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
  • Multi 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.

In its announcement of Schwartz’s departure, the federation noted that he had raised $13.5 million for an “Israel Emergency Campaign,” among other achievements.

Yet the federation still trails its peers in fundraising. Philadelphia’s federation raised $26.3 million in 2011, the latest year for which data is available. That’s compared with $132 million raised that year by the federation in Boston and $115 million raised that year by the federation serving San Francisco and the surrounding area. Each of three regions are home to roughly 200,000 Jews.

Meanwhile, Schwartz earned $430,000 in 2011, more than the top executives of all but four Jewish federations in the United States, according to the Forward’s latest salary survey of Jewish communal executives.

Insiders and observers attribute the weak fundraising to a communal culture in Philadelphia that far predates Schwartz’s arrival at the federation.

“We have trouble finding people to be campaign chairmen,” one former volunteer leader said, noting that volunteer positions are difficult to fill. “If this was a baseball team, we don’t have a big bench.”

A former federation staff member, who asked not to be named to protect relationships, laid blame on a lay leadership that has prioritized personal concerns. “It’s been weaker professional leadership, and it’s been lay leadership who are very much more backyard-oriented than…[oriented towards] collective responsibility,” the former staff member said.

Burt Siegel, a former head of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council who worked briefly under Schwartz before retiring, attributed that lack of volunteers to the relatively low communal status afforded to federation leaders in Philadelphia. Boldfaced names seek such leadership positions in other cities, like James S. Tisch at the UJA-Federation of New York did in the 1990s, and Myra Kraft at the CJP in Boston did before she died in 2011. Yet prominent and wealthy city leaders have been less likely to push for those roles in the Philadelphia federation.

“Because of the relatively low status of federation top-level leadership [in Philadelphia], there are affluent people who’d rather play on the board of the orchestra or the art museum… [and where] there is some real status,” Siegel said.

Contributing to that reluctance, according to Siegel, are the hawkish politics of a large portion of the federation’s leadership.

Those politics manifest in some of the federation’s programming and hiring decisions. Flat-tax advocate and former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes headlined the group’s 2012 fundraising dinner.

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


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!
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • J.J. Goldberg doesn't usually respond to his critics. But this time, he just had to make an exception.
  • 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.