With Sharp Elbows, Simon Greer Pushes Ahead

Cummings Foundation Chief Builds Social Justice Power Base

Building an Empire: Simon Greer admits playing power politics at times. He says it’s important to build a strong, progressive Jewish force.
courtesy of pja & jfsj
Building an Empire: Simon Greer admits playing power politics at times. He says it’s important to build a strong, progressive Jewish force.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 29, 2011, issue of December 09, 2011.
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If Simon Greer won’t have lunch with you, don’t take it personally. For that matter, don’t take it personally if he will. Greer, who will soon head the foundation funding much of the Jewish social justice sphere, has an unabashed attitude toward power.

“I spent a lot of time building a relationship with [billionaire, liberal philanthropist] George Soros, so the Soros people think Simon’s totally reliable, easygoing, humble,” said Greer, who will soon leave his current job as head of the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice. “That’s not how someone at a local Jewish social justice group who I won’t take a meeting with would view me. But that’s the price of leadership ⎯ having to make choices every day about where I spend my time.”

Greer, who moved his organization from relative obscurity to the forefront of the Jewish social justice movement, explained candidly, “We operate from a power analysis.”

This has led to frictions with some of those who have dealt with him in the past. But along the way, Greer has learned the utility of a softer touch with those who may not be immediately useful.

In January, Greer will move from JFSJ, as his group is known, to the Nathan Cummings Foundation, where as president and CEO he will oversee the annual disbursement of about $20 million to largely liberal causes. The Cummings Foundation is perhaps the most significant foundation funding the Jewish social justice sector, a sector Greer has rebuilt over the past six years with JFSJ at its center.

People active in Jewish social justice organizations are not openly critical of Greer, from whom they may soon be asking for funding when he moves to Cummings. But, as he himself admits, in dealing with other social justice groups, “we had sharp elbows because we had to make room at the table.” Sitting in his Manhattan office with a photo over his shoulder of a placard that reads “Kicking Ass for the Working Class,” Greer added, “I’m not sure everyone wanted us [there].”

Still, those who have dealt with Greer say that his relationships with other Jewish social justice organizers have improved in the past three years.

When Greer arrived at his current post in 2005, the organization ⎯ then known as Jewish Fund for Justice ⎯ was simply a private foundation, taking money from donors and giving it to causes it deemed worthy. Greer rapidly transformed the place, absorbing, merging with, or entering into joint ventures with six organizations in as many years. As Greer departs, the group is in preliminary talks that could lead to affiliation deals with three additional local Jewish service groups.

Meanwhile, Greer’s own profile has also grown. Long one among many Jewish organizational leaders, Greer gained visibility during JFSJ’s high-profile campaign against former Fox News personality Glenn Beck over Beck’s allegedly anti-Semitic rhetoric and his invocations of the Holocaust. The campaign ended with Beck’s departure from Fox News.


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