Among the Greatest
By Sherri W. Morr
Last week Merv Lemmerman died. A few weeks before that Ruby Bubis passed away, following her husband Gerry Bubis by less than a year. Ted Kanner died in 2011. Who were these people? They were the professional leadership in Los Angeles, and known internationally as innovators in creating Jewish community. They were successful by creating professional organizations, establishing Jewish priorities and most importantly recruiting the right leadership and developing such relationships to make their work effective to the extent they were almost like prophets.
I met them all as a young graduate student at Hebrew Union College in the program known then as Jewish Communal Service, and now considered the fore runner to Jewish Non Profit Management in several colleges and universities across the United States. While Lemmerman and Kanner worked diligently to open opportunities for serving Jewish community needs in Los Angeles, Jerry and Ruby Bubis created a class of professionals that was educated, tutored and mentored to work in Jewish organizations especially federations and JCCs, all institutions where these people started out.
I would say they had a calling. In the early 1970s it became somewhat apparent that there were Jews, mainly elderly, some even Holocaust survivors that were poor, right here in prestigious Los Angeles where the sun shined almost every day and a Mercedes was the automobile of choice. The elderly did not have enough money to buy food and pay their rent and to make matters worse they were often too embarrassed to seek help. It fell to the leadership of the federation to create a task force, complete a study and determine it was a shanda for our elders to live in such a manner. The consequence was a proliferation of meal sites, counseling both legal and emotional, and ultimately multipurpose centers providing a supermarket of services to allay serious needs of the elderly. Who paid for this? Federation did and a cast of volunteers were recruited to staff many of the sites. Many of them using this experience to return to college and attain professional degrees. What a win-win … just one example of their leadership and their vision.
They were among the greatest. There were others of course who made their mark in our community but what worries me most is that these visionaries are gone and I would posit that their replacements somehow do not have their exact calling. Kanner, Bubis, and Lemmerman were all social workers by training. They believed in process, in being open, and nonjudgmental, and most fervently they believed in a strong democratic Israel. They did not understand nongivers. How can they not give they would lament? They became impatient and created new models for involvement so people could learn to give. What a concept we thought at the time. It seemed audacious; we would actually teach people how and why they should give their money away? Where was that theory? Well Bubis was a master at it. It was the social workers dream to be able to come up with why you should give, how it would make you happy to be so benevolent, and there was even a component to teach future generations. No wonder non Jewish nonprofits and universities thought the Jews were masters at this fundraising business. Suddenly talking about money was cool, even encouraged! People stood up at community dinners and proudly announced their donations were twice what they were last year. Universities wanted to model such behaviors, and did.
Kanner, Bubis, and Lemmerman came from a JCC model. They knew the drill … show the need, and people would come. All 3 worked at JCCs and opened doors to living Jewishly. If you could exercise in a Jewish facility, you might even send your children to their nursery school, the day camp, and maybe as a result of that join a shule, then go to Israel … the rest was history. They embodied Jewish life in their lives and their practice. Some of their own children even followed in their footsteps and became innovators as well.
Merv Lemmerman was unique; he had an ability to mentor new young staff even when they were not aware he was teaching them something. He was kind, giving and patient, except when he was not, and his frustration showed. He was the executive director at the Orange County Jewish Federation when it was fraught with everything but sex, lies and videotapes. He started young leadership programs in LA and ran the regional (then known as suburban services) offices to outlying areas of Los Angeles. He may not have used the concept of the big tent, but he certainly instituted the details of it. And then he created an opportunity where he went into communities all over the United States to be an interim federation director for struggling federations. He and his amazing wife Sydelle lived in a lot of places, calmed down the leadership, and aided them into going back to their roots of serving the Jewish people opposed to creating havoc amongst personalities.
Ted Kanner was the federation director in Los Angeles from 1978 to 1986. In those years among other things he embraced Israel like no one I had ever seen. I first heard him speak about Project Renewal a new program of twinning Israel neighborhoods in disrepair with federations in the United States. He came to embody those programs and it was a watershed moment in LA support of Israel. Some of those projects are ongoing today. Kanner was a short man with a dark beard, but he was tough, and very thoughtful. He only ate one meal a day and many thought, “Gee what’s wrong with this guy?” The Women’s Department especially was uncomfortable when he attended their luncheons and only had coffee. But that was Kanner and his little idiosyncrasies had little to do with his being short, or the fact that he made you a tiny bit uncomfortable so you listened more succinctly or watched more carefully. He was one to emulate.
And then there was Gerry Bubis founder of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College. He went about projecting the skill and dedication of staff at federations, JCC’s, synagogues, and Jewish agencies. He desired for us all to consider ourselves change agents: learned professionals who lived Jewish lives and helped our leadership do the same. It was fine to be a president of a board but how you interacted with paid staff was equally a required responsibility of leadership. His curriculum was more than Jewish history or Jewish text. It was case studies of whether to remove a photo of a past president who might have acted illegally or unethically; it was a discussion of whether a cafe at the JCC should be open on Shabbat, or whether the JCC itself should be open on Shabbat. He added credibility to the work of fundraising and planning events, of taking people to Israel, and to stand up for a democratic Israel and change that might be uncomfortable but necessary. His wife Ruby helped us answer the hard questions and dilemmas they put before us. I think because he was so tall and large in stature he thought we should all act as tall and as secure in our own vision. I recall one lecture where he challenged the lay leadership to consider the staff as partners, not handlers. Not the people who did the simple tasks like stuffing the envelopes and ordering the cake, but as full partners who strategized the logic and created the nuances to attract attention to Israel and Jewish continuity. There was nothing trivial about interacting with Gerry Bubis.
I smile when I think of them, the memories, the stories, the shared frustrations and the challenges; I am so saddened they are no longer leading the charge but surely I believe they are watching closely from above.
Sherri has spent the last several decades working & consulting in nonprofit management, both in and out of the Jewish community. Currently she is the Director for the West Coast Region of American Society of University of Haifa. Prior to this she was director for the Western States for Jewish National Fund.