January 17, 2019

‘Now I Am a Builder’: Sanderson Reflects on How Federation Has Changed Him

Eight years into his tenure as CEO and president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jay Sanderson says he is a changed man. Indeed, he seems more restrained, mature and reflective than the eager, young entrepreneur who succeeded John Fishel.

“People knew me before as very passionate, a guy who would make up things as I go along,” Sanderson said. “I walked around with a bomb in my pocket, ready to blow up things.”

A vastly different — but still passionate — Sanderson recently visited the Journal’s offices for a wide-ranging discussion with the staff.

He wrapped his personal journey into a tidy eight-word package: “Now I am a builder, not a destroyer.”

Federation has changed, too. “Our work is dramatically different from before,” he said.

Emphases and directions have changed.

“The Federation does not define Judaism, but it provides entryways and roadmaps into the Jewish community,” Sanderson said. “We are uniquely positioned. I want entryways to be meaningful not just to the person but to the Jewish community.”

Sanderson said he sought the CEO position because, “I was concerned about the future of the Jewish people.”

Federation in 2009 was “struggling and in decline,” he said. “When I started to dig in, it wasn’t at all what I had expected.”

“The Federation does not define Judaism, but it provides entryways and roadmaps into the Jewish community.” — Jay Sanderson

Today, he said, “the Federation is not what it used to be — an umbrella of beneficiary agencies. We used to run the Jewish Journal and Jewish Family Service.”

When he was hired, he said, the Federation board resembled the acutely partisan U.N. General Assembly, “which is tremendously dysfunctional.”

He likened his task to “turning around a battleship in a dry river — taking a 100-year-old-plus organization, making it limber and focusing on new goals.”

Sanderson believes he approaches his agenda differently than the CEOs of the other 140 federations across the United States.

“I look at the Jewish Federation locally and globally,” he said, “and I try to figure out what solutions we can bring. When you start thinking that way, everything changes.

“I look at the community as a big tent of many choices. You no longer are concerned about an individual, but about the Jewish community. Who you hire changes. How you invest money changes. How you raise money changes.”

As for hiring, Sanderson is not shopping for specialists. “I am not running a widget factory,” he said. “I want someone who can envision the whole automobile.”

Establishing and nurturing relationships is a fascinating component of his agenda.

“We are bringing organizations to the table that do similar things but never talk to each other,” he said.

But Federation is not recruiting marching bands or posting billboards to declare victories. “The best advocacy is advocacy that is neither seen nor heard,” he said.

Asked what most exasperated him, Sanderson said: “I always am frustrated with national and international issues.”

The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, reportedly popular on a large number of college campuses, is hugely overblown, Sanderson asserts. “It certainly is not the No. 1 issue on campuses, not as big as the yelling and screaming have made it out to be.”

As for Federation’s more neutral role, Sanderson said, “We meet you where you are. We greet you. We embrace you.”

When Sanderson talked about how the rewired Jewish Federation is called on to make “Solomon-esque decisions,” he cited two specific categories.

“More Holocaust survivors are alive today than expected — thank God — but we have fewer resources to serve them.

“For people who are struggling, we are a safety net for the Jewish community.”

With significant Medicaid cuts potentially on the horizon, “we are feeling pressured,” Sanderson said. Even after placing impoverished people with a social worker, reaching resolutions is more complicated than this formula may sound.

Sanderson proudly noted that his Federation was the first in the country to commit to a partnership with Honeymoon Israel, the Birthright-like group that sends couples in the first five years of their relationship to Israel. Now it “has a massive waiting list,” he said.

Asked about the state of Judaism in contemporary America, Sanderson said, “My job is to make it more relevant” — a colossal task in any Jewish community, but especially in Los Angeles, where Federation’s territory covers 5,000 square miles.

Although Sanderson spoke about his third major restructuring across a disparate community with many disconnections, some rudiments remain permanently in place.

“The Federation is the 9-1-1 for Jews in trouble, whether it’s people who can’t pay their rent or institutions that are not raising enough money,” said Sanderson, who spends considerable time advising both public and private organizations.

As for the future, “Twenty-five years from now, our Jewish community is going to be drastically different. Among the non-Orthodox, the strong, large synagogues will survive the change. I don’t think the small and medium-sized will be around, though.”

What will replace them? Sanderson spoke of “seeing new kinds of sacred spaces. My generation has more resources than our parents’ generation. But the next generation will not.”

Sanderson made it a priority to address Jewish life on college campuses, leading Federation into a new relationship with Hillel. The partnership infused major sparks of Jewish life into three San Fernando Valley campuses: Cal State Northridge, Pierce College and Valley College. Twice as many Jewish students attend those colleges as USC and UCLA, he said.

At the outset, he was told he was entering the loneliest job of his life. Not so, “but it has been the most frustrating,” he said.

In his ninth year, Sanderson is growing.

“Open as I am, this job has taught me I have to be much more strategic, much more thoughtful than I ever thought I would be,” he said.

“I believe more in the Jewish people than I did before. I believe we have a future. I am more committed to the community than I was eight years ago. I also am far more worried than I was about how to get from here to there.”