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A JCC Lures a Businessman Back Into the Fold

When Barry Finestone began working in the private sector in early 2005 after years of service in Jewish organizations, he thought that he had left the “old country” for good. “When I went out of Jewish work, I didn’t think I would get back in,” he recalled. “I was enjoying being out. I was very focused on it.”

How wrong he was. This past summer, he found himself pulled back into the world where his career began — as the head of a Jewish Community Center in California, no less.

Image by Sasha Gulish

Finestone now heads the JCC of San Francisco, the country’s second largest — after the JCC in New York — with about 215 employees. The job is challenging because JCC management involves overseeing different business units, from fitness to feeding seniors. In San Francisco, the center includes a spa, a pool, child care, event space, a library and preschools.

Like most Jewish organizations, JCCs around the country cut back on hiring during the recession. The parent organization, the Jewish Community Center Association, does not have centralized data, though executive vice president Alan Mann said that layoffs were “significant and painful,” as indicated by an internal survey. But hiring is rebounding slowly, as some centers are beginning to grow their staffs again. “It’s a lot lower than before the recession, but we’ve seen that JCCs are getting stronger,” Mann said.

That assessment seems to echo nationwide. In this series, the Forward is looking at the areas where Jewish jobs are being created or reframed as the overall economy slowly rebounds, and has found a modest growth in hiring in the education field, some communal organizations, advocacy groups and fundraising. JCCs across North America, for example, are now hiring chief operating officers, administrative support, social workers, development directors, teachers and Web specialists. The openings speak to job seekers with different backgrounds and areas of expertise, but who need not have experience in Jewish organizations.

In San Francisco, Finestone is hiring, too — but essentially to replace the 10 full-time equivalent jobs in various fields that were cut before he took over in June. Those cuts give him the ability to hire in areas he deems strategic, such as community relations and new media. “It’s mainly a reallocation of resources as opposed to new money,” he added.

Long before his Jewish work began, Finestone grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Glasgow, Scotland. His aspirations were clear from when he was young: He wanted to be a professional soccer player. His parents told him, “Let’s make sure you get a Jewish education, just in case,” he recalled. It clicked. “I did realize at age 15 that I had a passion for all things Jewish,” Finestone said.

That passion brought him to America in the summer of 1989 — before his final year of college — when he worked as a unit director in a branch of the sleepaway camp Young Judaea Midwest in Wisconsin. After Finestone graduated from college, the camp hired him as assistant director. When the director left six months later, Finestone, then 23, was elevated into that post. “I never would have hired myself,” he said, adding that the role, which required financial and marketing skills, prepared him for future opportunities.

Five years later, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which oversees Young Judaea, brought him to New York for various managerial posts. In 1999, when he and his wife were expecting their first child, he moved closer to her extended family to become executive director of the Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati.

But after five years, he became restless. “I was interested to see whether or not the skills I learned in the not-for-profit world would transfer into the for-profit world,” he said. So he became executive vice president of two companies: Jones the Florist, Cincinnati’s largest retail flower business, and Sweets in Bloom, a candy bouquet company. He noticed “tremendous parallels” between the private and Jewish sectors, and differences in decision-making processes: Not-for-profits tend to be more collaborative, while at for-profit organizations, CEOs can make immediate decisions.

One day last fall, a search firm called him about the opening in San Francisco. The position became available when the JCC’s leader Sandee Blechman announced her retirement in early 2009. “Before I got the call from the headhunter, I didn’t recognize that if I wanted to effect some real change, I had to do it from the inside,” Finestone said. So he gave up the flower business for what he saw as a larger platform.

“Growing up in Scotland, I was infused with a strong sense of Jewish community and Israel,” he said. “Now I’m back to this work at the age of 44.”

In his new job, Finestone said, he earns a six-figure salary commensurate with the size of JCCSF’s annual $27.5 million budget. He aims to elevate the status of the JCC and of Jewish jobs in general. Jewish work, he said, “doesn’t have the same gravitas” as lawyering or doctoring. “We should want the best Jewish professionals. If the health of your body is related to the skill of your doctor, the heart of the Jewish community is related to those who run it.”

Contact Joy Resmovits at [email protected]

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