Rabbi Baker gives remarks at the launch of the New England Holocaust Memorial mobile and virtual tours in July 2021. by the Forward

A Boston Jewish leader earns high praise amid lawsuits and allegations of a ‘toxic culture’

Rabbi Marc Baker, the newish head of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, seemed to be everywhere this summer.

At a vigil in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, denouncing the stabbing of a Chabad rabbi. At a media event for the New England Holocaust Memorial, with the governor of Massachusetts and mayor of Boston. At a downtown rally in support of Israel. And, back on Passover, a YouTube video from his home thanking health-care workers.

Three years ago, when Baker was named to the most important Jewish job in Boston, he was relatively unknown, except for among a small circle of families whose kids attended the nearly $50,000-a-year day school he ran. Now, as president and chief executive officer of CJP, Boston’s Federation, he is running the state’s largest nonprofit organization outside of universities and hospitals, a powerful 126-year-old institution that makes hundreds of grants to local charities and programs.

Baker, 43, had never worked in the federation system, or in philanthropy, before arriving at CJP, where he was paid more than $600,000 in 2019, according to federal tax records.

And he was stepping into the shoes of the venerable Barry Shrage, a Boston icon and nationally known leader who headed CJP for three decades, doubling its annual budget and raising more than $1 billion overall.

In short order, Baker shook things up, restructuring departments, eliminating some high-level jobs and moving new people into leadership. He said he was positioning CJP for the 21st century, and promised it would care for the most vulnerable, including Jews with disabilities and in financial need, and welcome “everyone with loving compassion.”

But there has been turbulence along the route, and fundraising for CJP’s annual campaign is down from the Shrage era, according to the organization’s audited financial statements. These statements show campaign pledge revenue was $56,426,000 in fiscal year 2020, down from an average of $61,494,500 in the last full four years of Shrage’s tenure.

Asked about this, a CJP spokesperson said revenue grew to $61.6 million in fiscal year 2021, though that figure has not yet been audited.

Baker is hailed by many local Jewish leaders — notably peers, donors, and grantees— as a charismatic, strong and able leader with self-confidence, creativity and energy.

“In a partisan world, Marc is a voice of moral clarity that’s needed,” said Joanna Jacobson, who was on the search committee that hired him and is president of Boston’s One8 Foundation.

At the same time, current and former employees say he has created a toxic work environment; and two filed discrimination lawsuits earlier this year that were quickly settled.

A third employee, Rabbi Andy Kastner, retained a lawyer in August, the Forward has learned, to pursue an employment-related claim — not a lawsuit— after CJP allegedly reneged on a promise to allow him to temporarily work remotely from his West Coast home before relocating to Boston. Kastner was due to move to Massachusetts this fall and had already sold his home when he got the news he was fired.

A CJP spokesperson confirmed that his last day was Sept. 17 and, asked about the possible legal action, said: “There was no dispute.” He did not respond to further questions.

Several former employees interviewed over the last few months described Baker’s management style as aggressive, vindictive and unscrupulous, saying he purged employees who challenged him. Similar complaints have been voiced by people who felt they were unfairly terminated by Baker at the day school he ran for 11 years, Gann Academy in Waltham.

“It is about a toxic pattern of behavior with a lot of cruelty and harassment that has been overlooked by the lay leaders,” said a former CJP employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “I’ve worked in many Jewish nonprofit workplaces and have never seen such a cruel and vengeful man put in charge.”

The assessments are hard to reconcile, and may reflect the size and complexity of CJP, and the inevitable challenges of making change in any large workplace — especially at a moment when workplace norms are in flux.

“Marc Baker went in and made changes. And when you make changes, people are unhappy,” said Jay Sanderson, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a mentor of Baker’s. As for the lawsuits, Sanderson said: “We are in a world now where that is where you go.”

It is also a world where many Jewish organizations are rethinking what leadership looks like and how to handle interpersonal relations, catalyzed in part by the #MeToo movement.

“There has definitely been a rise in awareness and response to the realities of toxic-abuse workplace culture in Jewish organizations,” said Nicole Nevarez, executive director of Ta’amod, a national organization addressing inequity and harm in Jewish workplaces. “If we want our Jewish organizations to be places of innovation and belonging and connecting, and therefore sustain the Jewish people, they need to be places of safety and equity and accountability.”

Even so, speaking out can be risky in Boston’s circumscribed world of Jewish philanthropy, where CJP has vast reach and influence. Several of Baker’s critics agreed to discuss Baker only on the condition they not be named for fear of losing their jobs – or of jeopardizing their spouses’ jobs. Some talked through tears.

“I really don’t want to expose weakness in the Jewish community,” said one former employee. “We believe in our community. But we have to live out our Jewish values. And we want to be part of the solution.”

When Shrage stepped down in 2018, CJP – the oldest federated Jewish philanthropy in the country - was the epicenter of Boston’s Jewish community, a fundraising machine that punched far above its weight in a city with the nation’s sixth-largest Jewish population. It has an endowment of $242 million and an annual budget of nearly $65 million. According to federal tax records, in 2019 CJP also oversaw $1.4 billion in donor-advised fund assets, a type of investment account for supporting charitable organizations. A CJP spokesperson said its donor-advised fund has grown by $300 million in 2021.

Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots — whose late wife, Myra, had chaired CJP’s board — had donated $10 million to renovate the organization’s High Street headquarters, which was dedicated in 2018. CJP awarded countless grants to a host of causes and was a major player in civic life. Long before other Jewish funders, Shrage helped break ideological ground, supporting groups long left out of the Jewish mainstream, including gays, lesbians and interfaith couples.

Baker’s background is very different from his predecessor’s. Shrage, trained as a social worker, described himself in a video as “a schlepper from the Bronx” whose first accomplishment at CJP, he said in self-deprecation, was to take the fundraising campaign “from $25 million to $19 million.”

Baker is a native of Lynnfield, Mass., a prosperous North Shore suburb, and attended Phillips Academy Andover, a prestigious prep school, then Yale, where he was the first Jewish captain of the squash team. He spent four years in Israel, where he was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, and was just 31 in 2007 when he became head of school at Gann, Greater Boston’s Independent Jewish high school, which was founded in 1997.

A dozen years later, Baker was the surprise pick of an 11-member search committee that included a woman who had been vice president of the Gann board of trustees, and a man whose wife was a Gann board member at the time. Both at the time were parents of Gann students or alumni.

“I was struck by how wise and thoughtful he was,” said Jacobson, who was also on the committee. “He could articulate very personally what the Jewish community needed in the future and asked incredibly incisive questions. And he was equally willing to listen.”

Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis professor of Jewish history who has worked closely with CJP, said Baker has navigated the job’s challenges well during a time of political polarization in a diversifying Jewish community.

“I think this is one of those moments when it will be very important to try to bring people together,” said Sarna. “There is nobody better than Marc. He’s Orthodox, but he is liberal. He went to a private swanky prep school so he knows how to talk to preppies. He can talk the Orthodox talk and learn a page of Talmud with them, and at the same time he can interact with secular Jews.”

Eric Fingerhut, president and chief executive officer of The Jewish Federations of North America, praised Baker for having “such self-confidence, such creativity, such energy.”

Baker started at CJP with an eight-month, 36-stop “listening tour” of Jewish communities and organizations. He told the Forward in May that he wanted “to see the community through new eyes,” and that he got feedback from more than 1,700 participants in the tour events about Jewish life in Greater Boston.

Within two days of when much of Massachusetts went on lockdown - March 13 - CJP launched an emergency COVID relief fund. It raised nearly $11 million for local individuals, schools and synagogues as well as Jewish communities in Ukraine, Argentina, and Israel.

“Marc is an amazing listener and responsive to the changing times,” said Amy Schectman, chief executive officer of 2Life Communities, which provides affordable housing for older adults. “When COVID hit, CJP just called and said, ‘What do you need?’ and then came back with a slug of money and support.

“I remember actually crying on the phone,” she added. “I’d felt so alone at that point with the challenges of COVID.”

Baker launched a new program for Jewish art and artists, awarding $100,000 to support 11 initiatives including public art installations, documentary film, poetry and dance, and establishing a new director of arts and culture, making Boston’s one of the only federations to have one.

Laura Mandel, executive director of the Jewish Arts Collaborative, said it was “the first time the organized Jewish community has reached out to artists,” and called Baker “a wonderful, smart, savvy guy.”

CJP has also started a new mental health initiative — committing $1.6 million annually for three years — that includes free online treatment for stress and depression, in partnership with McLean Hospital and Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

And Baker is encouraging investment in new digital capabilities, which became a lifeline during the pandemic, enabling synagogues to hold virtual services.

Baker is a natural orator who is both learned and affable, interspersing his thoughts about CJP and Judaism with bits of soaring rhetoric. In the May interview, he described his leadership style as “data-driven and strategic” but said the work is “ultimately about people, trying to create meaningful lives and Jewish lives.”

Inside the Kraft Family Building, Baker’s first few years have also been marked by questions about how money is being spent, low morale, rapid turnover, accusations of a toxic workplace and lawsuits.

In June 2020, CJP announced it was laying off 25 employees, part of a wave of similar pandemic-related layoffs at federations nationally. Some questioned the financial justification, given that the organization had in April been approved to receive $2.8 million from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

A CJP spokesperson said the executive team, including Baker, took voluntary pay cuts of 3% to 12% in May 2020. An insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the salaries of the executive team were restored by fall — and two members even got raises — angering other employees.

“That money was meant to sustain people at their jobs,” one former employee said of the SBA funds. “It was disgusting.”

Asked twice by email about whether and when the executive salaries were restored, the CJP spokesperson said, “this has no connection” to the loan, adding that the SBA money “enabled CJP to defer” the staff reductions for eight weeks, “consistent with the intent” of the program.

Others who worked at CJP described an office atmosphere that turned sour after leadership changed. “There was an intense fear of being pushed out,” said one ex-staffer, who complained that Baker’s “cronies” replaced some longtime managers.

“Marc played favorites,” said another, again speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “People felt if you weren’t on the right team, you weren’t safe.”

Employees said they felt pressure to respond to emails at all hours, including weekends. “Baker would request a report or something at 4 o’clock on Fridays,” one former staff member said. “He is known to attack before Shabbat.”

One person said that eight current and former colleagues had shared stories with him about being bullied or harassed by managers, including Sarah Abramson, whom Baker promoted to senior vice president in February, 2019. These employees said they felt targeted either because they were associated with Shrage and deemed no longer useful, or because they had been vocal and pushed back against changes Baker was making. Two said they were having suicidal thoughts because of how they were being treated.

In addition to the 25 people laid off in 2020, at least 13 people in senior leadership positions have departed CJP since Baker took over. Some top-level executives were encouraged to retire or take other positions in the Jewish community. Others left of their own accord, or were given notice they would be replaced or their jobs eliminated.

None of the six former vice presidents or the departed chief operating officer responded to queries from the Forward as to why they left.

The CJP spokesperson said turnover has been “steady and comparable” to the years before Baker started, and provided numbers showing the percentage of the staff that departed, voluntarily and not, since 2017. But he said his records did not specify levels of seniority.

One of the people who sued CJP in January is Zachary Kogan, an Orthodox Jew who worked at the organization from 2016 to early 2021 managing partnerships with other groups. The complaint, filed in Massachusetts Superior Court, accused CJP and its vice president of partnerships and services, Kimberlee Schumacher, of demoting Kogan and retaliating against him after he requested paternity leave before the birth of his second child. The case was settled in March.

The second lawsuit was filed by Matthew Lebovic, who worked at CJP for 13 years and named Baker; Abramson, the senior vice president for strategy and impact; and Rachael Weisz, chief people officer.

Lebovic oversaw several initiatives, including campus programs and trips for young adults to Israel and to Holocaust sites in Europe. He said that he was demoted after disclosing a mental-health condition, despite years of excellent performance reviews, and was ultimately terminated after complaining about Baker to human resources. The stated reason for his firing was him sharing his password, which Lebovic said in an interview “was a common practice at CJP.” Lebovic said in an interview with the Forward prior to his case being settled.

That case was also settled in May. The court document references an apologetic email Abramson sent her staff on Sept. 29, 2020, with the subject line “Yom Kippur reflections.” (The email was included in a separate complaint filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.)

“One of the things that I had hoped would be a hallmark of my leadership of this team was a sense of comradery [sic], a sense of shared ownership and just some plain old fun and team building,” the email reads. “COVID has made that immeasurably harder, but I feel I have entirely dropped the ball in ways that are really weighing on me.”

In court records and an interview, Lebovic said that his CJP experience shifted after a meeting Abramson led in the fall of 2020 to discuss Baker’s mental health initiative, in which Lebovic referenced his own experience. He added that he later met with Weisz, the chief people officer, telling her about a disturbing phone call he’d had with Abramson, that other colleagues had experienced unprofessional and cruel treatment from some managers, and that Baker was aware of it.

“I was fired because I blew the whistle on Marc, who was harboring abusive managers,” he said. “He was not a bystander.”

Asked about the Kogan case in January, the CJP emailed a statement calling the claims “absolutely baseless and without merit” and said the organization is “committed to upholding all laws governing religious discrimination, religious accommodation and parental leave and would not tolerate any violation of these important principles.”

“The suggestion that we would discriminate against an Orthodox member of our community is preposterous,” the statement went on. “Our managers, who are widely respected community leaders with impeccable integrity, have our full support. We are confident, after thoroughly investigating these claims, that our managers acted properly, followed the laws and consistently applied our CJP policies.”

On the Lebovic case, CJP’s board chair, Shira Goodman — who had previously served as vice president of Gann Academy — called the allegations “a meritless attempt to defame our organization by the former employee, who was terminated for violating clear policies in our handbook.” She added: “CJP is committed to upholding all laws prohibiting discrimination or retaliation.”

Asked about the lawsuits in May, Baker told the Forward they were “resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.” The amount of the settlement is confidential.

Complaints about Baker’s leadership predate his tenure at CJP. The Forward spoke with four former employees of Gann Academy, two of whom called the atmosphere at the school “toxic” and three of whom said they observed or experienced a culture of favoritism and retaliation. They recalled women being called “emotional” and told to tone down their intensity and people being reprimanded by Baker for disagreeing with him.

Baker declined in the May interview to discuss the lawsuits or the complaints from his days at Gann. “I would say I’m really proud of the culture we’ve created at CJP,” he said.

“For me, relationships are everything, and change is hard and leadership is hard,” he said. “You have to make hard decisions and I try my best to make every decision with integrity and with transparency and with compassion.”

Author

Linda Matchan

Linda Matchan

Linda Matchan is a Boston journalist and documentary filmmaker.

A Boston Jewish leader earns high praise amid lawsuits and allegations of a ‘toxic culture’

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