Letters to the Editor: Jay Sanderson’s first year, David Suissa

Reflecting on Federation CEO’s First Year

As the chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, I obviously read with great interest the recent article about Jay Sanderson written by Julie Gruenbaum Fax in the April 1 edition of The Jewish Journal (“Jay Sanderson Pushes for Change”). Jay Sanderson has been working tirelessly for this community to accomplish the goals set for him by our board when he was hired as the chief executive officer. It is a daunting task to make significant changes in an organization that has existed for 100 years. Jay has proven, over the past 14 months, that he has the talent, the knowledge and the commitment to be successful in this endeavor.

Federation has a unique and important role in our community. It is the only organization that can partner with everyone else. It must identify the most pressing issues that face the community, determine who is doing the best job in addressing those issues and allocate resources in those areas where it can be most effective. In that way, The Federation is part action tank, part grant maker and part fundraiser. I say “action tank” rather than “think tank” since it is our goal to both think of the most pressing issues and solutions and to then take action to address them.

As the article correctly points out, Jay has been successful in making the necessary changes and evolving the mission of The Federation while, at the same time, maintaining the many positive features and excellent work that has existed at The Federation for many years.  Jay has refined the focus of The Federation by creating three strategic areas: Caring for Jews in Need, Ensuring the Jewish Future and Engaging in our Community. Jay has met with hundreds of donors, agencies and organizations during his first year, often convening meetings of groups that have never before worked with The Federation. Jay has further interacted with his counterparts in many cities, such as John Ruskay in New York, as the article states. 

It is as a result of these activities that The Federation is now addressing issues referred to in the article, such as focusing on the expansion of Jewish camping, examining possible connections with interfaith families that include a Jewish husband or wife, and working with organizations to serve the 15,000 Birthright Israel alumni we have in Los Angeles. It is also why The Federation has convened diverse organizations to look at Israel education and advocacy on campuses. And it is further why we are working with the agencies to make sure we continue to allocate as many resources as we can to serve Jews in need.

I applaud The Jewish Journal and Ms. Fax for reporting on these tremendous accomplishments of Jay Sanderson in just one year as the CEO of The Federation.

Certainly no one is above criticism, though I felt the emphasis on so-called personality traits of Jay was overstated and unfair. It is unfortunate that there are so many negative comments by individuals who are hiding behind their anonymity. I have probably worked more closely with Jay Sanderson than any other member of the community over the past 14 months. I can state unequivocally that he cares deeply about our community, that he is interested in doing the best job that he can, and represents the best values of our religion. Jay is quoted in the article as stating that at times he had said things that he has regretted and that he is learning, since he has never run a company with this many employees before. Jay has requested that I critique his performance on an ongoing basis and is very receptive to comments that I and others make. I have seen the changes in his style of operation based upon feedback. He is better at his job today than he was a year ago, and I am sure he will be better a year from now than he is today. Those are the qualities of a true leader, who is never satisfied with his own performance and is always striving to do better. 

Jay was given a task and told to take the steps he needed to be successful. Nobody enjoys dismissing employees or taking actions that make them unpopular. Leaders make tough decisions and are constantly reviewing their decisions. We are constantly assessing the changes we make to make sure that this organization serves our community in the most effective way.

We have a job to do, and Jay is doing that job well.

Richard V. Sandler
Chairman of the Board
The Jewish Federation of Greater
Los Angeles

Editor’s Note: Though The Journal nearly always avoids citing unnamed sources, we did so five times in this story (one instance very positive) to reflect a much larger number of lay leaders and professionals who said they believed speaking on the record would jeopardize current or potential jobs.

I’ve been trying to figure out what Jay Sanderson meant by his remark that “most people coming out of (Jewish communal service programs) are round pegs in round holes.”

Unless I’m missing something, isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing … ensuring that the professionals coming out of our program are able to address the complex needs of the Jewish community and its myriad organizations? Perhaps he was complaining that our graduates, as well as the graduates of our sister schools at AJU, Brandeis and NYU, are too focused on serving the Jewish community as it is and are not shaping the community that might be. However, if Jay would bother to take a look, he would see that we are in fact cultivating professionals who can not only work in the community as it is, but who can also provide transformational leadership both to Jewish start-ups and to venerated agencies such as The Federation itself.

Earlier this year, Jay unilaterally suspended Federation’s support of graduate student interns at key Los Angeles-area Jewish organizations. It is regrettable that Jay does not feel that it is Federation’s job to help guarantee that the Jewish community has the trained, creative, passionate and Jewishly knowledgeable professional leaders that it needs. It is appalling, however, that he never brought this funding decision before a committee of lay leaders, lest they decide that supporting these students might actually be good for the community and an appropriate priority for The Federation that presumably wants to “ensure the Jewish future.” Important decisions are being made and significant funds are being given out in the name of the L.A. Jewish community by an unchecked individual who is beholden to no one, and the community’s leadership is not paying attention.

Richard Siegel
Director, HUC-JIR School of
Jewish Nonprofit Management

We are proud to be part of the new Federation, led by Jay Sanderson, and are all working to be instrumental in increasing its efficiency and power to “do good” on behalf of those we serve.  From our perspective inside The Federation, we are extremely disappointed in [the April 1] cover story. While portions of the article regarding our Federation’s new initiatives and goals for the community under Jay’s leadership are accurate and positive, they are buried within a character attack on a man who leads by example in working countless hours each and every day to strengthen The Federation and enhance the central role of Jewish values in everything we do. We applaud his efforts to institute greater accountability within our organization while maximizing fiscal responsibility for communal resources. It’s unfortunate that the majority of the story is unbalanced, questioning Jay’s relationship with staff and featuring primarily anonymous quotes, rather than acknowledging the groundwork he has quickly laid for our Federation to achieve its primary mission of ensuring a strong Jewish future. We are happy to be on record in our support of Jay’s leadership, and we know that many other current and former staff members share our feelings. 

Cyndie Ayala, Andrew Cushnir, Carol Koransky, Ivan Wolkind
Executive Management Team
The Jewish Federation of Greater
Los Angeles

I have been an active supporter and lay leader within the Jewish Federation locally and nationally for much of the last 10 years. I have seen and experienced firsthand the work that Federation does, here and abroad. I am extremely proud that our Federation is even still operating in the wake of the worst economic times since the Depression of the 1930s. These are tough times and every enterprise has been forced to make difficult decisions. The Federation is no different in most respects, except for one: Despite how bad the times are, it has not strayed from its mission. Rather, it has succeeded in supporting those in need more than ever before.  It has done so with dignity and objectivity, care and diligence.  To suggest that it or its leaders compromise Jewish ethics is simply an insult.

Steven J. Geller
Agoura Hills

On behalf of the leadership of the Women’s Board of The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance, we would like to respond to the April 1 article on Jay Sanderson by Julie Gruenbaum Fax. Our Women’s Campaign raises a significant portion of funds for Federation. We are extremely proud of the work we do and have, in fact, spent hours planning, recruiting and fundraising so that Jews here, in Israel and around the world will be taken care of. We believe firmly that it is our responsibility and our privilege to do so, and it is shameful that a story, such as the one on Jay, will have some negative impact toward diminishing our success.

There is, of course, a much bigger story here. Under the scrutiny of a microscope, any organization, including The Jewish Journal, faces similar internal issues to those raised in your article during a period of major change. Often, under these circumstances, the top leader effecting it bears the brunt of the resistance to that much-needed change.

We get it; controversial stories are easier to sell. What may be less “sexy” is The Federation’s quiet 100 years of devoted and dedicated commitment to our community. The L.A. Federation, as The Journal well knows, is celebrating its centennial. That’s 100 years of caring, nurturing, rescuing and uplifting this community. That’s the story you should have published. That’s the story we look forward to seeing.

Jill Namm, Women’s Department President
Ellen Brown, Women’s Campaign chair
Lynette Brown, Valley Alliance
Campaign co-chair
Yona Goldberg, past chair, National Women’s Philanthropy

Editor’s Note: For an article about The Federation’s centennial celebrations, which ran in The Journal on Jan. 21, visit jewishjournal.com.

I recently received a letter from The Federation’s Community Engagement Department asking for my expert professional assessment and perhaps renewed voluntary involvement resulting from my outdated 1996 research on hunger and other needs of the L.A. Jewish community that The Federation hasn’t found the resources to update these past 15 years.

I could not now imagine, in good conscience, volunteering and going to evening volunteer committee meetings staffed by “exempt” Federation staffers who get home late in the evening, after a long day in the office and then are forced, by executive fiat, to be at their desks early the next day. This is a “sweat shop” atmosphere, and The Jewish Federation has existed 99 years quite successfully without it. Our dedicated Jewish professionals don’t deserve this degrading of Jewish organizational culture, and our community doesn’t deserve this.

Pini Herman
Los Angeles

Israel and Apartheid

David Suissa writes that Israel is not apartheid and its enemies are, but contradicts this with examples (“Murdering Israel’s Name,” March 25). I was going to ignore this, but it ended with the words, “You must fight this injustice,” so I do.

“Apartheid,” an Afrikaans word meaning “separateness,” referred to South African law requiring individuals, even of the same skin color, to live in separate cities based on minor differences in ethnicity. The element of enforced geographic separation, not the degree of suffering, was fundamental to apartheid. In the Holocaust, the requirement to live in concentration camps was apartheid, but the 6 million murders were not.

Government that “totally forbids” Judaism nationwide is not apartheid, because it does not separate the country into places with and without Jews. Other human rights violations, even if worse than apartheid, are not apartheid if they do not involve geographic separation.

However, he notes that Arab Israelis, unlike Palestinians, are allowed to live in Israel and serve in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court; this enforced separation between Palestinian and non-Palestinian Arabs is precisely what “apartheid” actually describes.

Ironically, by ignoring the true meaning of the word, and instead relying only on the definitions adopted by the U.N. and others opposed to Israeli presence in the “Palestinian territories,” Suissa may be playing into the hands of Israel’s enemies.

Stephen Weinstein