Board Fight, Staff Cuts at Yiddish Center

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 18, 2009, issue of February 27, 2009.
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A few weeks ago, the Jewish institute and archive known as YIVO hosted a public discussion about the financial downturn and the alleged misdeeds of Bernard Madoff. Now, YIVO is dealing with financial problems of its own.

Following other Jewish organizations that have made cutbacks, YIVO this month fired five staff members. Among those laid off at YIVO, the vaunted champion of Yiddish culture, was the sole employee who knew how to type and edit documents in Yiddish. In addition to the layoffs, three members of YIVO’s board of directors resigned.

The problems at YIVO, one of the largest libraries and archives of Yiddish material in the world, are connected to the stock market dive, and the drying up of donor funds. But the recent turmoil also stems from financial disagreements among YIVO’s leadership. At a board meeting February 11, a number of members asked the chairman of the board, Bruce Slovin, to resign, accusing him of a conflict of interest.

“YIVO has had a failure of leadership,” said Rosina Abramson, a member of the board who called for the resignation.

Slovin told the Forward that he was not asked to resign, and he said that he has no plans to give up his leadership position.

The leadership struggle at YIVO highlights the way in which the difficult financial climate has served as a catalyst for tensions that often have little to do with the national economy. “It’s clearly bringing things to a head,” said Jacob Morowitz, a member of YIVO’s board. Morowitz is also the chairman of the Forward Association board, which oversees this newspaper. “There is just a climate of economic anxiety.”

In the case of YIVO, the difficulties in fundraising have highlighted divisions related to the Center for Jewish History. YIVO was one of five organizations that banded together to create the center in 2001 as a joint home and showcase for Jewish history in mid-Manhattan.

The center has struggled since the beginning, operating with a deficit for many years. A plan to merge with New York University was contemplated by the center’s members, but that plan died after facing opposition from member organizations.

This year, other members of the center, including the American Jewish Historical Society and the Yeshiva University Museum, are facing their own staff cutbacks. The problems have been exacerbated by a request from the center to pay an increased annual rent to reside in the center’s building.

The negotiations over this annual rent have been particularly tense at YIVO because the chairman of YIVO, Slovin, is also the founder and chairman of the center. Several members of YIVO’s board have called this a conflict of interest and one of those members, Abramson, said that when the interests of YIVO and the center have conflicted, Slovin has regularly sided with the center against YIVO.

“He will do everything and anything he can to make the center look as though it is afloat,” said Abramson.

At the February 11 meeting, five of the 10 board members present called for Slovin’s resignation as chairman, according to multiple people who were at the meeting. Slovin did not resign, but afterward three board members did, including one of the vice chairmen. Those board members declined to comment on the reasons for their resignation.

Slovin told the Forward that the old board members had left for personal reasons, and said that he was looking forward to replacing them “with younger, more vibrant people.” He said that both YIVO and the Center for Jewish History are “flourishing – and all the partners are flourishing together.”

YIVO recently brought out the massive Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, and has held a series of public events.

Slovin and other members of the center leadership said that the layoffs at YIVO were necessary because of the recession. “Among many of our major donors, both the generosity and the size of their gifts will not be the same as it has been in recent years,” said Carl Rheins, the executive director of YIVO.

Among the people being let go is Fern Kant, who oversaw a much-heralded project to archive the materials from the Hebrew Actors Union. Kant is about two-thirds of the way through that project, but she said she will leave it unfinished.

Another person being laid off had been employed at YIVO for decades, pulling material from YIVO’s library for researchers.

“He knew the location of every journal and every book in the library,” Kant said. “I can’t imagine the library section functioning without him.”

Among the staff at YIVO, Kant said, the atmosphere is “very demoralized – and very sad.”

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