August 26, 2009
Face of a Crisis
Rhoda Weisman never figured she’d be a victim of the economic crisis that has rocked the Jewish world over the past year. After all, her specialty was identifying and nurturing the kind of leaders who would thrive in such crises; who would, in her words, “create new paradigms.”
What could be more important than that?
Weisman was hardly whining about her situation when I bumped into her at Jeff’s Gourmet the other day. She was simply lamenting the fact that the organization she founded five years ago, Professional Leaders Project (PLP), was no longer, and she wondered who would pick up the slack.
The demise of PLP last month was big news in the community, partly because it was so sudden. Jewish organizations — especially hot and successful ones — rarely die a sudden death. A demise is usually preceded by cutbacks, layoffs, “retrenching,” rumors of financial hardship, desperate fundraising, etc., and, even then, the organization often survives as a shell of its former self.
Not PLP. Its first bad news was its obituary.
And what an obituary it was. They might well be the James Dean of Jewish organizations: a shooting star that made a few amazing performances before crashing in an unfortunate accident.
For Weisman, these “amazing performances” meant amazing people. More precisely, it meant talented Jews with the potential to make a lasting impact on the future of the Jewish community.
Ask Weisman to give you names and examples, and you will enter her comfort zone. On a recent Sunday afternoon, with a Diet Coke in one hand and her white Maltese in the other, she rattled off a list of people who benefited from PLP’s various training programs:
A woman helping to lead the Conservative movement’s new initiative to incorporate ethics in kashrut; a young artist who started the first Moishe House in Los Angeles; a corporate lawyer who became national director of BBYO; a Hollywood producer who is now the top fundraiser at American Jewish World Service; a young woman who helps run “The Conversation”; a senior program officer for the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, among many others.
What’s original about Weisman’s training philosophy is that she mixes different kinds of people into the same pot. She identified early on a problem with Jewish leadership training: walls. Weisman can’t stand walls. The way she sees it, why separate lay people from professionals, young from old, entrepreneurs from managers — since we all have to work together anyway?
“It’s important for the future of the Jewish community that the rebels and the mainstream are integrated for the greater good,” she said.
Her own journey has had a tinge of rebellion. She can’t pinpoint how or where her passion for Judaism started, but she thinks it might have to do with the fact that unlike her older brothers, she didn’t go to Hebrew school while she was growing up in Detroit.
“I remember sneaking into their rooms and reading their Jewish books. I even remember the blue cover and title of one of the books, ‘The History of the Jewish People,’” she said.
Eventually, her personal breakthrough came when she decided in the mid-1980s to get a master’s degree in Jewish Professional Development from Brandeis University. After graduating, she spent most of her career with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, both at the national level and at the regional level in Los Angeles.
All that was preparation for her real breakthrough, which came when she started PLP five years ago. Because of her connections with philanthropists like Michael Steinhart and fundraisers like Bob Aronson, the organization had a smooth opening and a fast rise. At its peak, its annual budget reached $2 million, which helped Weisman lead a national network of 50 professional team members and over 1,000 participants.
And then it crashed.
The crisis hit when one of their major donors, William Davidson from Detroit, passed away, and in the sorting out of his affairs, his annual gift to PLP became a casualty. Weisman and her cohorts figured they would replace the gift by reaching out to other donors, but in the aftermath of Bernie Madoff and the general economic downturn, their timing couldn’t have been worse.
“Everyone was lovely, but we didn’t get what we needed,” she said.
She decided to wind down the operation instead of running a skeletal version that couldn’t live up to its mission.
Now she herself is back at the starting gate, hoping and looking for another breakthrough. “I haven’t put together a resume in 20 years,” she told me.
She has until the end of the year to find something. She’ll have to balance her deep desire to make a difference in the Jewish world with her equally deep desire to avoid, as she said with a smile, “food stamps.”
If only there were another Rhoda Weisman to help her out.