid Israeli victims of terror, to support Argentine Jews devastated by the 1999 economic meltdown and to champion Israel during its war with Hezbollah and struggles with Hamas.

But while emergency campaigns often did better than expected — around $20 million in 2000 and again in 2002, in response to Israeli and Argentine crises — the annual campaign has remained relatively flat: Federation took in $42.4 million in 1992 and $49 million in 2009. In between it went as low as $37.4 million and as high as $51 million. An estimated 18,000 Jewish households, out of Los Angeles’ 200,000, give to Federation.

Some blame the national philanthropic shift toward donor investment in direct causes rather than obligatory, unrestricted contributions to umbrella organizations. But Federation is also paying the price of a policy over the last several years to focus its attention on the largest donors, leaving itself, in the end, with an aging and shrinking donor base and a disaffiliated community.

Long aware of these challenges, Fishel has tweaked giving policies and in the last two years worked with Chairman Stanley Gold to revamp how Federation allocates funds. He also worked with lay leaders to set up the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, which enables donors to be active players in where the money goes. He replaced outdated leadership development programs to attract more young people, and in recent months he oversaw the initiation of Give Life Meaning, a new marketing campaign targeted at broadening Federation affiliation.

While the board now has significant representation from young people, Fishel acknowledges there is a long way to go in making Federation appealing to a younger generation.

“One of the challenges for the future is how do you assure that those people who are your best supporters continue to feel passionate, how do you engage their children and grandchildren, and at the same time recognize that you need to broaden the numbers of donors and community members?” he said.

Fishel said the job, with all its challenges and rewards, has left him tired sometimes, but never jaded.

Now, he’s ready for the next chapter.

“I am still reasonably young, and there are many things I’m interested in, things I would like to do. And if you don’t do it when you’re 60, you may never do it,” he said.

He is enjoying the prospect, for the first time in many decades, of taking some time to explore what comes next. He is considering taking some classes at UCLA and thinking about the large world of possibilities that is now open to him.

“It’s healthy to have change,” Fishel said. “I’m very happy that after so many years, I have the opportunity to pass the baton to somebody who is so motivated and feels so excited about taking this role and who will bring different skills and personality to the job.”

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