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Jewish Journal

Steven Schwager: The (pre-) exit interview

by Uriel Heilman, JTA

May 11, 2012 | 1:46 pm

Steven Schwager, the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is stepping down from the helm of the JDC on June 30.

One of American Jewry’s largest charities, the JDC spends almost all of its charity dollars overseas, providing Jewish welfare, education and identity-building in the non-U.S. Diaspora, and boosting welfare and education in Israel.

Along with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the JDC is one of the two principal overseas partners of the Jewish Federations of North America, which provides the JDC with the bulk of its budget. As funding from the Jewish Federations has fallen in recent years, the JDC has adapted by raising an increasingly large share of its budget on its own. Under Schwager’s tenure, the JDC’s budget has grown from $243 million per year in 2002 to $362 million this year, its largest-ever budget.

On Friday, the day Schwager announced his retirement, he took a few minutes to talk to JTA about why he is leaving the JDC after 23 years—the last 10 of them at its helm.

Uriel Heilman: Why are you leaving?

Steven Schwager: I’m here 23 years. I’ve been the exec for 10 years. I’m almost 65. My father died at 69 from a heart attack and worked till the day he died. I had my heart attack a year and a half ago. I can look back with pride at what I’ve done. It’s time to move on.

Heilman: What were the pillars of your vision for the JDC?

Schwager: My vision for the JDC was to—on the one hand—ensure that it continues to be and always was and always will be the 911 of the Jewish world. Wherever there is a Jew hungry, in need or in danger, the JDC would be there. Today I can say we can reach any Jew anywhere in the world through the organization and staff we have, and so that goal was fulfilled.

Two, to ensure a Jewish future in those communities without Jewish history. By that I mean the former Soviet Union, where we built all of these JCCs that have become the hubs of Jewish life. The only thing that’s missing at the moment is more money to do more programming, but all the facilities and the bases are there.

Three, to reach the next generation of American Jews, we put in place a next-gen program that started with one part-time employee three and a half years ago, and now has 14 employees and a budget of $3 million per year. And we’re reaching thousands upon thousands of Jewish young people in this country.

When I looked at all these things, I concluded it was time to go.

Heilman: When the Union for Reform Judaism’s longtime president, Eric Yoffie, announced his retirement in 2010, he gave the URJ two years to find a successor. Your announcement leaves the JDC fewer than two months. Why the abrupt departure?

Schwager: I’d been talking to Penny [Blumenstein, the lay president of the JDC, whose term began in January] for a while.

Given that they wanted to do a full search with a lay committee, I didn’t want to be a lame duck, so I concluded that it was best for me and best for the organization that I step aside. I’ll be here doing transition work with whoever the new CEO is—either the new full-time CEO or the interim one. I will be here to help the organization. [After he steps down as CEO on June 30, Schwager will continue working for the JDC until the end of the year].

Heilman: What does your family have to say about your decision?

Schwager: They’re thrilled to death that they don’t have to share me. I’ve got five grandchildren and a sixth on the way. They’re all making plans for me to come and spend time with them. When it comes time to change a diaper, I just hand them back to their parents.

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