After less than 10 months on the job, the president of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute has announced plans to step down, a development that surprised board members and raised questions about the health and future of the Jewish-owned camp, retreat and conference center.
Rabbi Isaac Jeret insisted his departure was voluntary and amicable. He said he enjoyed his time at Brandeis but wanted to move on to a more spiritually fulfilling job.
"What I found over the past year is that I missed the congregational life and lifestyle immensely," said Jeret, 40, who will leave Brandeis July 31. "There is a spiritual intimacy between a rabbi and congregation community around life-cycle events and around long-term engagement."
Brandeis board members say that resignation, though regrettable, would have no long-term negative impact. To take over his duties, the board has tapped Gary Brennglass, a former board chair who has a 35-year association with Brandeis. For now, the board has put off a search for a new president.
Some outside observers worry that instability at the top could make it harder to recruit a talented new leader in the future. Jeret's exit represents the second time in less than two years that a Brandeis president has departed.
"To the outside world, it doesn't appear that Brandeis has its act together," said Jay Sanderson, chief executive of the Jewish Television Network and a former Brandeis director of development and marketing in the late 1980s.
Brandeis-Bardin Institute, which owns 3,000 acres in the Santa Susana Mountains -- the largest piece of land owned by a Jewish institution outside of Israel -- offers camping and other programs in a rural setting of rolling hills that rise on either side of a sun-baked valley. This year's rains have made the scenery especially picturesque, spawning a rushing creek from the rocky wash that runs through the property's center.
Jews of multiple generations remember Brandeis as the place they learned how to folk dance or how to swim, or where they bonded with other teenagers at Camp Alonim. Or where, as adults, they attended spiritually meaningful retreats.
But the peaceful, expansive setting has sometimes belied a troubled institution. Some critics say simply that Brandeis has underperformed, recently failing to reach its potential as a center of Jewish life and culture in Southern California.
Board members insist that all is well and that Jeret's brief leadership has contributed to a bright outlook.
Brandeis has raised $3 million over the past year for a new dining commons at Camp Alonim; recruited new, young blood to the board, and added four specialty camps -- basketball, soccer, arts and wilderness -- that will debut this summer, Jeret said.
In the wake of such progress, Jeret's decision came as a particular surprise to board members, Brandeis Chair Linda Volpert Gross said. Just last month, Volpert Gross said, she threw a surprise birthday party for Jeret at her Encino home that attracted most directors.
"I didn't wish for [Jeret's departure], but this institute has been around since 1948 and has had a lot of leaders," said Volpert Gross, a Harvard MBA. Through all the changes in leadership, "Camp Alonim, BCI [Brandeis Collegiate Institute] and the annual dinner have gone on.'"
Like Volpert Gross, Brandeis executive board member Nathan Hochman said he felt disappointed that Jeret had decided to move on. Hochman headed the search committee that selected the rabbi.
This search process cost at least $50,000, according to some sources, although Hochman declined to confirm that amount. New York-based DRG Inc., an executive search firm for nonprofits, handled the nationwide headhunt.
Hochman insisted that Jeret had been the best choice. "We believe and still believe that Rabbi Jeret has tremendous potential as a leader in 21st century Jewish America," Hochman said. "As it turns out, we believe he will emerge as that leader by being head of a congregation with a very devoted [local] community, as opposed to being head of an institute like Brandeis-Bardin that has a national congregation."
Jeret said he had held Brandeis in the highest regard, but longed for congregational life. A former rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Palm Beach, Fla., Jeret said he had accepted a position at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes, which had offered him the same job one year ago.
Going forward, board member Hochman said, Brandeis leaders will focus on three areas: the introduction of Camp Alonim's specialty camps, expanding BCI and the family weekend programs. He said the core aspects of Brandeis are healthier than ever.
Nearly to a person, board members interviewed spoke of a financially healthy, untroubled Brandeis and good times ahead. No one has documentation to demonstrate otherwise.
One board member, however, speaking not for attribution, allowed that Brandeis, like many Jewish organizations, faces difficult times. He speculated that the economic challenges weighed heavily on Jeret.
A former board member with inside knowledge said she thinks Brandeis has a deficit of at least $500,000 and has drawn down $1 million to $2 million from a line of credit.
Brennglass, the new executive director, declined to discuss the institute's reputed debt, endowment or other financial data. He noted that Brandeis owns 3,000 acres just 45 minutes outside Los Angeles, intimating that it has substantial assets.
"Brandeis will continue to do the great work it has done for 50 years," Brennglass said.
Jeret's predecessor said recent developments are a matter of concern.
"I don't know what the situation is there, but what is needed by the board is an honest assessment of how Brandeis is perceived in the community, what it's real situation is and how it can move ahead," Rabbi Lee T. Bycel said. He left the top job at Brandeis in August 2003, after three years, when the board decided not to renew his contract.
Bycel said he hopes for the best: "The community desperately needs a successful Brandeis-Bardin."