Philadelphia Jewish Federation Faces Crisis as Ira Schwartz Abruptly Leaves

Continuity Elusive at Top of Nation's No. 6 Community

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published May 15, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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Philadelphia’s Jewish federation is facing a crisis of leadership.

Home to the sixth-largest Jewish community in the country, Philadelphia has a new museum of American Jewish history, Jewish day schools, thriving synagogues, and a major liberal rabbinical seminary.

Yet the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Ira Schwartz, departed abruptly in early May, marking the fourth time the federation has lost its top professional leader since the early 1990s. That’s unusual among big-city federations, where successful executives often last decades.

Fundraising has also lagged at Philadelphia’s federation. In similarly-sized Jewish communities in Boston and San Francisco, federations raise many times what the Philadelphia federation brings in each year.

Insiders and observers posit that a weak volunteer culture within the federation, and a highly politicized core of leaders, has damaged the organization, threatening its ability to meet communal needs.

When Rabbi Leonard Gordon left his pulpit at Philadelphia’s Germantown Jewish Centre in 2010 for a Conservative synagogue on the outskirts of Boston, he was stunned by the difference in federation support.

“When I came to Boston, I was so struck by the way in which [Boston federation CEO] Barry Shrage and [Combined Jewish Philanthropies] reached out, met with me at their initiative,” Gordon said. “In Philadelphia, we didn’t have that.”

Now the spiritual leader of Congregation Mishkan Tefila, in Chestnut Hill, Mass., Gordon said that Philadelphia’s federation was characterized by “something of a second-city mentality.” In Boston, Gordon said, the message was that “whatever we do needs to be the best.”

Philadelphia’s federation announced Schwartz’s departure late on May 3, a Friday afternoon. A statement and story published in the federation-owned Jewish Exponent disclosed no details about why Schwartz was leaving, saying only that the separation was effective immediately. When contacted by the Forward, the federation president, Sherrie Savett, declined to comment beyond the press release.

Savett would not confirm or deny a report that the firing was the result of a disagreement over a commitment of space at a federation-owned campus that Schwartz allegedly made without seeking board approval. A representative for the federation declined to make Schwartz available for comment.


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