In a bold move, the century-old Anti Defamation League has chosen a young social entrepreneur to serve as its new executive director, replacing Abraham Foxman when he steps down in July.
Jonathan Greenblatt, 43, currently serves as special assistant to the President and heads the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. In this position and in previous work Greenblatt has focused on building cooperation between private and not-for-profit sectors.
His selection marks a dramatic shift for the ADL, which under Foxman has built a reputation as the nation’s leading establishment voice on all issues relating to anti-Semitism, bigotry and inequality. The organization also staked out a position for itself as one of Israel’s strongest defenders, in particular against harsh critics of its policies toward the Palestinians.
“Choosing Greenblatt is phenomenal for the ADL,” said Jarrod Bernstein, former Obama administration liaison to the Jewish community. Bernstein, who worked with Greenblatt at the White House, described him as “really smart, really technologically savvy,” and added: “He knows that Jewish organizations need dramatic change in order to stay relevant.”
Greenblatt, in many ways, is the anti-Foxman.
Three decades separate the outgoing and incoming national directors. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor whose life was shaped by the tragedy, has devoted his career to Jewish organizational life in America. Greenblatt is a grandson of a Holocaust survivor, and while continuously taking interest in Jewish life, has chosen a career path focused on broader social issues.
When the ADL’s succession committee began its search for a new national director, recalled Barry Curtiss-Lusher, the group’s national chair who also headed the committee, one member said: “We are looking for another Abe.” At that point Foxman, who was also a member of the committee, intervened. He reminded members that he had not come out of the same mold as his predecessor, Nathan Perlmutter. His successor, Foxman told the committee, should not be required to be the “next Abe.”
Greenblatt does have a prior history with the ADL. He began working as an intern at the organization during his graduate studies at Tufts University. To an audience of ADL activists gathered in Los Angeles on Thursday, Greenblatt told the story of his first steps with the organization after returning from study in Europe, where he saw the remnants of the Jewish communities in Germany and in Hungary his forefathers had had to flee. “I came back to the US, determined to make a difference – to fight anti-Semitism and to serve my people, the Jewish people,” he said.
But Greenblatt’s professional life took him to other directions. He managed real estate and later co-founded a socially conscience business venture, Ethos Brands, which sold bottled water while donating part of the profits to clean water programs. The company was later sold to Starbucks and Greenblatt became a vice president of the giant coffee shop conglomerate. He later served as head of GOOD media company and founded the not-for-profit All for Good, an Internet platform connecting volunteers with organizations seeking help. Greenblatt also taught social entrepreneurship at UCLA.
Greenblatt is married to Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, an Iranian Jew who was forced to leave the country after the Islamic revolution. This, Greenblatt said in his speech on Thursday, served for him as reminder that anti-Semitism is still a global problem. “Fighting this scourge and advocating for the rights of all is not just an intellectual pursuit – it’s personal for me, a deeply held value, one that has been seared into my soul.” Keypur Greenblatt is a member of the Jewish Federation’s young leadership cabinet and is co-founder of an organization devoted to promoting human rights in Iran.
While he has not worked directly in the organized Jewish world since his ADL internship, Greenblatt maintained ties with major groups as a donor and supporter. In his recent White House position, he spearheaded a joint effort with the Jewish Federations of North America to provide assistance to Holocaust survivors living in America. The effort later led to Vice President Joe Biden’s decision to appoint a special envoy for this issue and to devote federal funds and AmeriCorps volunteers to helping survivors.
The search process leading up to Greenblatt’s selection took two years and was conducted by ADL and an outside consulting firm. Together, the two groups reviewed hundreds of candidates.
The choice marks a clear decision by the group to break with tradition and bring on board a young leader from outside the Jewish organizational world.
“In hiring someone clearly from the next generation to succeed an icon such as Abe Foxman, the ADL shows that it recognizes that what has gotten them here will not get them further,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Still, ADL leaders insist that their choice of Greenblatt does not represent any change in the group’s core values or mission.
“We’re already in a process of modernization,” Curtiss-Lusher told the Forward. “But I don’t see any change in terms of direction and mission.”
Several Jewish activists nevertheless speculated that Greenblatt’s background and experience will necessarily shift some of the group’s work.
He is likely to focus more on rebuilding the ADL and making it attractive to younger members, and will continue expanding the group’s online reach. Greenblatt, who lacks Foxman’s global political standing, could shift the ADL away from serving as the world’s adjudicator on anti-Semitism to a more communal role in building networks to counter bigotry.
“Does he have the gravitas that Foxman had?” one Jewish Washington insider asked rhetorically, and quickly answered: “No, but who does?”
Curtiss-Lusher disagreed. Being a potential national and global leader was one of the pre-requisites of the job, he said. “We think that given time, he will be just that kind of leader,” he said.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.