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Jewish Journal

A Missing Voice?

by Rob Eshman

September 4, 2003 | 8:00 pm

I'm fascinated by the firing of Michael Hirschfeld.

Here was a guy, 24 years on the job, who had built up a network of relationships with politicians and community leaders outside the Jewish community.

Here was a guy who was dedicated and well-liked by most of his peers (hey, it's the Jews -- no one gets 100 percent).

Here was a guy who spearheaded what might have been one of the organized Jewish community's highest-profile activities each year: KOREH L.A.: The Los Angeles Coalition for Literacy.

Here was a guy whose support for the New Leaders Project attracted the coveted younger demographic, and whose literacy project bagged the Holy Grail of Hollywood participation into institutional Jewish life.

Here was a guy who welcomed anyone with a passion for politics and social change into the organized Jewish community and gave them a place to roll up their sleeves and go to work.

And now he's gone.

Federation leaders, faced with a fearsome budget gap, chose to stop funding Hirschfeld's position as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC). Senior Reporter Marc Ballon has written at length on The Federation's efforts to overcome its money woes and remake itself as a leaner organization, and on page 10 he looks into Hirschfeld's de facto dismissal.

There are two issues here that call out for comment.

Point one: leaner doesn't have to be meaner. People who support The Federation's move and those who oppose it agreed that in the interest of community building, Hirschfeld's dismissal could have been handled more judiciously.

"Is there a halacha [Jewish law] for firing someone?" one member of the JCRC executive board asked. "Maybe there should be."

Cutting budgets most often comes down to cutting jobs, and it is no one's favorite task. But here there are echoes of the Jewish Community Centers' (JCC) cuts of two summers ago, when community members complained as much about the way an unpalatable job was carried out as about the fact that it had to be.

"They just did it too abruptly," one JCRC board member said.

JCRC Executive Committee members were not informed prior to the dismissal of their lead staff person. The firing left Federation supporters feeling weak and disenfranchised.

"It feels like there's no respect for what we think and what we want," one longtime JCRC activist said, "and that's a very disheartening message to a volunteer."

That makes the way this firing went down -- to use the wording of former JCRC Chair Carmen Warschaw, who supported the dismissal -- "a mistake."

Point two: Federation officials have said that Hirschfeld will not be replaced for now, and Senior Vice President Carol Koransky will add his role to her own. Many JCRC supporters question whether making Hirschfeld's job an add-on to what is already more than a full-time position is, in fact, a way of marginalizing the agency.

"This clearly does not show anyone giving high priority to the JCRC," one activist said.

To be honest, the JCRC is not what it once was. As Jewish opinion fractured on a variety of issues -- busing, school vouchers, Israel -- the agency found it more and more dicey to take stands, and an alphabet of other organizations (AJCommittee, the ADL, the PJA, etc.) fulfilled many similar functions. (Sometimes there have been so many Jewish groups in this town organizing "Latino-Jewish dialogues" I wondered if there were enough Latinos in Los Angeles to go around.)

But The Federation strives to be the voice of Jewish Los Angeles and, for many non-Jews, the JCRC has spoken the loudest.

Consider that The Federation has for years bemoaned the fact that "Hollywood Jews" do not turn out for its events or give amply to its campaigns. But perhaps one of the only times in the past couple of years that entertainment industry celebrities turned out for a Federation-related event was at Jam Night III in May 2002, when more than 800 people filled the House of Blues. The cause: JCRC's KOREH L.A.

At Jam Night, many of the guests and celebrities were not Jewish, and that points to another crucial JCRC function: reaching out beyond our own community. Many people worry that when Hirschfeld departs, with more than two decades of friendships and loyalties forged here and in Sacramento, The Federation will lose a trusted link to these groups and people.

"If you want to be the central address you have to act like the central address," one JCRC board member said.

Having a highly functioning JCRC with a capable and connected leader can only raise The Federation's "centrality."

There is another interesting parallel to the JCCs here. Both the centers and the JCRC long served as a conduit for bringing Jews into organized Jewish life. They cost money to operate, and don't always pay for themselves, but many of the most dedicated and philanthropic Jews first entered the world of Jewish giving by jumping in a JCC pool or showing up at a JCRC political meeting.

Warschaw told me that Hirschfeld's firing, unfortunate as it was, will not weaken the JCRC, or The Federation's role in the community. "The Federation has to cut overhead," she said. "But the JCRC has its programs, they will get up and get on with it."

The best we can do in this situation is hope Warschaw is right.

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