Those looking for signs of change in the Jewish community’s largest charitable network had hailed the hiring of Daniel Sokatch to run the Jewish federation in San Francisco. But after serving a little more than a year, Sokatch is departing to become the CEO of the New Israel Fund (NIF).
Few are begrudging Sokatch’s decision. Before taking the federation job, Sokatch was seen as the prototype of a new generation of left-wing Jewish professionals, credited with helping build the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance. The job at the New Israel Fund, which gives out tens of millions of dollars per year to progressive causes in Israel, would seem tailor-made for him.
The question is whether to view Sokatch’s decision to take the NIF job strictly as someone accepting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or also as someone fleeing a bad match.
“Everybody knows that the federated system is in a period in which it is engaged in varying degrees of introspection and re-evaluation,” Sokatch said last week, shortly after his latest move was announced. “In some places it is more explicit than in others, but declining membership and fundraising are indicative of more than economic troubles. We need to rethink the functions behind some of our traditional community organizations.”
Sokatch came to the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties with a broad vision of what San Francisco ultimately could look like, and much of it involved some radical change. He and his staff had rolled out parts of their plan, and some were readily accepted by the community’s elders.
For instance, Sokatch was able to push forward the Catalyst Initiative, which called for using millions of dollars from the federation’s endowment to provide relief during the economic crisis. It also was to address what he called a “deeper demographic crisis” by funding a new service-learning initiative and projects with synagogues to reach out to a new generation.
Yet he encountered resistance on Israel. Sokatch believes in creating a broad tent to discuss and address Israel-related issues that would include more liberal viewpoints than the federation system typically embraces.
Sokatch found himself in the middle of a melee over San Francisco’s Jewish film festival when its organizers decided to screen a film about Rachel Corrie, the pro-Palestinian activist who was killed when she lay down in front of an Israeli bulldozer about to raze Palestinian homes, and invite Corrie’s mother to speak at the event without presenting other viewpoints.
Although it was not Sokatch’s doing, and he publicly criticized the decision to invite only Corrie’s mother to speak (a pro-Israel speaker was added later), the backlash fell squarely on his shoulders.
More recently, Sokatch irked some leaders of the San Francisco community when he agreed to speak at the annual conference of J Street, a year-and-a-half-old organization that has lobbied for U.S pressure on Israel (and the Palestinians) and criticized Israel’s invasion of Gaza.
Sokatch insists that he was not nudged out of the federation and that he left the job only because NIF is, and always has been, his dream job. But the fact that San Francisco, which has been known as a federation willing to make radical moves, did not fully embrace him has some very concerned.
Among them is Barry Shrage, the chief executive at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, who is widely regarded as the federation system’s most successful maverick.
Shrage brought some radical ideas when he assumed the helm of the Boston federation 22 years ago. He wanted the federation to fund synagogues directly to help them become better purveyors of Jewish education and to give money to causes in Israel outside of the auspices of the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
He pushed through those changes.
The system, Shrage said, is certainly hurt by Sokatch’s departure, as he brought a certain magnetism that many federation leaders lack. But Shrage believes that Sokatch may have left a little too soon.
“In any job, you have to be willing to spend some time going through the tough stuff before you can change things,” Shrage said, noting that it took him two years to really affect change in Boston.
Shrage said he had sleepless nights wondering if he would have a job the next morning.
“I had great lay leaders willing to stand by me,” he said. “I know [Sokatch] had that in San Francisco.”
But Sokatch’s departure, Shrage says, points to a wider problem facing the federation system: It needs to do a better job of attracting the best young candidates for professional leadership positions; it needs to attract more graduates of Jewish professional training programs such as the Wexner Heritage Program.
It is paramount that the system start to recruit these people effectively, Shrage said. As a positive sign, he pointed to the decision by the federation system’s North American body to recruit an outsider and an outside-the-box leader in Jerry Silverman, who took over Sept.1.
“I still believe that federations have the opportunity to raise enormous money and, if they take the opportunity to use it intelligently, it can do great things for the Jewish people,” Shrage said. “But if we maintain the status quo, we are going to waste an opportunity.”