March 18, 2009
If you really want to see tumbleweeds blow through an auditorium, ask an audience of L.A. Jews who their leader is.
I spoke at two synagogues over the weekend, and I posed this question at each: “Who is the leader of L.A. Jewry?”
Silence. For a while, all I could hear was the hissing of the 100-cup percolator.
Want to evoke another certain reaction? I’ve been asking people active in the Jewish community here whether they would apply for the job of president of The Jewish Federation. The president sits at the head of the largest local Jewish organization in town, with a $50 million annual budget and thousands of volunteers.
The job became available when The Federation announced that John Fishel would leave by the end of the year. I’ve asked people, “Do you want John’s job?” and the response is always the same: a groan, a wince. You’d think I was telling people they had a kidney stone, not a job opportunity.
The reaction perplexes me.
Why do so many great people heave and sigh just thinking about that job? What does it say about the organized Jewish community in Los Angeles? Are we that bad? Why does it strike people as such a chore to lead us?
I understand: Even Moses resisted God’s call, and he was Moses. He knew that leadership is hard — and leading Jews even harder.
“They are a stiff-necked people,” God told Moses. (You would think Moses, having just been dissed for a golden calf, would have responded, “Oh, now you tell me.”)
But the challenges the next Federation president faces go far beyond the cliché of two Jews, three opinions.
No, the challenge the next L.A. Jewish leader faces is taking the reins during a time of sweeping change. The old ways are gone, and the new ways are yet to be created. The Federation model, which blossomed in postwar America, demands re-invention.
This community has fractured into many far-flung pieces. A younger generation of Jews has drifted away, and an even younger generation can find all the community it wants online.
Established institutions, from synagogues to day schools, are finding their business models unsustainable. The very idea of loyalty to a centralized Jewish body seems as antiquated as, say, newspapers. Where once it was dominant, today, a mere fraction of local Jewish wealth and energy goes into The Federation, and that from a relative handful of donors.
And all those challenges loomed large before the economy stuck a gun in our backs and made off with our wallets.
I don’t know who exactly the ideal candidate is, but I do have a sense of what four challenges the next president must be able to address:
GATHER US TOGETHER
L.A. Jewry has become, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, 600,000 people divided by a common religion. The next leader has to be someone who can tear down the walls between all our fractured — only sometimes overlapping — communities: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Persian, Israeli, Russian, old, young, rich, poor, middle class, secular, Orthodox, gay, straight, unaffiliated and highly motivated.
It’s especially important to bring the region’s powerful synagogues and their rabbis to a common conversation that focuses on the good of the whole community, not just the success of their shuls.
GO (20 PERCENT MORE) HOLLYWOOD
When you crack Hollywood, you will leverage the reach and influence of every dollar you raise and every message you send. President Obama understood that when he sent actress Annette Bening and Motion Picture Academy President Sid Ganis (a Sephardic Jew, by the way) to Iran last week for some cultural diplomacy. Maybe Obama knows something you don’t. Try to find someone who gets Hollywood and doesn’t have to scratch at the door to be let in.
I’m sure there will be many candidates with experience and expertise, but these don’t amount to leadership. Find someone who can inspire us, who sees the unique role that this community can play at this moment and can articulate it in a way that excites our young and reinvigorates our elderly.
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY
A Federation person will bring up “the campaign” faster than a Harvard alum will tell you where he went to college — and that’s fast. There’s nothing more off-putting than being seen as a tool to fill a fund or meet a mark.
Find a leader who understands that Jews in Los Angeles have a mission: to serve, to build, to learn, to give. Give us a task once a month, not a telethon phone call once a year. When you involve them, they will give.
Look, I can see why any person to whom things like “success” and “reputation” matter would stay far away from The Federation’s search committee, even if the job does come with a healthy six-figure income and all the Israeli prime ministers you can meet.
But as difficult as it is, this job is also hugely important.
Why? Because the 600,000 of us living in this metropolis are bound by geography, history and creed into a community. Affiliated or not, we share a common destiny. We have shared that fate for 4,000 years, and chances are we will continue to. We are, despite the best attempts of modernity, the economy and our own failings, a community. And communities do best with visionary and competent leadership.
So go find us some.