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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Greer grew up in Manhattan, the son of Jewish immigrants from England. Four months before he was born, Columbia University fired his father from his teaching post for participating in the April 1968 protests, which shut down the campus, over university research in support of the Vietnam War.

A playwright and former Brooklyn College professor, Colin Greer now leads a foundation of his own. But the story of his firing showed Simon that activism is a high-stakes enterprise. Nearly four decades later, as one of his first acts as president and CEO of JFSJ, he banned the phrase “tikkun olam,” or “repair the world,” from the organization’s vocabulary. “I grew up thinking to repair the world is a big job, and you have to take risks to do that job,” Greer said. “I became revolted by the fact that every Jewish institution says they do tikkun olam, so it doesn’t actually mean anything anymore.”

Until he starts at the Cummings Foundation in January, Greer works out of JFSJ’s Manhattan office on Seventh Avenue. The space has a temporary, unsettled feel. JFSJ recently expanded into an adjacent office, circuitously connected to its older space through a winding corridor. The stacks of boxes and the sign by the men’s room warning that the lock is broken add to a general sense that the place is held together on a shoestring.

Greer, 43, looks like a middle-aged preppie. Tall and fair, and slightly balding, his affect is closer to that of the hotshot lawyer than the stereotypically pallid Jewish communal executive. But the Lenin bust on his bookshelf would likely be out of place in a downtown law office.

The bust of the late Soviet revolutionary is no statement of belief; it’s an ironic keepsake from Greer’s time in Poland just after the fall of communism. Greer left for Eastern Europe after graduating from Vassar College. There, he spent two years working for Solidarity, the social movement that brought communist rule in Poland to an end. Greer arrived in 1990, toward the end of a decade-long struggle between Solidarity and the Communist regime. Although Solidary leader Lech Walesa ascended to the Polish presidency by the end of that year, the transition was far from smooth.

“I got to see them win and then not know how to govern,” Greer said. He was left with “an awareness that it’s easier to criticize than it is to lead. One stage of movement development is criticize the powers that be, the status quo, but there has to be a next stage which is about, what would we actually do?”

When he left Poland, a Solidarity comrade gave as a parting gift a route sign stolen from the side of a train, which now sits by the window of his JFSJ office. Greer arrived at JFSJ circuitously, taking detours through the labor movement and the American South. He came to the position with comparatively little background in Jewish institutional life.

“I was 30 before I’d heard of a federation,” Greer said. He was running JFSJ by the time he was 37.

Greer did have one advantage. His wife, Sharna Goldseker, is currently vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, an influential Jewish foundation. While interviewing for his current job with JFSJ, he sought advice from Jeffrey Solomon, his wife’s well-connected boss.

“It has made some of the connections between social justice and mainstream Jewish philanthropies a much tighter connection because we’re paired,” Greer said of his relationship with Goldseker.

Upon arriving at the organization then known as JFJ, Greer quickly expanded the conventionally structured foundation into more active areas such as leadership training and service learning.

But Greer was moving into a crowded sphere. Tens of Jewish social justice organizations already existed, some of them doing the same work that his organization aimed to do. For Greer, that was the point.

“The rebuilding of JFJ, the mergers and the staff and budget — implicit to that was a critique of the Jewish social justice sector. There was view that it could be more powerful, it could be more legitimate, it could be more effective,” Greer said.

Greer’s attitude unsettled professionals and organizers who had been working in the field for decades. Jane Ramsey, executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago, said, “I think it wasn’t clear when they were moving from being a foundation to being an operating organization…Were we going to collaborate, or were we going to bump into each other? And how was it going to shake out? I think there were certainly tensions around those questions.”

Jewish social justice organizers are reluctant to speak specifically about the conflicts. But off the record, other leaders of Jewish social justice groups say the smaller organizations watched JFSJ merge with and acquire existing organizations and worried about being swallowed up. They also worried that JFSJ would interfere with their local fundraising.

Eight years on, Greer makes no apologies for JFSJ’s aggressive growth.

“What I learned in Solidarity was [the value of] one big union,” Greer said. “Similarly, I thought we should have a hub for Jewish social justice that ran a lot of programs.”

Greer also saw the consolidation as a way to help the movement take more risks. “If you’re small [and have] a $1 million budget and you take a $200,000 risk and it fails, you can capsize the organization,” he said. “If you have a $6 million dollar budget and you take a $300,000 risk and it fails, you’ll be fine.”

But Greer does say that his organization took a tactical turn three years ago. In 2008, JFSJ joined the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a meeting point for Jewish social justice groups that was funded by the Cummings Foundation. The conversations at Roundtable meetings were confidential, but it’s clear that grievances were raised about JFSJ’s relationship with the Roundtable’s smaller members.

The Roundtable “enabled Simon and I to start spending a little bit more time together,” said Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action in St. Paul, Minn. “It also enabled us to have more honest and direct conversation about how we might work together, and why it was in our interest to work together. I think Simon himself, from the way he talked at the Roundtable, acknowledged that there were things he learned at the Roundtable that were very helpful in terms of how to relate to other folks around the country. That helped him begin to think differently about what it would mean to build something around the country.”

Today, relations have improved enough that three roundtable members ⎯ Rosenthal’s Jewish Community Action, Ramsey’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and Jews United for Justice in Washington, D.C. ⎯ are in the early stages of negotiations that could result in affiliation deals with JFSJ.

JFSJ representatives were circumspect in describing the negotiations, which are still tentative. Elissa Barrett, chief of regional operations with PJA & JFSJ, described them as “preliminary conversations about what model would help us collaborate and partner most effectively.”

It may not be a coincidence that those smaller groups are moving toward consolidation as Greer, a strong advocate of consolidation among Jewish justice groups, takes control the Cummings Foundation’s purse strings.

As of December 2009, the foundation had assets totaling more than $400 million. Grant recipients that year included much of the left wing Jewish sphere: a total of $260,000 to the American Jewish World Service; $300,000 to the Jewish service group Repair the World; and $550,000 to JFSJ.

But the Simon Greer who will move a few blocks uptown to the Cummings office is a somewhat softer, gentler Greer than the one who set out to revolutionize Jewish social justice six years ago. “We’re terribly disciplined, which to some people feels like it’s a machine, and it’s not as human as it might be,” Greer said of his operation at JFSJ. “I think that’s reasonable critique.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis

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