A JCC Lures a Businessman Back Into the Fold

Where the Jewish Jobs Are: Second In A Series

Where He Belongs: Barry Finestone speaks before one of the many audiences he serves at the JCC in San Francisco.
Where He Belongs: Barry Finestone speaks before one of the many audiences he serves at the JCC in San Francisco.

By Joy Resmovits

Published December 01, 2010, issue of December 10, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When Barry Finestone began working in the private sector in early 2005 after years of service in Jewish organizations, he thought that he had left the “old country” for good. “When I went out of Jewish work, I didn’t think I would get back in,” he recalled. “I was enjoying being out. I was very focused on it.”

How wrong he was. This past summer, he found himself pulled back into the world where his career began — as the head of a Jewish Community Center in California, no less.

Pulled Back In: Barry Finestone, director of the JCC of San Francisco, was surprised to find himself once again with a Jewish job.
Pulled Back In: Barry Finestone, director of the JCC of San Francisco, was surprised to find himself once again with a Jewish job.

Finestone now heads the JCC of San Francisco, the country’s second largest — after the JCC in New York — with about 215 employees. The job is challenging because JCC management involves overseeing different business units, from fitness to feeding seniors. In San Francisco, the center includes a spa, a pool, child care, event space, a library and preschools.

Like most Jewish organizations, JCCs around the country cut back on hiring during the recession. The parent organization, the Jewish Community Center Association, does not have centralized data, though executive vice president Alan Mann said that layoffs were “significant and painful,” as indicated by an internal survey. But hiring is rebounding slowly, as some centers are beginning to grow their staffs again. “It’s a lot lower than before the recession, but we’ve seen that JCCs are getting stronger,” Mann said.

That assessment seems to echo nationwide. In this series, the Forward is looking at the areas where Jewish jobs are being created or reframed as the overall economy slowly rebounds, and has found a modest growth in hiring in the education field, some communal organizations, advocacy groups and fundraising. JCCs across North America, for example, are now hiring chief operating officers, administrative support, social workers, development directors, teachers and Web specialists. The openings speak to job seekers with different backgrounds and areas of expertise, but who need not have experience in Jewish organizations.

In San Francisco, Finestone is hiring, too — but essentially to replace the 10 full-time equivalent jobs in various fields that were cut before he took over in June. Those cuts give him the ability to hire in areas he deems strategic, such as community relations and new media. “It’s mainly a reallocation of resources as opposed to new money,” he added.

Long before his Jewish work began, Finestone grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Glasgow, Scotland. His aspirations were clear from when he was young: He wanted to be a professional soccer player. His parents told him, “Let’s make sure you get a Jewish education, just in case,” he recalled. It clicked. “I did realize at age 15 that I had a passion for all things Jewish,” Finestone said.

That passion brought him to America in the summer of 1989 — before his final year of college — when he worked as a unit director in a branch of the sleepaway camp Young Judaea Midwest in Wisconsin. After Finestone graduated from college, the camp hired him as assistant director. When the director left six months later, Finestone, then 23, was elevated into that post. “I never would have hired myself,” he said, adding that the role, which required financial and marketing skills, prepared him for future opportunities.

Five years later, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which oversees Young Judaea, brought him to New York for various managerial posts. In 1999, when he and his wife were expecting their first child, he moved closer to her extended family to become executive director of the Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati.

But after five years, he became restless. “I was interested to see whether or not the skills I learned in the not-for-profit world would transfer into the for-profit world,” he said. So he became executive vice president of two companies: Jones the Florist, Cincinnati’s largest retail flower business, and Sweets in Bloom, a candy bouquet company. He noticed “tremendous parallels” between the private and Jewish sectors, and differences in decision-making processes: Not-for-profits tend to be more collaborative, while at for-profit organizations, CEOs can make immediate decisions.

One day last fall, a search firm called him about the opening in San Francisco. The position became available when the JCC’s leader Sandee Blechman announced her retirement in early 2009. “Before I got the call from the headhunter, I didn’t recognize that if I wanted to effect some real change, I had to do it from the inside,” Finestone said. So he gave up the flower business for what he saw as a larger platform.

“Growing up in Scotland, I was infused with a strong sense of Jewish community and Israel,” he said. “Now I’m back to this work at the age of 44.”

In his new job, Finestone said, he earns a six-figure salary commensurate with the size of JCCSF’s annual $27.5 million budget. He aims to elevate the status of the JCC and of Jewish jobs in general. Jewish work, he said, “doesn’t have the same gravitas” as lawyering or doctoring. “We should want the best Jewish professionals. If the health of your body is related to the skill of your doctor, the heart of the Jewish community is related to those who run it.”

Contact Joy Resmovits at resmovits@forward.com

Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.