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Jewish Journal

Money Woes Doom Leadership Program

by Howard Stier, Contributing Writer

August 18, 2009 | 4:40 pm

The Los Angeles-based Professional Leaders Project, a five-year-old effort to recruit and groom future executives for Jewish community organizations has shut down operations effective Aug. 31, due to funding issues. One hundred new inductees recently accepted to participate in a networking program have been turned away.

PLP’s future had been uncertain since the death in March of William M. Davidson, a Detroit glass manufacturer whose $1 million-a-year gifts provided the primary support for the $1.5 million annual budget. Other donors contributed support but could not sustain the organization.

“He had been ill for a while, but it was still a surprise,” PLP Director Rhoda Weisman said. In addition to Davidson, the program’s other founders included top community leaders — Michael Steinhardt/Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, Eugene and Marcia Applebaum, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Robert P. Aronson.

PLP got its start in 2004, focusing on candidates in their mid-20s to early 30s, providing them with programs combining mentoring, peer networking and direct contact with top Jewish leaders. PLP’s academic fellowship program has supported 20 full-tuition scholarships for graduate study in areas related to the Jewish organizational world. On Aug. 12, PLP announced it would also cancel its nationwide LiveNetwork seminars and ThinkTank4, a Jewish leadership conference that was to be held Oct. 12-20 at Universal Studios.

The Davidson estate continues to maintain plans for a charitable foundation, but whether that includes a continued gift to PLP “will not be resolved for a year or so,” Weisman said.

“Once we knew that was the bottom line, we realized if we didn’t have access to his gift, we couldn’t continue and needed to cut expenditures,” Weisman said.

The organization is not alone in facing grave funding difficulties. Jewish organizations providing everything from hot meals and mental health counseling to loans, support for immigrants and money for Jewish education have been affected by the current economic downturn, as well as by Bernard L. Madoff’s multi-billion-dollar fraud. The Chais Family Foundation, for example, which once provided $12.5 million annually to Jewish causes, was forced to shutter.

But PLP was not a casualty of Madoff’s investment scheme, nor did it close because of the recession. But in the wake of its closure, program participants say there are few alternatives.

Weisman said PLP will fulfill its commitment to cover tuition for its seven current academic fellows, and Weisman will continue mentoring and coaching those already in the program. In addition, PLP alumni remain obligated to work in the Jewish community for a minimum of three years after graduation.

“We gave many gifts to the Jewish community,” Weisman said.

One of them, she said, has been helping to promote the concept that volunteering has as much value as giving money to the Jewish community. “One is not more important than the other.” 

PLP has trained 1,000 Jewish leaders, according to Weisman.

“Here was an organization cultivating a new generation of leaders. Now we are creating a problem that PLP was trying to remedy, to fill in the leadership gap. It’s one of the saddest things,” said Ari Moss, a Los Angeles attorney active in PLP. “PLP was a keystone species in the Jewish ecosystem.”

But Moss, a board member of the Shalom Institute, a Malibu summer camp, remains optimistic.

“There is one less organization tapping into that talent pool, which I see now as an opportunity. I now have a greater purpose — to find and mentor and encourage new board members, to fill in the gap,” he said.

An upbeat note soliciting “innovative thoughts and ideas about what happens next for our network” appeared last week on PLP’s Web site, implying a future manifestation.

“There is hope of reinvigorating PLP at another time,” Weisman said.

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