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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • 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.