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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The federation has also hired right-wing editors to run its newspaper, the Exponent. The paper’s editor in the mid-1990s, Buddy Korn, went on to found a group called Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin and to work on the staff of the Zionist Organization of America. His successor Jonathan Tobin is now an editor at Commentary, a conservative magazine. (The Exponent’s current executive editor, Lisa Hostein, is a former editor at the non-partisan Jewish Telegraphic Agency).

“Affluent people who might be more dovish did not want to play, nor were they well treated by the federation,” Siegel said.

The relatively rapid turnover of CEOs at the federation is seen both as a symptom and a cause of the dysfunction. “I don’t think [there’s] necessarily a long-term strategy,” the former volunteer leader said. “Each time somebody comes in, they have their own approach and strategy.”

Four CEOs over three decades at the Philadelphia federation may not seem like a high turnover rate. Yet the Boston federation’s CEO has been in his position since 1987, and the New York federation’s CEO has been in his since 1999. Chicago’s federation has had four CEOs since it was founded more than 100 years ago.

“We haven’t had the right match,” said Betsy Sheerr, a former member of the Philadelphia federation’s board and the CEO of Sheerr Communications, a public relations consulting firm. “Although we have had very strong leaders in the past, they have not necessarily lasted. And I feel badly about that. We need the smoothness of a longer-term relationship.”

Schwartz raised hackles within the federation as soon as he arrived in July 2006, laying off large numbers of experienced staff members, according to Siegel.

“Ira came here from Temple University with the reputation of firing people,” Siegel said, referring to Schwartz’s previous position as provost of Temple University, in Philadelphia. “There were people who had been there for many, many years who for whatever reason left not of their own volition. Initially these were people who had considerably more experience in Jewish communal service [than Schwartz], because he had none really.”

The Forward reported in 2009 that Schwartz had laid off five federation employees in 2008 and yet had not taken a pay cut himself.

Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna noted that the federation isn’t the only Jewish institution struggling to survive in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia-based Jewish Publication Society, founded in 1888, cut its staff and much of its operations amid financial pressure in 2012. And the National Museum of American Jewish History, which opened on Independence Mall in 2010, has “had more trouble attracting funds than it hoped to have,” according to Sarna, the museum’s chief historian.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com. Follow him on Twitter, @joshnathankazis


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