Doron Krakow reflects on seven chaotic years steering the JCC Association

In a wide-ranging interview, the outgoing president and CEO of the JCC Assocation says the organization is transitioning from a trade group to a movement and building its relationship with philanthropy

For the past seven years, Doron Krakow has led the Jewish Community Center Association of North America — through a rash of bomb threats, a pandemic and the post-Oct. 7 rise of both antisemitism and Jewish interest in Israel and Judaism — as he sought to change the organization from what he describes as a “trade association” into a coherent movement built on common principles and goals. 

Last Monday, Krakow announced that he was stepping down as president and CEO of the organization. For most of the past five months, Krakow has been living in Israel, helping his daughter-in-law care for his grandson as his son, Daniel, has been serving in the Israel Defense Forces as a reservist in the war against Hamas in Gaza. While he continued serving as president and CEO of the association during that time, he determined that beyond the logistical difficulties of leading a North American organization from abroad, he began to feel more connected to and interested in the challenges facing Israel at this time.

Krakow sat down with eJewishPhilanthropy on the sidelines of the Jewish Funders Network conference in Tel Aviv for a wide-ranging discussion about his seven-year, crises-filled tenure at the JCC Association, the role that JCCs can play in strengthening the Jewish community, early childhood education and how to build a movement with all carrots and not sticks.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Judah Ari Gross: How, why and when did you make the decision to step down? 

Doron Krakow: I came to Israel in August ahead of the birth of my first grandson. My wife and I returned to the States on October 6th after staying through the Chagim to be with the kids. Both my daughter-in-law and my son don’t have any immediate family here. We went home on the 6th. By midday on the 7th. [my son] Aaron had been recalled to active duty. That night he was already in Kfar Aza. By noon on the 8th, I got on a plane to come back. The baby was seven weeks old. And the prospect of having [my daughter-in-law and grandson] by themselves while Aaron was in a bad place was unthinkable for me. So I was here essentially until the end of January. I went back to the States for business meetings two days before his unit rotated out of Gaza — to our great relief. But when I went back [to the U.S.] in January, I assumed it was temporary. 

I went back to the intensive evolving work of the JCC field contending with its latest crisis, which is the post-Oct. 7 rise in antisemitism and the challenges of running a big tent Jewish communal entity. I threw myself back into the work but began feeling that my heart is here. That even though my son is at this point not on active duty, my desire for my wife and I to be more supportive of him and his family at this time felt increasingly significant. And though I continue to love the work and love the JCC field and feel as if we’ve made remarkable progress as an agency and a movement over the last seven years, the time had come for me to be able to devote myself more completely to Israel.

JAG: Was the time that you were here, I mean how was that for you, how was that being here, working from here, how was that sort of received in terms of you being here?

DK: I couldn’t imagine a more supportive board nor a more supportive staff. They understood my need to be here and they gave me every conceivable latitude. There’s a difference being far away versus being in the field. I felt that great distance from my constituents and I can’t help but imagine that they felt some distance from me. 

At the same time I tried very hard to use my time here to be an effective representative of the North American Jewish community. So I was very active in, I’ll call it a solidarity presence or a solidarity orientation. I tried to be physically present in places from the otef [Gaza border region] to the north. I tried to make sure that where it was possible for the JCC Movement to have voice and representation in support of the challenges that were taking place here that I wanted to be physically present. We have a wonderful office in Israel headed by Leah Garber and we began working on initiatives that would enable us to bring the field closer to the events that were happening here and vice versa.

And I tried to make myself as big a presence by way of Zoom at board meetings and staff functions of JCCs as I could. I learned very quickly the reality of being a North American staff person working out of Israel, which is that the work days are 16 to 20 hours long every day. I had my Israeli workday and then from 3 p.m. till midnight or up to 2 o’clock in the morning, that was the other half of the day. I felt very usefully engaged, but at the same time a little inadequate to the work. 

Being the leader of a movement with 172 locations has for me over the course of seven years always meant spending a lot of time in the field. And so the distance simply was challenging. 

When I went back and renewed my work with the field and with the staff and with the board, I was already asking questions about whether continuing to do the work in the way I knew it needed to be done was consistent with where I needed to be personally and professionally. And I entered into some long conversations with David Wax, the chair of my board, with Jen Mamlet, who’s been my right hand since 2018. And it became increasingly clear that I had come to a fork in the road, and if I was going to undertake a change, doing so sooner as opposed to later would allow the agency and the leadership to chart the course forward in a way that they believe is fundamentally in the best interest of the agency in the field. 

It would allow me to return to Israel sooner so that I could be closer to my family. And though I haven’t materially begun thinking about what my next professional role is going to be, I’m looking at it through the lens of knowing that I need to be anchored here and that the work needs to be anchored in Israel and with issues that I believe are growing out of the conflict that began on Oct. 7. It seems to me that both challenges and opportunities are going to grow immeasurably in the coming weeks and months, and I’ll be looking to find the way in which I can make the most substantive contribution here.

JAG: How do you see the JCC system today, especially as it relates to Israel? I have noticed that you and the JCC Association have put forward the issues of Israel and Jewish peoplehood. But different Jewish communities are in different places on the topic of Israel, and there are some communal leaders who want to bring the issue forward and others that don’t, who would rather avoid the politics and the differences of opinion altogether. Full disclosure: My mother is a former employee of the JCC in Asheville, N.C., who left her position over how the organization responded to some incidents revolving around Oct. 7 and more generally how it handles the topics of Israel and Zionism.

DK: Let me start by anchoring what I’m going to say with this: Just in the six weeks following Dec. 14, 118 JCCs hosted solidarity programs attended by more than 40,000 people. That’s a large majority when there are 172 JCCs. I’m not sure there’s any other sector in North American Jewish life that can make that claim. The JCC field has risen largely to the occasion of demonstrating its solidarity with Israel and leaning into the challenges that it’s facing when it comes to rapidly rising antisemitism in the United States and Canada. 

Now let me backtrack a bit. I came to this job seven years ago because I believe that in a period of alarmingly quick declines in participation in Jewish life, the JCCs — which have far and away the largest engagement with the most diverse population of Jews — offer the single most significant opportunity we have to move the needle. If JCCs could be enjoined to the idea that they have significant responsibility for greater Jewish community and measurable Jewish outcomes, they alone have size, scope and scale that would allow us to feel that there’s great potential there. And I came into this job believing fundamentally that engagement with Israel is a cornerstone of Jewish community and Jewish life no matter where you choose to live. And in my view the North American Jewish community has been woefully underperforming in making Israel an affirmative part of Jewish identity and Jewish life. 

So I was committed to bringing that ethos into the work in the JCC field. We have increased what I would call the level and volume of Israel engagement programming, and basically in every instance the field has not resisted. I would make the argument that the field was never opposed to being more committed and engaged to Israel, but because of the very razor thin margins on which JCC businesses operate, the embrace required them to do it in a way that would not result in compromises to the business. 

That is why the marriage with great philanthropy was to me the intoxicating allure: We have constituencies in scale; they have resources. They’re interested in strategic Jewish outcomes. We’re interested in strategic Jewish outcomes. And in the last seven years we’ve increased our engagement with philanthropy tenfold. We started small, but tenfold is a lot, particularly since great philanthropy doesn’t tend to move in lightning quick strides. So we’re on the road to doing that. 

My headline for the field is to the degree to which we can ease or incentivize their work on Jewish outcomes and on engagement with Israel, the field is generally open and receptive, and I can give you any number of instances that are stellar examples of progress. 

All of that having been said, the ‘big tent’ notion of Jewish Community Center life, coupled with the fact that the North American Jewish community is disproportionately not Orthodox and therefore disproportionately tilts liberal or progressive, has them having to wrestle now with a long-standing commitment to universalist causes that are consistent with the ethos of Jewish community and the increasingly particularistic needs of a Jewish community under duress. And it’s a wrestling match. And each JCC in its own way is trying now to figure out how to wrestle their way through it. For some, it’s very easy. For others, it’s much more complicated. 

JCCs are trying now to juxtapose the fact that they, by and large, are the single place that sees more expatriate Israelis than any institution in Jewish life, with the fact that the Israelis would like to see a much firmer and stronger stance on the part of JCCs than they’re seeing in some cases. That is a constructive tension as far as I’m concerned. For good or ill, until Oct. 6, we believed we were living in a society that embraced a Jewish community and Jewish life, so it’s a major shock to suddenly find that the world you thought you were living in doesn’t quite look and feel the way you thought that it did.

And these are not institutions that are typically subject to rapid change and shock. They are evolutionary institutions. And we’re now confronted by a sudden, shocking change in the environment for Jews in many Jewish communities in Canada and the United States, with a long-standing, gradualist approach to the evolution of the institution.

What we talked about when I gathered with 150 of the senior-most leaders in Denver at the beginning of February was the need to be more than simply successful operators of a continuing institution, but to rise to the moment required of us at a time of war in Israel and great strain on the North American Jewish community, and to embrace the fact that we’re going to have to wrestle our way through it. 

There isn’t a five-point plan that if everybody adopts, that’s how we do it because every community is quite different. Engaging this challenge and opening ourselves to the hard conversations that are going to take place means committing ourselves to the idea that we need to create far greater literacy about Israel and Jewish life on the part of our staff, on the part of our boards and on the part of the members and users of the JCC. It is a great opportunity, but it’s a really big lift. It will require resources, and it will require time, and it will require a readiness to take the slings and arrows that are going to come with it. And so we at the association are committed to bringing extraordinary resources to bear.

But are JCCs having to look at where they are with regard to their commitment to and engagement with Israel and hold it up to the light of day and affirm where they’re going to be? The answer is yes, and they should be.

JAG: How do you see the position of the movement more generally, after the bomb threats, the COVID crisis and where we are today? You mentioned increasing engagement with philanthropy.

DK: So let me offer a few things. First of all, at the time that I arrived at the association, of the 172 JCCs [in North America], only 111 were affiliated, and the number was dropping. Today, 160 are affiliated and the ones beyond the 160 are in most cases such small communities that it’s a matter of lacking time and energy, not that they’re not open to the idea.

I would like to argue that that’s a function of several things. For one, I think the association’s done a good job of bringing back entities that had at one time or another been part of our system and drifted away. Crisis brings people together. So when the bomb threats hit, we canceled the policy that said if you’re not a dues payer, we’re not interested in supporting you. We said, ‘It’s a security crisis. We support every JCC irrespective of whether you’re a dues payer or not.’ 

When COVID hit, we suspended the dues entirely because there was a financial crisis. JCCs operate on the basis of a revenue model that depends 80% on the users. We again said that whether or not you were a dues payer, you get every service that we offer. 

We turned to philanthropy to pay our bills and when we resumed dues, we resumed them voluntarily, which is where they stand still to this day. It’s not a panacea. But it allowed us to cast the net wide and our belief — the board and my staff — was that if we want to impact the trajectory of Jewish life in North America, we can’t afford not to work with every institution in our network. We’re not interested only in enhancing Jewish life in some communities. We’re interested in everywhere. 

Secondly, the JCC Association that I inherited had a reputation of not working and playing nicely with philanthropists outside of the circle of those who were on the board. 

JAG: Where do you think that reputation came from?

DK: First of all, it had evolved as a great trade association, which meant that when it needed more revenue, typically it raised the membership dues.

But that model has faded. Also, I think there was enough ‘firepower’ on the board that for some very materially creative and significant programmatic initiatives, they turned inward. So you had Mandel and the Jacobs family from San Diego and the Sidman-Leventhal family from Boston and the Kaplan family from D.C. There were some very serious people on the board, but it was insular. And when we reintroduced ourselves to the philanthropic community, it didn’t have any ‘muscle memory’ for working with us. And the memories they did have were that their interactions with us were not terribly fulfilling. So we said, well, let’s begin again. 

And what I presented to them was the opportunity: 172 JCCs that welcome a million and a half in-person visitors a week, a million of them Jews of every age background. There is no bigger opportunity, and therefore the chance to partner with us and to bring your strategic agenda to bear on our platform offers a great opportunity. So around early childhood engagement and family, around scholarships to bring more families into overnight and day camp programs, around JCC Maccabi, which is a unique peoplehood engine, around the recruitment of chaplains for the United States Armed Forces, around the engagement of military families. 

There have been a large number of very aspirational programs that have also served as the testing ground for demonstrating the viability of philanthropic investment across our platform. 

Marshall Levin is the chief philanthropic officer of JCC Association. He used to be the head of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science; they were raising $100 million a year. He came to work with us because he came to believe the vision that we have for a dramatically larger collaboration with philanthropy is the huge opportunity that we’re describing it as, and with him came reputation and credibility. We have become a board that almost never gets turned down by a candidate that we’d like to add. 

We have added some extraordinary people, including another attendee here [at the Jewish Funders Network conference], Sandy Cardin, who came on to our board in 2022, and has played an important role in guidance and in this philanthropic connectivity agenda of ours. I think we are primed for the next move.

JAG: One area of JCC-philanthropy cooperation that we at eJP have written about is the ElevatEd program, which looks to address the shortage of qualified early childhood education teachers. Why is that such a focus for the JCC Association? 

DK: I would say a few things about early childhood education. Number one, it is the preeminent gateway for the engagement of Jewish families with young children. Those who put their kids in a Jewish framework are in the hands of the Jewish community, and it’s on the Jewish community to keep them. Those who choose a non-Jewish framework are at risk of going into what I would call ‘Jewish witness protection.’ They disappear until such time as they choose to be identified. So our ability to capture the maximum number of those kids is a critical lever in the sustained engagement of their families. 

And there are thousands of families on our waiting list as a field. We’ve got Jewish families with young children banging on the doors trying to get in, and there’s no room at the end. And our problem is not an insufficient volume of classroom space — the problem is teachers. So ElevatEd grew out of work that Rick Jacobs [president of the Union for Reform Judaism] and I were doing in parallel on how to strengthen Jewish early childhood education. We saw a problem that we shared and we decided we’d go into business together to try to change it. And we have done so with the partnership of three mega foundations: the Jim Joseph Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, and the Samuels Foundation out of Houston. 

At the end of the day, [the teacher shortage] is only a matter of money, which is something for which we have a substantial supply. Very often the organized Jewish community spends time and huge investment trying to create demand for things that people don’t seem to be asking for. Here we’re talking about a thing that people are desperately in pursuit of, and it’s only a matter of our being able to create a matter of supply. 

JAG: Looking back at your time at the organization, are there things that you wish you had done or wish you’d started sooner?

DK: One, I would have liked some regular years to pursue the strategic agenda that we’ve been working on and not to constantly be trying to manage it in whatever the crisis of that particular moment was. I’ve worked in the Jewish community for more than thirty years. I have never experienced a period like these last seven years. I don’t know that we had any crises that rose to the level of each of these crises in the last seven years. So I would have liked some more regular time to be a builder. 

Two, I wish I had been more successful at animating great philanthropy more quickly. I conclude my seven years thinking that I could have done better on making this match more self-evident and on impressing more on the great foundation leaders to see the opportunity that I see here.

And three, the JCC Association has been a trade association through most of its history. And I have endeavored to help ease it into becoming more of a movement. We’ve made progress. To go from 111 and declining to 160 and growing is, I think, remarkable. 

But there’s strengthening the participation in a community, and then there’s creating a sense of alignment where the balance between local good and greater good tilts more towards the latter over time. I think we’ve made some progress, but I would like to have made more progress. 

JAG: Is there a way to enforce that movement mentality, to say, ‘We have our red lines, and if you cross them, you’re out of the movement’?

DJ: Unlike Hillel, we haven’t owned the trademark, so anybody could become a JCC.

At the end of the day, that pursuit should happen along two paths. The less complicated path is: the more resources we bring to the field, the more leverage we have with the field. The more we’re able to put out in the field, the more we can incentivize the field to lean into things that we want them to do. The marriage with great philanthropy comes with that as a dividend. We’re able to fund great programs, but we’re also able to get a field that is ambivalent about how interested they are to say, ‘Well, that money could be really important, so yeah, we’d be willing to do that’ Or, ‘I’ve always wanted to do more Jewish things, but I can’t afford to do it without that kind of outside help, and my community is not supportive.’ 

The other way is the way that appeals more to me, which is through the power of effective persuasion by providing a vision and being an effective articulator of something greater that people simply are drawn to. And that has been my approach in these seven years. 

I came to the association having never worked at a JCC, but I saw something in them that I’m not sure that they saw themselves. So I do think that the increased embrace of Israel was in no small part reflective of a readiness to see something that they hadn’t previously seen. But I didn’t get as far as I would have liked. 

I leave it to Jen, and she’s in a really good position to carry the baton forward. She’s a true believer in the mission and the ideas. She is a brilliant fundraiser and a remarkable communicator. I’ve worked with a lot of people in my career. I have never worked with a more formidable or more capable partner than I have with her.

JAG: Is she your preferred candidate for your permanent successor?

DK: In a heartbeat.