Layoff of Veteran Leader in L.A. Sparks Talk of a Split in Federation

By Nacha Cattan

Published September 12, 2003, issue of September 12, 2003.
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Los Angeles’s Jewish federation’s sudden move to lay off the top professional of its public-affairs division, the Jewish Community Relations Committee, has sparked outrage and talk of a committee secession from the federation.

Citing budget woes, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles eliminated the executive director position of the Jewish Community Relations Committee last month, effectively dismissing Michael Hirschfeld, a well-regarded, 24-year committee veteran. In reaction, at least one committee lay leader pulled his five-figure donation to the federation and some 50 community leaders and local elected officials criticized the move in an advertisement published last week in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

The JCRC works on behalf of a range of community agencies to build partnerships with other religious and ethnic groups and lobby local politicians on a variety of policy issues.

In an interview with the Forward, the federation’s president, John Fishel, insisted that the job cut does not signal a shift in priorities away from community relations. But JCRC professionals and lay leaders say there is no other way to interpret the move and are still smarting from a layoff that even Fishel admits lacked consultation.

Some committee leaders are calling on the body to break away from the federation, which currently funds $500,000 of the committee’s $750,000 budget.

“It would be better served if it was a separate council rather than a department of the federation,” said Howard Welinsky, former JCRC chair. “I’ve raised the issue with some people engaged in this dialogue of what do we do since the action.”

Welinsky said that he was so outraged by what he called the “incompetent” decision to eliminate Hirschfeld that he wrote to Fishel via e-mail to cancel his “five-figure” pledge to the federation. While no one is demanding that the 56-year-old Hirschfeld be given his position back — not even Hirschfeld himself — some are insisting that the post itself be restored.

The dismissal is in keeping with a nationwide trend that has seen local federations rein in the power of local community relations councils — the vast majority of which are now controlled by federations. This past June, the federation in Philadelphia took control of the independent and celebrated local Jewish Community Relations Council.

Observers say that community relations bodies are suffering the brunt of economic hardships in a strapped federated system. Struggling local federations are more likely to shave off intergroup efforts in favor of projects that directly bring in the dollars. Resources within these bodies are often concentrated on lobbying an increasingly depleted state legislature for more aid to the network of social service agencies served by federations. The trend, observers say, reflects a power struggle between federations that are increasingly catering to large and conservative donors and their traditionally liberal community relations bodies.

“Federations are very concerned over their funding and because of that community relations issues have been put on the back burner,” Hirschfeld said.

Fishel maintains that the decision was “traumatizing” but necessary given an internal audit’s finding that $1 million needed to be cut from the budget. In all, 20 full- and part-time positions have been eliminated. Hirschfeld’s supervisor, Carol Koransky, will assume Hirschfeld’s duties while continuing to serve as the federation’s senior vice president of policy, planning and community development. “We are very committed to the community relations and community affairs function,” Fishel said.

Asked if he will reinstate the position, Fishel said he would reserve judgment until after JCRC members meet with him on September 11 to voice their reactions. But, he added, “at this point in time we’re fairly far along to reassign the task and trying very, very hard to move forward with a very important [JCRC] agenda.”

The move also comes a year and a half after another important public mouthpiece of the Los Angeles Jewish community, the Anti-Defamation League’s David Lehrer, was abruptly removed, much to the shock and anger of his supporters. Jewish activists worry that this is not the time to be losing established community representatives who have strong ties to political and ethnic groups, especially in California.

“At a time of great uneasiness and concern in the Jewish world because of Israel’s status, the financial crisis in the state of California, new leadership emerging in this city, new ethnic groups coming into play, is it wise for the community to pull back and take away its voice of community affairs?” asked former JCRC director Steven Windmueller. An organizer of the protest ad, Windmueller served as JCRC director from 1985 to 1995 and is now the director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Hirschfeld’s supporters say they are baffled by his dismissal given his knack for raising government dollars for federation programs, including capital spending. They point to his crowning achievement, Koreh L.A., a program that today boasts 1,300 mostly Jewish volunteers who help teach local children how to read, as well as to his ability to crowd missions to Israel with key legislators.

“There is a trip planned for legislators to Israel in November, what will happen now?” asked Barbara Yaroslavsky, a JCRC executive board member.

Yaroslavsky railed against the process by which Hirschfeld was dismissed saying that not one committee member was consulted beforehand. She said lay leaders feel “disenfranchised” by the layoff, which she chalked up to differences in “management style.” She said that Hirschfeld’s many duties could not be handled adequately by a supervisor already saddled with a full portfolio.

In an e-mail to Fishel, Yaroslavsky wrote, “If there is a long range plan, a model for what this department should look like different from what it is, I’m not aware of that.” She continued, “no plan is articulated for damage control, no information is forthcoming to the stakeholders as to how or if JCRC is going to exist and what role if any is there for lay people.”

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