Failure in Chicago

[eJP note: The following opinion piece is in response to Looking Beneath the Surface in Chicago and the various responses in the comment section of the post.]

by Michael Lipkowitz

As shocking as this story may be elsewhere, the truth is that it doesn’t surprise anyone who has been involved as a lay leader in Chicago at an agency or project “owned” by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JFMC). This is typical behavior for a professional leadership team that operates a cabal over everything Jewish in Chicago.

Just read the documents posted here (or read more related documents on and you’ll quickly gain a sense of which side proceeded cautiously over many years with futile attempts at engaging the other in conversation and which side chose a strategy of denial and deceit. The problems pointed out by the Newberger Hillel Board are at least a decade years old and have been raised over and over by their staff and board (I know one of Hillel’s recent staff members who expressed his extreme frustration with JFMC employees ignoring attempts to talk about some of these financial issues).

The problems here seem definitely to be of JFMC’s making. If you know any of the usual suspects at JFMC, you know that they are excellent at deflecting responsibility and skilled at making accusations, pointing fingers, and belittling agency staff and lay leadership for having the audacity to question their judgment. It is still very unclear why a cabal of individuals who have very thin credentials and qualifications for the work they do seem to think they are above question. Just look at the tone of Aaron Cohen’s comment or read Harvey Barnett’s letter to “firing” the Newberger Hillel Board on the tumblr blog I linked above. No humility. No acknowledgment of past error. No apologies. Those I have spoken to cannot recall one time that JFMC has owned up to a mistake or issued an apology.

This is a cultural issue. This is a class of mandarin bureaucrats who are mis-managing the resources of a major US Jewish community and have been getting away with it for a long time. If you are a donor to JMFC, you may want to check to make sure that you’re endowment held at JFMC isn’t being drawn down at 9.4%. From what I understand, few if any of the Newberger Hillel endowment donors were aware of this fact, mostly because JFMC claims it is under no obligation to provide endowment reports to agencies it “owns” since it “owns” their endowments too.

What JFMC needs is an outsider to come in and clean house. What we see inside JFMC now is a culture that is corrupted from within. It has lost sight of the mission-based conversation (such as “How do we best serve the people we support?”) and has instead dwelled on how to centralize its control in terms of stewarding the community’s resources (which this dispute attests that it does so poorly in such a fashion that should give any of its donors major pause). Instead of rearranging the deck chairs at the top (JFMC has a classic promote-from-within organizational culture), which it has been doing for years in preparation for Dr. Steven Nasatir’s retirement (which for some reason has been talked about but hasn’t yet happened for 5+ years) after over 25 years of service, its Board should get serious about their governance responsibilities and supervise its staff more closely. Chairman Skip Schrayer and the JFMC Board are completely asleep behind the wheel and are losing the trust of not only current leaders in the Jewish community but also the next generation on college campuses like the University of Chicago.

Fun Fact: Dan Libenson’s “boss” is a fellow named John Lowenstein who made the decision to “fire” Dan and the Newberger Hillel Board. John was announced in this position after a big deal was made about finding the right candidate by retaining an executive search firm to conduct a national search. Instead, JFMC came up with John Lowenstein, who had no prior professional experience working in Jewish education, Hillel, non-profit organizations, or anything related whatsoever. In fact, his prior experience was working for his father-in-law’s company, SportsMart, which was a sporting goods retailer. It just so happens that his father-in-law is also a major JFMC contributor. John was on the job for about six months before making the decision to blow-up the University of Chicago Hillel.

Incidentally, I’ve heard from quite a few people in the community that John Lowenstein was happy to have a job that would allow him to “coast to retirement.” Really? This is the person who fired Dan Libenson and the Newberger Hillel Board? They certainly weren’t looking to coast to retirement. They, by all evidence above, seem committed to the students they serve – above and beyond just having a job. The students – and the Jewish future – deserve better than a patronage appointee as the professional leader of The Hillels of Illinois (if it should even continue to exist at all!)

JFMC has failed to explain how this “idiosyncratic model” or “hegemony” that it runs in Chicago provides better organizational value to the students and campuses Hillel serves. It’s clear from their point of view that they think it provides better value to their donors. But does JFMC exist to serve its donors? If so, do its donors really understand the operating culture of the organization they support?

If you’re a JFMC donor, do yourself a favor. Next time some nice person from their campaign department tells you how important it is to contribute, ask them tough questions about how they actually “support” agencies. Today, Newberger Hillel donors are horrified to learn how JFMC had been stealing through questionable “pricing-transfer mechanisms” mentioned above by Matthew Klionsky from an organization that was near and dear to them for over 70 years.

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  1. Richard Wexler says

    Dear Dan,

    This scurrilous piece, while citing numerous “source materials” but evidently having read only those that attack Federation, is wholly without merit written by someone who knows nothing about the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago or, for that matter, anything about the relationship between the Hillels on the campuses in Illinois and their relationship to Federation. Mr. Lipkowitz is “studying English and Creative Writing” — it’s clear that he has the “Creative Writing” down pat — so “creative” as to be in reckless disregard for the truth.

    Over its proud history the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago has earned the trust of its donors, the national and international Jewish community and, other than at the University of Chicago, the trust of the Hillel Advisory Boards throughout Illinois. Innovative facilities management has saved the Hillels $100s of thousands over the course Federation facilities management while campus programming has remained in the hands of campus Advisory Boards. This Federation is a vibrant example of the best that a community can be, with a lay-professional partnership unequaled elsewhere. To suggest otherwise evidences the author’s bias.

    If one reads the underlying materials, as Lipkowitz has not, the reader would understand that the federation conducted itself with respect and that its attempts at mitigating in a hostile environment created by others including its employee, found itself stymied at each turn. The only “cabal” here is the one that the “leadership” whose roles were terminated attempted to create.

    The personal attacks on John Lowenstein are beneath contempt, without basis in fact and, no doubt, known to Lipkowitz to be totally without merit. But, then again, so is the totality of the author’s attack on the Jewish Federation.

    Richard Wexler

  2. Dan Brown says

    Richard, thanks for your insight. As often the case, we all tend to filter information by our own preducies and therefore will interrupt the same information differently. As the case with Chicago, as I indicated in the first posting on the dispute, “The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago is a strong, proud federation that does meaningful work not only locally but globally.” I stand by that comment. But this very public controversy with Hillel, regardless of the merits, is, at the very least, a public relations disaster that the Federation itself has created. The incredibly poor timing of their actions – immediately pre-Pesach, and what, six weeks prior to the end of the school year? – only adds fuel to the fire.

  3. Anonymous says

    I’ve actually heard the same things about John Lowenstein myself. But I can understand why others might wish to rush to defend their friend or colleague out of blind loyalty.

    I’m also not sure why Mr. Wexler came to the conclusion Mr. Lipkowitz didn’t read the documents. I did, including the comments in the editorial that is linked at the top of this piece. It seems like Mr. Lipkowitz’s claims about the dispute are all reasonable conclusions which can be argued, especially if you read the post from Mr. Klionsky and the letter rebutting charges of “mismanagement” from the Newberger Hillel Board. There are a littany of problems that JFMC seemed to be negligent towards for over a decade. Mr. Wexler should refrain from insulting people who study creative writing as this is unbecoming. Many very smart people are novelists and essayists.

    Mr. Wexler and his friends or colleagues at the Jewish Federation can continue to assert the cost savings that Federations Facilities Corp has created for Hillel. But it’s just plainly not true according to the evidence provided by Hillel. $13,000 for constructing a sukkah with a labor team is well above market-rates so cost savings sounds like a lot of bologny. You can’t keep repeating claims without evidence, which is what Hillel has provided and JFMC has failed to… for what seems like years.

    This is truly an “emperor has no clothes” moment in the Chicago community.

  4. jewcomprofessional says

    It is SHAMEFUL that Jewish organizational MANAGEMENT still has jobs at the Federation, and indeed, that the Federation professionals consider their “jobs” to be damage control and media manipulation. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE fire the top 5 paid people and use the salaries to help the college kids get real leadership.

    The real tragedy: how are we suppose to encourage a new generation of professionals to join the field when the “leaders” are SO amoral and immoral? In the real world these leaders would have been fired long ago…. This is why the younger generation has stopped giving to the Federation movement. And I can’t blame them. But I can blame the Federation management. My Request: please quit your jobs and to help the community at large.

  5. jrskeen says

    I iive far from Chicago, but have encountered both Dan Libenson and John Lowenstein in separate Jewish work. This story is disheartening, but not surprising. Federations are under pressure to articulate how they invest our resources and use their power; it is inspiring to see most embracing innovation and using collaborative leadership. I spent 2 days at a conference with Dan and found his innovative thinking, pluralistic approach and intellect inspiring. A few months later I spent 45 minutes in a meeting with John, who’s approach felt more “Chicago Machine” than “New Federation”. While his abrupt style and disinterest didn’t bother me that much, I did feel badly for the bright, enthusiastic young professionals in the room who I’m guessing joined JUF to help make the Jewish community more vibrant.

    Mr. Lowenstein may have had a bad day, but the work at the U of Chicago Hillel the last 6 years suggests a lot has gone right there; it would seem new Jewish professionals like Mr. Lowenstein would be well served to listen and collaborate before they start shooting.

  6. says

    The issues surrounding the University of Chicago Hillel deserve discussion and debate. This debate has been happening in a thoughtful way in the University of Chicago student newspaper.

    What concerns me, however, are the personal attacks and blatant inaccuracies in this article. The personal attacks–charges of “deceit,” of being “completely asleep behind the wheel” and using personal relationships to find a job in which to “coast to retirement”–are unbecoming to eJewish philanthropy and anyone who cares about strengthening Jewish life.

    They also blatantly violate the core Jewish value of avoiding lashon harah, malicious talk, which is the focus of rabbinic commentary on this week’s Torah portion. They are also simply untrue. Even as small a detail as the years of professional service by JUF’s President Dr. Steven Nasatir, is inaccurate. (He has served our community for almost 40 years, not 25) To paraphrase the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mr. Lipkowitz is entitled to his opinion. He is not entitled to his own facts.

    Mr. Lipkowitz also seems to make a distinction between the donors of JUF and the community it serves. The two are one and the same. The community are its donors, and the its donors lead the agencies and organizations that sustain the community! Mr. Lifkowitz’s charge is particularly counter-productive in the case of Illinois Hillel’s, since JUF’s support of Hillel provides meaningful Jewish life from students across the United States and the world. In other words, students who are not remotely connected to Chicago are supported by Chicago’s JUF through Hillel.

    No organization is perfect, and as a young rabbi, I know that my generation yearns for greater personal involvement and leadership. We are often attracted to small organizations and philanthropies in which we can play a larger role. I also recognize that only through a united community fund can we assure that families are fed, job counseling is provided, schools are supported, and community is built.

    In an era of diminished communal giving, Chicago is unique in receiving support from a significant percentage of our population. Rather than detract from its mission by engaging in supercilious personal attacks, let’s focus on continuing to strengthen our sacred community.

  7. Dan Brown says

    “This debate has been happening in a thoughtful way in the University of Chicago student newspaper.”

    Sorry Rabbi, but I disagree. The most recent article that appears through a search of The Chicago Maroon was published April 13th, and Ms. Miller’s comments could almost pass as a press release for JUF.

    A second article appearing the same day, Losing a spiritual center, gets to the heart of the matter – something I’ve yet to see JUF address in public, or in private:

    “Finally and perhaps most importantly, the decision to remove Libenson and the Board ignores the will of the very students Hillel is meant to support and serve. Because of the unique nature of Hillel in the state of Illinois, the JUF ultimately is responsible for making decisions about how Hillel is run. In other words, the JUF can do whatever it wants with its own money. However, I believe it’s uncontroversial to say that the primary goal of Hillel at UChicago is to provide religious and cultural resources to Jewish students. In fact, the official mission of Hillel, taken from its Web site, is to “enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students.” We can logically conclude that the JUF should deal swiftly with administrators who don’t meet that goal. Yet all evidence points to the decision to remove Libenson as a primarily economic and administrative one.”

    JUF may be the owners of Hillel and that certainly gives them certain power to replace staff etc. But JUF – by everything they themselves have said and made publicdoes not appear to have had the interests of the students even in their mindset. And this is the real tragedy.

  8. Lee Solomon says

    I don’t think any one believes that the JUF is a bad organization or doesn’t provide worthwhile community services. I think the question is whether JUF’s “idiosyncratic” model of central planning and command and control–in which Hillel is just a microcausm–is actually the best model for the delivery of goods and services to the community. This is the larger question that really needs to be discussed.

    The current JUF leadership clearly believes that the old way is the right way, which is unfortunate to young people it would desperately like to engage because provides inadequate funding and interest to new projects that are experiments in market-based innovation. Every time this has been tried independent of Federation in Chicago, Federation tries to absorb the organization because of the supposed “economies of scale” it provides to donors as a centrally planned organization. Again, this is a governing philosophy that it believes serves donors, but may hardly be the case for mission innovation and entrepreneurship.

    I think it’s good that someone call attention and focus on the JUF leadership and Board. First, does this old “Chicago Way” model of organizing the city’s resources truly the best delivery mechanism for providing Jewish experiences to people in the community? If so, is there any actual evidence and comparative analysis that this approach is working (other than in dollars collected from donors)?

    Second, if this model isn’t working, is the current leadership team the right team in place to make reforms to the system? I think the answer here is clearly not, if only because of it’s inflexibility on matters of policy and approach as evidenced by all their correspondence in this dispute with the University of Chicago Hillel.

    Smart organizations invest in innovative people and innovative projects. Then they take their hands away and let them succeed or fail on their own. The Jewish Federation of Chicago may have a proud history, but it can’t rest on its laurels if it likewise wants to have a proud future.

    In full disclosure: I used to work for Dan Libenson at the University of Chicago Hillel.

  9. Sara Segal Loevy says

    Rabbi Moffic and Richard Wexler express displeasure at the comments on John Lowenstein’s capabilities, labeling the comments as lashon ha’rah. Both writers overlook, however, the letter signed by Harvey Barnett on behalf of JFMC which dismissed the Board of Directors of Hillel for, among other things, “Your utter refusal to engage in any constructive discussion of fiscal responsibility…”. Such an observation, made public when JFMC posted it on the Newberger Hillel website, is also interpreted as lashon ha’rah. We who sat on that board are also committed members of the Jewish community, serving on synagogue boards, on day school boards, on JCC boards, etc, setting policy, running capital campaigns and Kol Nidrei appeals, reorganizing Jewish education, working to keep our institutions fiscally healthy and open to change and new ideas. To suggest that we are fiscally irresponsible is a shameful public accusation.

  10. Tom Ginsburg says

    With all due respect to Rabbi Moffic, I disagree with his equation of the Jewish community with its donors: “The community are its donors, and its donors lead the agencies and organizations that sustain the community.” Of course, there are many committed Jews who aren’t donors, many donors who aren’t committed Jews, and many ways of contributing to the Jewish community that aren’t financial.

    It is sometimes said that the golden rule is that whoever has the gold rules. That seems to be what has gone on in this case, pure and simple. The JFMC should be ashamed of its behavior.

  11. Aposhi Teryid says

    Rabbi Moffic may have meant to say that Federation’s constituency is its donor base, but the community it is mandated to serve extends far beyond its contributors.

    Federation’s heavy-handed approach to communal affairs and support of agencies regardless of impact or results is an upside-down approach. It may have been relevant when Daley Sr. was in office and could unleash a ‘police riot,’ but it doesn’t fly in the age of #occupy.

    Lipkowitz’s rant may be just that, but we can forgive his anger and frustration toward JUF, to which in this case as a U of C student he seems justified. A community leader like Wexler, however, should be above it and reflects the arrogance of both JUF staff and lay leadership.

    Klionsky’s revelations are eye opening and demand answers. As the shock waves are going through our community, we must ask ourselves what other sinister dealings are at work on South Wells?

    More importantly, we must ask the Federation, and for a change, some answers are due. The culture of kingship in Chicago must end.

    JUF: the whole Jewish world is watching and you have been found wanting. Open your books for a sweeping audit or watch as agency after agency begins to demand its independents. U of Chicago HIllel will be just the start.