JCC Director Forced Out

By Nacha Cattan

Published October 10, 2003, issue of October 10, 2003.
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The founding director of the acclaimed Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, Debby Hirshman, was asked to step down the day before Rosh Hashana after 13 years of service, the Forward has learned.

A JCC press release states that Hirshman resigned, but the co-chair of the JCC board told the Forward that the board had asked Hirshman for her resignation. Several sources said she was forced out on the eve of the Jewish New Year and told not to return to her office at the spanking-new 11-story facility on the Upper West Side, a building she was instrumental in erecting.

Numerous observers expressed shock at her departure and lauded her as a visionary. Trained as an educator, Hirshman conceived the idea of a Jewish community center in the densely populated Upper West Side some 13 years ago and overcame skepticism to build a nationally acclaimed institution.

The $85 million facility, which opened its doors in January 2002, is home to an array of innovative programs such as an online Talmud class, a gay and lesbian teen lounge and a meditation space.

“We are deeply grateful to Debby Hirshman for her extraordinary vision and leadership over the past thirteen years,” the co-chair of the JCC’s board of directors, Peter Joseph, said in a press release. “Her passion, creativity and dedication have been instrumental to our success.”

But in an interview with the Forward, Joseph acknowledged: “She was asked for her resignation. It was the week leading up to Rosh Hashana and this was a board action.” He declined to say why the decision was made.

Hirshman did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Privately, former JCC volunteers, donors and Hirshman supporters said that although widely seen as a brilliant fundraiser and “builder,” Hirshman had come under criticism for her style of management once the institution was up and running.

The project has not been without its glitches. The capital campaign never met the building’s $85 million construction cost, leaving $25 million to be raised while the building is operating. In addition, the center’s budget did not break even last year, forcing layoffs, and membership was not filled to capacity. However, JCC officials said the shortfalls were all expected within the center’s operating plan and played no role in Hirshman’s departure.

The co-chairman of the JCC’s capital campaign, Michael Sonnenfeldt, a board member, agreed that Hirshman’s unique talent would be “impossible to replace” but he said that because of the success of the JCC, her post has become one of the most desirable professional jobs in the Jewish community.

Although fund drives for buildings are usually more difficult to complete once the bricks are laid, Sonnenfeldt said that the board had expected all along that it would have to raise the last $25 million after the JCC opened its doors.

”There’s no question the economic environment, both because of the recession and post-9/11, is more challenging,” Sonnenfeldt said. “But we’re confident that over time we will successfully complete the capital campaign.”

Sonnenfeldt said there was no “material deficit” in this past year’s $15 million budget. JCC officials declined to give the exact figure, however.

Joseph said that membership is holding steady at 14,000 families, the same number provided to the Forward last fall. He said that although membership is not “filled to capacity,” programs are packed to the hilt with participants. “We’re running lotteries because we cannot take all the people who want to be part of our programs,” Joseph said.

One JCC donor who called herself a supporter of Hirshman said that she was concerned for the JCC’s future. “I’m not convinced that if a building is creative today, it could stay creative tomorrow,” said the donor, who asked to remain anonymous. “I think Debby was brilliant at taking ideas on the fringe of the community and putting them into the JCC.” The donor said Hirshman’s resignation highlights a “very subtle sexism” that pervades Jewish communal institutions where women rarely rise to top positions such as Hirshman’s.

The JCC’s past director of volunteer activities, Helen Barer, told the Forward that although Hirshman was a “fabulous inspiration,” she was “less interested and less valuable — as many people are in her position — as a hands-on administrator.” Barer said she had been told that the resignation was a “joint decision” between Hirshman and the board.

“It was inevitable,” continued Barer, who worked with Hirshman for six years before retiring last year. “Not that she lost interest in the JCC, but that her particular talents were less challenged by the ongoing institution rather than by building” the institution.

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