Publishing CEO Must Fill Founder's Shoes

By Rebecca Spence

Published September 08, 2006, issue of September 08, 2006.
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When Google’s founders — two computer scientists with scant business experience between them — brought in a computer industry veteran to serve as CEO just three years after the upstart Internet search engine was launched, the move was seen as the result of pressure from outside venture capitalists. The original visionaries, while still involved in the company’s operations, would have to cede a measure of control over their blossoming Internet company’s operations.

In the case of Jewish Family & Life, according to Yossi Abramowitz, the 42-year-old journalist-activist who used his credit cards to launch the not-for-profit publishing and Web company a decade ago, there were no outside investors calling for a tough-talking, bottom-line focused CEO to take the reins. Instead, Abramowitz told the Forward, it was his decision to step down and find someone else to serve as top executive of the Newton, Mass.-based outfit, which has a robust stable of titles that includes BabaGanewz, a magazine aimed at middle-school students, and its counterpart for teenagers, JVibe.

The only external pressure, Abramowitz said, came from meeting the demands of parenting five kids, all under the age of 13 — the youngest recently adopted from Ethiopia.

Many in the Jewish philanthropic world met the decision by Abramowitz to step down as CEO with shock. Some were skeptical that the frenetic CEO, known for his self-publicity as well as for his effort to push Jewish publishing in a youth-oriented direction, would voluntarily loosen his hold over the company that he had created and nurtured, particularly to spend more time with his family.

Now the challenge of building on Abramowitz’s creative successes while enhancing the business side of JFL falls to his successor, Amir Cohen, 45, who has served for the past year as the company’s chief operating officer.

Leadership transitions in all types of organizations are often fraught with power struggles and question marks as to where the company is heading. Founders can be unwilling to give up power, or, in many cases, they insist on handpicking their successor. But according to the major players and several outside philanthropic leaders, in the case of JFL no such scenario played out.

“This was a very healthy process in that so far, JFL has not suffered the kinds of trauma that occur in a transition from a founder to the next leader,” said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. Solomon served on the search committee that tapped Cohen, and he credited Abramowitz with easing what could have been a bruising transition for the organization.

After a four-month search that involved interviews with candidates from the publishing, business, education and Jewish philanthropic world, the decision to hire Cohen was unanimous, said Michael Rukin, chairman of the search committee and vice chairman of the JFL board.

“He had all of the right ingredients of seasoned management ability, knowledge of Jewish education, knowledge of the organization and leadership ability,” Rukin said.

Cohen, who served a stint on the board of JFL before being appointed COO in 2005, said that his personal friendship with Abramowitz would be a boon to his new job. “Because I have so much admiration for his accomplishment and have worked alongside him for a while,” Cohen said, “I can continue to build on what he’s done.”

A native of Israel, Cohen has a seasoned background in American Jewish publishing. As associate publisher of the New Jersey Jewish News for nine years, he turned the paper around, tripling its budget and putting the regional newspaper conglomerate in the black. In the early 1990s, upon arriving in the United States, Cohen held the title of business manager of the Forward.

Cohen said that a top goal at JFL is to get JVibe in the hands of the majority of American teenagers just past bar and bat mitzvah age. “The one thing I was always worried about was are we going to publish weekly papers for people between 67 and 73,” he said, referring to the Jewish publishing industry. At JFL, he added, “we are going to get teens to read our groovy, sexy magazine.”

Abramowitz is the first to admit that Cohen brings to the company a more practical approach than his own visionary tendencies have allowed for in the past. “I’ve probably taken the organization as far as my skill set can take it,” Abramowitz said, calling his and Cohen’s individual strengths “complementary.” Abramowitz will stay on at the organization in a redefined role that includes continuing to head up the editorial side and focusing on education and on strategy. “Essentially, I’m dividing my job in half,” said Abramowitz, who will be moving to Israel at the end of the month and plans to telecommute via videoconferencing.

When Abramowitz announced in late March that he would be stepping down, a torrent of rumors circulated throughout the Jewish not-for-profit world, pinning the former CEO’s departure on a variety of factors. Some believed that Abramowitz, active in Israel’s Ethiopian community, was pushed out of his own organization because he made a failed run for the Knesset on the Ethiopian party ticket, diverting his attention from the company. Abramowitz brushes off the allegations as baseless gossip.

“There is something very sick in the Jewish organizational psyche,” Abramowitz said, “when professionals are unwilling to accept the notion that a man in a position of leadership would choose family over work.”

He said that the sole reason he left JFL was to spend more time with his wife and children. “My family needs me, my children need me,” said Abramowitz, who called his decision to step down as CEO “agonizing.”

As the organization takes new shape, the question of sustainable financial support is unavoidable. With a handover in leadership, there is always the potential for grants to fall off. Currently JFL operates with a yearly budget of nearly $4 million and counts 33 employees on its payroll. If the renewed set of grants from the Avi Chai Foundation, a philanthropic organization that promotes Jewish education and unity, is any indication, JFL will not be struggling financially in the years to come.

The foundation, a longtime supporter of BabaGanewz, has pledged another three years of grants, Abramowitz said. The total amount of funding, he added, comes to about $6 million.

Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation’s North American division, said he has high hopes for JFL’s future. “It was natural that we were interested and concerned about what decisions would be made,” he said. “But in the end, there was a lot of continuity here.”

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