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 hilleluchicago.tumblr.com) 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.