The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles had long been led by a mammoth and, some would say, symbolic board of directors. But last week the 133-member board voted nearly unanimously to dissolve itself and reconstitute about 65 percent lighter.
No longer would seats be guaranteed to representatives from 20 beneficiary agencies or Los Angeles' Jewish universities or its denominational leaders. Instead, the board will be comprised of volunteers chosen for their ability and willingness to take on significant responsibility and specific duties. It will also include co-chairs for five new "pillar" committees that will focus on The Federation's newly explicit priorities.
"The board grew to 130 because everybody said, 'We've got to have a seat,''' board chair Stanley P. Gold said. "But it was a federation of beneficiaries and names, rather than what I now see, which is a federation of workers and donors."
Gold took the helm of lay leadership Jan. 1 and has wasted little time implementing dramatic changes at 6505 Wilshire Blvd.
"That was my biggest obstacle with people. People said, 'You don't have any agency people, you don't have any Orthodox people, you don't have any Valley people.' ... Our board is made up of donors and people who are super-concerned with a particular area," he added.
The change has been a long time coming, many said this past week. Except for during the war with Lebanon in the summer of 2006, support for The Federation, suffering the same challenges as other umbrella nonprofits like the United Way, has been flat in recent years. Annual campaign donations have remained around $50 million for 15 years, and, in fact, have fallen about 33 percent when accounting for inflation. When Gold was elected in September, he swore to again make the organization "relevant."
"The alternative is a slow dissipation," he said. "I'm not going to let that happen."
The president of Shamrock Holdings who built his reputation as a savvy businessman during two decades on the board of directors for the Walt Disney Co., Gold has focused his early activities on streamlining Federation governance and narrowing its focus. So far, the efforts have been welcomed by professional and lay leaders, even those who lost their board seats because of it.
"Frankly, this is a necessity," said Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and an expert on Jewish communal service. "This type of thing, the restructuring of the board for accountability purposes and decision making, is absolutely essential to the future of The Federation."
Windmueller, like others who lost their seat on the board, is now one of 125 members of the Community Leadership Congress, which was created to channel communication from Jewish institutions throughout the city and, Gold said, to serve as "the representative body of the Los Angeles Jewish community, not by vote but by emotion and culture."
In addition to agency representatives, the congress includes notable Federation donors and past chairs, including Irwin Field, who also chairs the board of Los Angeles Jewish Publications, which includes The Jewish Journal; Barbi Weinberg, founding president of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Harriet Hochman, who led the nominating committee that selected Gold.
"We've got to give ourselves a shot," Hochman said about the need for shaking up the organization she chaired in 2004 and 2005 and that her late husband, Bruce, led 19 years before. "The people who have put us where we are, God bless them, they are skilled. But this is a changing world, and we have got to open up and see how we can serve ourselves better."
One of the ways Gold and his vice chair, Richard Sandler, have sought to do that is by repackaging The Federation's mission around the five pillar committees, which will seek as their vice chairs volunteers under age 50 in hopes of developing younger leaders. Created by Gold, Sandler, campaign chair Bettina Kurowski and Federation President John Fishel, the committees focus on community relations, Israel and overseas, Jewish education, leadership development and serving the vulnerable.
A few new board members were elected to improve services in these fields, including Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the rector and a philosophy professor at American Jewish University (AJU), who has previously served as the president of Jewish Family Service and will co-chair with Howard Bernstein the committee on the vulnerable. Two big hitters also are new to the list, brought in by Gold a few months ago to help improve The Federation's community image: Peter Lowy and Sherry Lansing.
Both Lowy and Lansing have been leaders in their fields, real estate and entertainment, respectively, perhaps the two objects of greatest obsession in Los Angeles. Lowy, the group managing director of Westfield Holding, the largest privately held real-estate company in the world, also serves as AJU's chairman. Sherry Lansing, the former CEO of Paramount Pictures and the first woman to head a major studio, is a regent of the University of California. (Lowy declined to comment and Lansing was unavailable.)
The new blood and new vision are intended to give new life to the 97-year-old umbrella organization. As could be expected, though, the uncertainty of change has been unsettling for some.
"Change is always difficult in any situation," said Margy Feldman, president and CEO of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles, who added that she anticipates her agency will continue to receive about 9 percent of its budget from The Federation. "I think we as agencies have learned what The Federation is no longer going to do. What we haven't learned yet is what the Federation is going to do. That leaves a lot of holes and a lot of fears. The unknown is always what is scary."
Rumors abound that everyone except for Federation staff is being kicked out of 6505 Wilshire and that some of the most beloved agencies are already looking for their own buildings.To be sure, Gold has said The Federation will no longer provide audits or write the payroll for its beneficiary agencies, and it will stop providing rent subsidies.
"No one is going to be forced out of the building; they are going to have to pay rent in the building. If they want out, the choice is theirs," Gold said. "We are going to do programming, we are going to support programming, and they will have to be begin to pay for some of their stuff. Otherwise, we are being too paternalistic."
Agencies already no longer receive anywhere near the majority of their annual budget from The Federation. Many have been receiving between 5 percent and 15 percent of it, much of which has come through subsidies. Now agency heads are waiting to find out what kind of support they'll get in the coming fiscal year.
"It's up in the air because no one has any idea of how the actual distribution is going to occur. I really think they haven't thought out the whole formula," said Mark Meltzer, Jewish Free Loan Association's executive director. "We're all waiting for the other shoe to drop, in terms of finding out what is going to happen in the future."
Gold said that his priority now that the bylaws have been amended is to meet with particular agencies to explain what's next. A few months ago, Fishel, The Federation's professional leader since 1992, made a similar effort, gathering the agency leaders together and laying out the coming changes. At the meeting, Fishel said that every few decades, Los Angeles' umbrella Jewish organization has gone through a massive shift, out of which it has emerged stronger and more efficient.
"I hope that with the change in generation, The Federation will become a better community leader," Feldman said. "And if The Federation becomes stronger, the agencies will become stronger. That is just how the chemistry works."
Education Editor Julie Gruenbaum Fax contributed to this report.
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