Jennifer Gorovitz, First Woman To Head A Major Federation, Leads In Time of Controversy and Layoffs

By Dan Pine

Published July 21, 2010.
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In May, Jennifer Gorovitz became a communal pioneer as the first woman ever to head a big-city Jewish philanthropic federation. Now, two months later, she has become the first woman heading a big-city federation to implement major layoffs in the face of a budget shortfall.

And that is just the latest crisis she has faced in her short tenure as CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco.

On May 5, just as she was settling into her new seat, a group of 70 local Jewish activists and opinion leaders took out a half-page ad in the Forward to protest her federation’s new policy guidelines requiring grantees to set boundaries when it comes to criticism of Israel, in particular by prohibiting support of the so-called BDS, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Grantees that violate the guidelines would risk losing their federation funding.

“Warning!!!” the ad declared. “We members of the San Francisco Bay Jewish community are sorry to inform you that our usually liberal community has set a dangerous precedent that may affect the range of American Jewish voices on issues concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…. Are these guidelines coming to your community?”

The controversy was sparked by a film harshly critical of Israel that was shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which receives federation support, and a discussion following it that turned raucous and abusive. But for all the challengeS it posed, the dispute actually seemed to animate Gorovitz.

“Many of us have personal and professional relationships with many people who signed the letter,” she said. “We want to talk, we want to engage, we want to ease anxieties on all sides, because we feel we created a path that will lead to a very open and diverse dialogue within the community.”

The more recent layoffs of 18 federation staffers — with cuts of another 15 positions through attrition — were clearly a more difficult experience. But Gorovitz nevertheless remained upbeat.

“Members of the executive team met with as many of the departing staff as possible, to thank them for their loyalty,” Gorovitz said. “From the staff remaining, the feedback has been very supportive. Everybody recognizes change is absolutely essential to keep the organization strong and on solid footing for the future.”

The cuts were necessitated by a $3.6 million shortfall in the federation’s fundraising goal of $23 million for this fiscal year. The $19.4 million collected was also $5.2 million less than the federation’s 2008–2009 take.

But Gorovitz insisted: “We are not a beleaguered organization. First of all, $19 million is a lot of money, particularly when we live in a state with unemployment that exceeds 12%, and an economy that is the worst in a generation. We should be very proud of that number.”

Still, the shortfall’s impact on the federation and its grantees is sure to dominate Gorovitz’s early tenure. Most agencies were alerted in January that allocations for the coming year might be slashed by as much as 30%. Allocation decisions for the fiscal year beginning on July 1 will be determined in the next few weeks.

It is a daunting welcome for a woman highly conscious of her pioneering role as a female leader in a Jewish communal world otherwise run almost entirely by men.

Still, Gorovitz, 46, has some experience as a trendsetter. Born and raised in Salt Lake City, she recalls what it was like being one of the few Jewish kids in mostly Mormon public schools in the 1960s and ’70s. Some parents would not let their children play with her or her brother out of fear that “we would corrupt them.”

“I felt hassled by some,” she recalled. “They weren’t sure how I fit in. [But] I would go home, and my parents would reinforce how great, proud and wonderful it was to be part of such a rich civilization and tradition.”

Gorovitz also remembers the city’s two congregations — one Reform, the other Conservative-Orthodox — deciding to join forces, demolish their two aging structures and build a single synagogue that would endure.

“These two came together for the good of the collective, merged and became a single unit,” she said. “That was necessary for the community to survive, and that was the takeaway from my childhood: that our collective story matters.”

When she went off to Stanford University to study political science as an undergraduate, Gorovitz joined Hillel, eventually becoming president of the chapter. Later she went to Georgetown Law, in Washington.

Gorovitz worked initially in corporate law once she passed the bar, later making a shift to something she found more meaningful: working as a Santa Clara County public defender.

Meanwhile, she had married fellow attorney Eric Gorovitz moved to Redwood City and had two children, Jessica and Noah (now 13 and 10, respectively). But Gorovitz soon concluded that she couldn’t maintain a full caseload and properly mother her children.

She turned to representing not-for-profits and foundations. That work triggered a desire to, as she put it, “marry my profession with my passion.”

That’s when she looked up a friend who was executive director of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, a separate arm of the Jewish Federation of San Francisco. “I’m tired of being outside the fishbowl, looking in,” Gorovitz told her friend, Phyllis Cook. “You know everybody in this city, and I really want to be involved.”

The networking led to her working for the JCEF, setting up complex gifts of significant assets, serving as what she called “a deal closer.”

In July 2009, Daniel Sokatch, then CEO of the Jewish Community Federation, snatched Gorovitz from the endowment arm, making her his chief of staff. Then, when Sokatch left suddenly in September 2009 to become head of the New Israel Fund, Gorovitz found herself named acting executive director. The May appointment enabled her to drop the “acting” from her title.

“I like to wrestle with challenging situations,” she said. “I do not shy away from things that are troubling or anguishing. That’s part of making a contribution. It would be easier to do something different, but this is what excites me on a daily basis.”

Gorovitz conceded that her organization has “not done a great job” inspiring the younger generations of Jews to get involved with Jewish philanthropy, but she hopes that will change in the years ahead.

“We know that there are many young people in our community who have never heard of the federation,” she said. “Our job is to teach, explain and guide them through the deeply held values of Judaism that mandate tzedakah, but in a way that is not about our role as tax collector. We hope to embed federation in their DNA.”

This article appeared originally in j., the Jewish Newsweekly of Northern California.

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