The Wrong Goodbye
The firing of Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Regional Director David Lehrer has stunned and saddened a broad swath of the local Jewish community.
It is hard to discern which is causing more consternation: the fact that such a popular and respected Jewish leader was asked to step down, or the fact that no one consulted the local lay leadership in the matter.
Lehrer, regional director of the ADL since 1986, had been with the organization for 27 years when ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman informed Lehrer he was being let go.
His dismissal not only brings into question the sharp disconnect between East Coast and West Coast Jewish organizations, but their personality-driven culture. Many say Foxman runs his organization as a one-man operation, making decisions without consultation and without thought to their consequences.
Foxman has refused to comment.
Lehrer told The Journal that Foxman called him to a meeting in New York on Dec. 21, and told him he must leave the position. It is not clear when his last day will be.
Lehrer, who started working for the ADL as its Western civil rights consul in 1975, eventually rose through the ranks to the position of director of the Pacific Southwest Region in 1986. His various accomplishments include helping draft legislation at the state level against the Arab boycott of Israel, as well as California’s first law against hate crimes. He has also been involved with city government, serving five years on the Board of Library Commissioners of Los Angeles, which oversees an annual budget of nearly $90 million for the city’s public library system. He is married to software entrepreneur Ariella Lehrer, and is the father of four.
"I’m saddened that they let me go," Lehrer said. "Abe Foxman decided he wanted different leadership in Los Angeles, a different kind of lay leadership and he thought somebody else would have to be the one [to make those changes]."
Cecelia E. Katz, ADL’s Pacific Southwest Region president, said approximately 30 members of the regional president’s council met Jan. 2 to consider the situation. Then on Jan. 3, a delegation of national ADL staff flew to Los Angeles to meet with the council. Foxman will remain in New York and participate in the discussions by phone.
Katz did not rule out the possibility that an appeal would be made to reinstate Lehrer, if Lehrer himself so wished.
In a written statement, Katz noted that, "David Lehrer is synonymous with Mr. ADL in Los Angeles and California. His leadership in building coalitions with legislators, the press, the plethora of ethnic, religious and racial groups is outstanding. He has dedicated his life to community service and he will be available as a reliable resource for this community, whenever called upon. He is very greatly respected and admired by the community and the staff and lay community at large."
As news of his dismissal leaked out, local leaders were equally baffled.
"There better be a damn good reason for this decision because there are going to be repercussions throughout the Jewish community," said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "David has done an exemplary job. I’ve worked closely with him for more than 20 years and found him to be a person of political savvy and consummate professionalism."
"I learned about it on my answering machine," said Hope Warschaw, a national commissioner for the ADL and daughter of longtime ADL board member Carmen Warschaw. She was vacationing in Hawaii at the time. "To do this in the dead of night, so to speak, at a time when everybody’s scattered so there’s no one to protest, it’s just insane."
The dismissal did not make sense on several levels, Warschaw said.
"The ADL is not in a situation like the Jewish Community Centers or Federation; our fundraising is above what it’s been," she said. (Under Lehrer’s management, ADL’s local budget has grown from $2 million to $6 million.) "David has been one of the shining lights of the ADL. He’s very well respected and has done a lot of innovative programs; he works well with the big communities in Los Angeles, the black and Latino communities. I don’t know who we would get to replace him that would do anywhere near as well."
Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Hollywood of which Lehrer has been a member for nearly a decade, said he hoped to see the national lay leadership reverse the decision and reinstate Lehrer.
"This is a shonda [outrage]. I think Abe Foxman has done a great disservice to the Jewish community and the greater Los Angeles community as well by making this arbitrary decision," said Rosove, himself a member of the local ADL board.
Outside of the ADL leadership, there were similar responses. "I was surprised to hear the news. He was a very good contact person, very helpful," said Deputy Consul for the Israeli Consulate Zvi Vapni, with whom Lehrer was working on a project to send a delegation of local Latino leaders to Israel. "Usually with any leader in a community one hears good things and bad things, but with David we never heard anything bad. We hope to see him working in another capacity in this city; we can’t imagine otherwise."
Lehrer attributed some of the situation to a disconnect between East and West Coast management.
"I think there is a clear divide, especially in Jewish organizations, between New York and the West Coast," he said. "Most of the heads of Jewish organizations in New York think it’s the center of the universe, the font of all wisdom. They don’t realize the diversity in our population and the demographic shifts that have occurred with the huge movement of Jews to California and the Sun Belt. New York is not the be-all and end-all of the Jewish world as it once was, but their thinking hasn’t caught up with reality."
Gerald Bubis, founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service, and a well-known authority on Jewish agencies, agrees that the East-West divide is a serious issue.
The same issue played a role when the Los Angeles regional chapter of the American Jewish Congress split from the national organization in March 1999 and transformed itself into the independent Progressive Jewish Alliance.
"It’s all about power and where it should be located," Bubis said. "A national office expects and wants its regional offices to raise money and feed money back to it. The regional office in turn wants more and more of its power to remain in the regional office. This is true of any organizational system in the world, private or public, for- or nonprofit. The question becomes centered on what is the separation of authority and responsibility. That’s what I imagine this whole situation is about."
But many lay leaders and outside supporters see Lehrer’s dismissal, as one source put it, as "ego run amok," and blame Foxman. As evidence, they cite Foxman’s own publicity, which quotes The Forward newspaper calling him "the closest thing the American Jewish Community has to the pope."
Foxman was roundly criticized last January when it was revealed he had written a letter to then-President Bill Clinton on behalf of fugitive financier Marc Rich. ADL board members said Foxman did not consult with them before writing the letter. Foxman later said that backing Rich had been a mistake.
According to a source close to the ADL leadership, Lehrer had never received a negative employee review from his superiors. "There’s no paper trail" of dissatisfaction, said the source.
Rosove said no matter what the cause behind Lehrer’s dismissal, the perception is damaging. "The Anti-Defamation League is the preeminent organization in the Jewish community," he said. " It is a public organization run by lay leaders, not the private property of Abe Foxman. The Jewish community must behave in ways that bring honor to itself and no one — not synagogues, not The Federation — operates this way. It shows a tremendous ethical lapse on [Foxman’s] part."
Others who have known the two men for decades say both have been valuable to the organization.
"Mr. Lehrer has been an outstanding leader," said Judge Bruce Einhorn, an active member of both the national and regional ADL boards and current chair of the Valley Advisory Board. "He was always there for us. David was not just a good leader but a good adviser," he said. "The same can be said of Abe Foxman. I’ve enjoyed the same confidence and creativity on the national level as well as the local level and that is very rare."
Some say the relationship between Foxman and Lehrer has been a troubled one for some time. In December, the ADL here honored Lehrer at its annual tribute dinner. It was, say ADL staffers, one of the organization’s most financially successful banquets ever. Foxman did not attend.
"David was far more independent than other regional directors," said Jerry Shapiro, who worked for Lehrer as an associate director from 1987 to 1997. "He wasn’t a civil servant, but a true Jewish community leader, and in that way distinguished himself from other directors who followed the party line. David was never afraid to take a stand. He was extremely eloquent and gave issues deep and thoughtful analysis. When he was on radio or quoted in the press, we were very glad to have him on our side."
Shapiro paints a picture of Lehrer as a man devoted both to his cause and to his staff. When a few years into his tenure at the ADL Shapiro began attending law school, Lehrer, an attorney, gave his full support even though it meant eventually losing an employee. Like others interviewed for the story, Shapiro commented on Lehrer’s ability to make both staff and lay people feel like a family.
"He and his own family are extremely close; they get together every Shabbos, and they all take vacations together. He was a family man and for his staff, family matters came first. He was as generous, as gracious and as thoroughly decent as anyone you could hope to work for," Shapiro said. "That’s why this is so upsetting. It’s really contemptuous and undignified treatment of a man who’s spent his life on the front lines of the Los Angeles Jewish community and the ADL."
Myrna Shinbaum, spokeswoman for the ADL’s national office, issued a terse statement that appeared in last week’s Jewish Journal. She said Foxman was on vacation and "it was unlikely" he would be able to answer questions. "Recognizing the importance and needs of the Los Angeles community … we are undertaking steps to strengthen our leadership," read part of the statement. "To this end … Lehrer will be leaving the league."
Many of Lehrer’s supporters saw the statement itself as a slap to a man who had served the ADL long and well, they said.
Lehrer, who has the distinction of being one of only three men in the past 55 years to hold the position of Pacific Southwest regional director, will be the first of those not to choose his own successor. Ironically, Lehrer and his former boss, Harvey Schechter, recently spoke about how unusual the ADL is in this respect.
"We talked about it, how you normally don’t get that kind of longevity in the Jewish community," Schechter said. "There was a congeniality within the League; even with the lay people you were a member of the family."
Schechter said he was at a loss to explain what happened between Lehrer and the national office.
"I don’t know why it was done or done that way," he said. "I can understand a top CEO saying to a regional director, ‘Look, you’re not my cup of tea but because you’ve been working so hard and so long, let’s help you exit gracefully. You look for a job and in six months we’ll hold a big tribute dinner and say goodbye.’ I don’t understand this summary termination. I hope to God it doesn’t hurt David and I hope to God it doesn’t hurt the ADL."
How Lehrer’s dismissal will affect the local organization is still unclear. Transition details have not been disclosed.
Meanwhile, regional president Katz, the lay leader counterpart to Lehrer, said she has assurances from the national board that when the time comes to choose a replacement for the director, the regional board members will have a say in the decision. She said her primary job at the moment is panic control.
"Any stories of machinations are ridiculous and should be put to rest," Katz wrote in a prepared statement. "The world is in the midst of a very turbulent time and ADL is needed more than ever."
Whoever replaces Lehrer will certainly find the job challenging, Einhorn said.
"He or she has big shoes in which to step," the lay leader said. "Our next regional director will be confronting arguably the most complex demographic community in the United States. They will have to administer the ADL’s second largest office and so will need to be someone with a talent for enhancing and maintaining the morale of the staff; someone who will maintain lay involvement and who can reach out and work with government leaders to enhance the position held by the Jewish community on issues like separation of church and state. They will also need to be able to communicate with [other minority groups] to advance the human rights agenda connected with the Jewish agenda. Coalition-building is everything in Los Angeles. Abe has done that superbly on a national level and Dave on a local level, and whoever follows Dave will have to have that ability as well.
"I wish that person a great deal of mazal."