Richie Pearlstone: Build Something People Buy Into

On the eve of last week’s meeting of the Jewish Agency’s (JAFI) Board of Governors, eJP sat down with Richie Pearlstone, who just concluded his term as Board chair, for some reflection.

Pearlstone’s tenure at the top of an organization he has been involved with continuously for almost 30 years, will likely be remembered most for reinventing itself to face the challenges of 21st century head on. The last few years has seen JAFI split from the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and the development and implementation of a new strategic plan for the organization built around Jewish Identity. Pearlstone clearly sees this latter move as the “right program”, but asks, “is it salable?”

Feeling that “process is sometimes more important than outcome” he also pushed JAFI to make meaningful changes to its governance structure, which led [among other changes] to a new procedure for how the Chair of the Executive would be selected.

Pearlstone was raised in the campaign system in Baltimore, where early on he developed an affinity towards overseas needs – beginning with his involvement with the Israel Forum during the early 80’s. It was during this period he first had the opportunity to really meet Israelis and think about the importance of communal responsibility. And, like many others, he has concerns that the younger generation of today “does not associate with the concept.”

Reflecting back, Pearlstone explained that in many ways, the conclusion of Operation Exodus brought new challenges for JAFI. Income began to drop – and the organization found itself saddled with $600m. in debt. From that point on, JAFI not only had to consider “what was needed”, but “what we can raise money for”.

As many of our readers are familiar with what the Jewish Agency has accomplished over the years, we thought to focus a bit on what Pearlstone thought was left undone as his term concluded. And here his biggest disappointment was the “failure to build a total, unified Jewish Agency”. One of his biggest frustrations was the committee process, which to him “proved how parochial the Jewish Agency is.” In fact, Pearlstone was often publicly upset over this and spoke often about the need for all to come together and wear the “Jewish Agency hat” when sitting at Board/Committee meetings. He had also hoped JAFI would be “further down the road on implementation of the strategic plan.”

For Pearlstone, it’s now time for a bit of R and R, and a few less hours a day on his Blackberry. At least in the short-term, we’re unlikely to see his presence around Jerusalem (or the upcoming Buenos Aires meetings). He tells eJP that for the balance of this year he plans to help with the annual campaigns in both Baltimore and his local Colorado community.

However, the Jewish Agency has been a part of his life for so long, it is unlikely Pearlstone will disappear into the local woodwork for long. Besides, who else can replace his dapper dress when JAFI’s Board gathers?

In any case, Pearlstone has made a significant impact over the years, and deserves a Kol HaKavod for helping to instill his notion of communal responsibility on a wider audience. eJP joins JAFI on wishing him well.