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The Schmooze

The Challenge of Preserving Jewish History

Courtesy of the Center for Jewish History

2014 was a tumultuous year for the Center for Jewish History. CJH, which houses one of the world’s largest and most important collections of Jewish books and documents, lost its longtime chief operating officer, Michael S. Glickman, when he left in May. A few months later, two of the center’s wealthiest board members, billionaires Joseph Steinberg and William Ackman, stepped down. Enter Joel Levy, 69, who was selected as the center’s president and CEO in the fall. (Levy resigned from the Forward Association shortly after taking up his new post.)

Levy takes over an organization with an operating budget of $7 million that has stumbled financially since it was founded 14 years ago. He also heads an organization that must balance the needs of five partner organizations of varying sizes, from the tiny American Sephardi Federation to the large YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. (The other three partners are the American Jewish Historical Society, the Leo Baeck Institute and the Yeshiva University Museum.)

Steinberg and Ackman resigned around the same time that board members debated — and then dropped — a plan to subsume the respective boards under the CJH board’s control. But Levy, who has been in the job for only a couple of months, says that disagreements about the center’s direction have been mostly ironed out.

Levy spoke to the Forward’s Paul Berger about the center’s intellectual and commercial resources — 145,000 square foot of prime Manhattan real estate, event spaces, conservation labs and a combined collection of 100 million documents and half a million books — as reason to be optimistic about the center’s future.

Paul Berger: You spent most of your career working overseas in the Foreign Service. Since returning to the United States in 2001, you have worked for the Anti-Defamation League and the not-for-profit Vera Institute of Justice. Why come out of retirement to run the Center for Jewish History?

Joel Levy: I was approached for this job. I said, I’m not looking for a job but I find the concept of being able to contribute to the smooth functioning of an institution such as this as an opportunity to do something for klal yisroel [the community of Israel]. I find it personally very meaningful, and I hope that all of my background in diplomacy and in the Jewish nonprofit world, as well as my personal interest in Jewish scholarship, all comes together. I think it’s really bashert [intended] to be in this place.

How does a partnership between five organizations benefit the larger scholarly and Jewish community?

I’ll give you an example. There was an important library at the University of Frankfurt, a collection of Wissenschaft des Judentums — the name for the science of Judaism, or Jewish studies. It was the origins of what later became the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States. There were 11,000 volumes in that library, but it was destroyed by the Nazis. So the center got the idea that it could help to virtually re-create that library. The University of Frankfurt found many of the works. But research within the libraries and archives here turned up 4,000 of those 11,000 volumes. Four of the center’s five partner organizations — the Leo Baeck Institute, YIVO and the American Jewish Historical Society — did a major digitization of those 4,000 works. Then, the center virtually re-created the library with an online portal to make all the collections readily available for scholars. That would not have been possible for the partner organizations working separately.

Is there a tension inherent in five groups sharing resources?

All of us are engaged in the same enterprise. We are the temporary custodians of the treasures of the Jewish people and of Jewish history. The organizations collect different things, and they collect them in different ways, but everything is now being stored in a very safe environment with all the proper conditions needed for their protection. We are making materials available to the broader public as well as to the scholarly community. It works quite beautifully.

There has been some disagreement about subsuming the boards of the partner organizations under the control of the center’s board. Has that been resolved?

There is a clear recognition [that] each of the partner organizations has its own strong identity, its own strong history and supporters (financial and otherwise). That will continue. It will not be in any way impeded by the development of the center or the relationship between the center and its partners. At the same time, there is a recognition that all of those partner organizations have been strengthened by the creation of the center and the synergies that have resulted. There is a very strong, unanimous desire by the board members to go forward as things were before while looking for areas where there can be synergies and efficiencies, such as streamlining back-office functions.

In 2011, Steinberg and Ackman led a $30 million capital campaign to pay off the center’s mortgage. Has their departure from the board affected the center’s financial stability?

The board is very focused on ensuring financial stability and has taken steps so that I am quite confident that we will have financial stability. There is a serious fundraising effort right now, and for 2015 we are beginning the year in a very strong position.

What does the center’s financial health look like?

It is actually quite good. We will be ending this year, 2014, with a surplus. And we have a very realistic draft budget for 2015, which will be a balanced budget. We already have commitments for a great deal of the money for next year. Of course, this organization is no different from any other nonprofit, including the Forward. It is not easy in the world of nonprofits to assume funding. Supporters support an organization because of the work that it does and a desire to support that work, and I am very optimistic that the financial picture is bright.

This interview has been edited for style and length.

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