The recent layoff of Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), has set off a firestorm of criticism in the community and raised questions about the priorities of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Federation President John Fishel defended the decision to part with Hirschfeld as an utter economic necessity given the harsh realities at the city's largest Jewish philanthropic organization. He said he considers JCRC as important as ever.
"We are very committed," Fishel said.
Still, JCRC lay leaders and others have expressed shock at the sudden departure of Hirschfeld, whose enthusiasm and commitment helped energize volunteers and the organization, said Donna Bojarsky, a JCRC vice chair and public policy consultant to people in the entertainment industry.
Founded 60 years ago, the JCRC, an agency of The Jewish Federation, seeks to serve as the voice of the L.A. Jewish community, speaking out on governmental policy and advocating for Israel and world Jewry. It also seeks to create ties to the broader Los Angeles community.
During his 24-year tenure, Hirschfeld helped launch KOREH L.A., a literacy program that places Jewish volunteers in public elementary schools to tutor poor students, and built relationships with local, state and federal politicians that led to The Federation, and such agencies as Jewish Family Service and Jewish Vocational Service, landing millions in government funding.
The frustration now felt by many JCRC members and their supporters goes beyond his dismissal. They worry that the decision to eliminate Hirschfeld's job as a stand-alone position reflects The Federation's diminishing commitment to community relations. In their view, the organization cares more about big-money donors at Brentwood and Hillcrest country clubs than the need to cultivate relationships with political leaders and reach out to Los Angeles' other minority communities.
"What kind of message does this send to people not only inside [The Federation], but, more importantly, to those on the outside," said Barbara Yaroslavsky, a JCRC executive board member.
Hirschfeld's departure comes at a time when support for JCRCs around the country appears to be slipping, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. As groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Committee increasingly promote tolerance and interethnic cooperation, JCRCs have, in some cases, lost their uniqueness and been overshadowed, he said.
Fishel said laying off Hirschfeld was an incredibly difficult act largely driven by financial considerations. Faced with the need to shave $1 million from the budget by year's end, he pared the payroll by laying off a total of seven employees last week and eliminating another 13 full- and part-time positions in recent months. The moves reflect the organization's need to run leaner, a key recommendation of a recent internal audit.
"I truly believe, long-term, that the reorganization and the implementation of the Blue Ribbon Committee's recommendations will help us to do a better job in what we do," Fishel said.
He added that tapping respected Carol Koransky to assume Hirschfeld's duties shows The Federation's unwavering support for JCRC. Koransky, who will continue to serve as The Federation's senior vice president of policy, planning and community development, has the experience and vision to build on Hirschfeld's legacy, Fishel said.
But a former JCRC director doubts that the organization can function effectively without a full-time leader. Steven Windmueller, director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and JCRC head from 1985 to 1995, said JCRC would suffer without Hirschfeld.
"How do we do the business of public affairs if we remove a key player?" he asked.
Not very well, according to Howard Welinsky, former JCRC chair, who said that Los Angeles' Jewish community needs a strong community relations committee more than ever to lobby politicians for a shrinking piece of the government pie to fund Jewish and other local agencies.
Yet, Welinsky said, Fishel fails to appreciate JCRC's importance. Instead, The Federation has focused mainly on catering to and raising money from donors of $10,000 or more in recent years. Given the organization's relatively flat fundraising, that strategy appears to be failing, Welinsky noted.
Fishel said The Federation serves all Jews in the community. For instance, it gives money and loans to local high school and college students so they can visit Israel.
One area where Fishel partly agrees with his critics is in his handling of Hirschfeld's dismissal. In retrospect, he wishes he had discussed impending layoffs with lay leaders and JCRC board members beforehand. Although he said he ultimately makes the decisions, perhaps sharing his thoughts would have blunted some of the sting of his actions. In an attempt to mend fences, Fishel said he planned to meet soon with JCRC leaders to allow them to vent and then "move on."
On Aug. 25, Koransky, Hirschfeld's direct superior, informed him of his dismissal. Although Federation executives had long been on edge because of impending layoffs, the news surprised Hirschfeld. Three days later, he and Fishel agreed to a severance package.
"The Federation was very generous," Hirschfeld said. "After 24 years, they should have been, and they were."
The 56-year-old Beverly Hills resident said he loved his long JCRC career. He looks forward to finding a new job soon. Hirschfeld said he harbored no bitterness and remains one of the Federation's staunchest supporters.
Hirschfeld joined JCRC on Jan. 20, 1980, after working on George McGovern's presidential and Jesse Unruh's gubernatorial campaigns. Initially, Hirschfeld headed JCRC's commission on education and its commission on law and legislation.
Six years later, Hirschfeld rose to the position of assistant director. In these heady times, JCRC worked hard on behalf on Soviet and Ethiopian Jews and fought against cults. As time passed, the crises in Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry largely passed, thereby diminishing JCRC's role, he said.
By the late 1980s, JCRC began shying away from taking controversial stances on political issues, lest those positions offend donors, Hirschfeld said. As The Federation began looking inward, it put less emphasis on building bridges with outside communities.
Hirschfeld ascended to the top spot in 1995. Over the years, he brought scores of legislators to Israel on missions and made close friendships that later benefited the Jewish community. For instance, Hirschfeld forged a close bond with City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa during a trip to Israel. Villaraigosa, then speaker of the state Assembly, later worked with Gov. Gray Davis to funnel a $2 million grant to The Federation for capital spending and an anti-prejudice program.
Of all his accomplishments, Hirschfeld said he's most proud of KOREH L.A., which he cofounded five years ago with Elaine Albert, now JCRC's associate director. Today, 1,300 mostly Jewish volunteers help teach kids how to read. The program has been so successful that Hirschfeld said Verizon Communications just awarded a $50,000 grant to help recruit corporate volunteers.
Reflecting on his JCRC career, Hirschfeld said he thought his expertise would be missed.
"I was the person who kept it all going, and I think it will be difficult to have continuity without having a captain on the ship," he said.