NEW YORK, June 18 (JTA) — In choosing Stephen Hoffman, the longtime president of Cleveland’s Jewish federation, as its new chief executive, the United Jewish Communities has brought in a CEO widely praised as both a visionary and an effective manager.
Many describe Hoffman as “the most respected” federation professional in North America — ideal for an organization like the UJC, the North American federation umbrella group that is battling criticism it has suffered from fuzzy vision and low staff morale since its creation two years ago.
In Cleveland, Hoffman is credited not only with increasing revenues, but dramatically boosting support for education, social services and synagogues, and grooming professionals for service in Jewish federations throughout the country.
Hoffman also has been a key player in shaping the UJC, formed from the merger of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations.
In an interview with JTA, Hoffman said his top priorities in the post will be strengthening morale and “teamwork” among lay and professional leaders, implementing an Israel solidarity initiative and stepping up efforts to recruit, train and place Jewish professionals throughout North America.
The UJC must address the “aspirations for the health and welfare, physically and spiritually, of our people around the world, with a special emphasis on the State of Israel,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman replaces Stephen Solender, who will step down in a two-stage process. Hoffman will become the organization’s chief executive officer next month and will add president to his title in November.
Even then, Solender, 63, will continue to run specific projects while Hoffman handles day-to-day operations. Solender will have the title of president emeritus until he retires in 2003.
Citing his wife’s tenured faculty position at Cleveland’s John Carroll University, Hoffman already has said that he plans to work only three years at UJC, then return to his Cleveland post.
He will continue to live in the Cleveland suburbs, commuting weekly to UJC headquarters in New York.
“They’re going to get me 24-6,” Hoffman said of UJC. “Shabbat I’m going to keep for myself and my family. The rest is theirs.”
Some lower-level UJC professionals privately are grumbling that the organization is spending a lot of money to pay for executives that commute from outside New York. Two other UJC executives also commute from other cities.
But UJC leaders and executives of the local federations — the “owners” of the umbrella group — seem unfazed either that Hoffman sees the post as temporary or that he will commute from Cleveland.
“In this business, nothing is permanent,” said Joel Tauber, chair of the UJC’s executive committee. “It is a very difficult job. When you look back at the various UJA and CJF executives, they were two-, three-, five-year kind of jobs, because it’s a very difficult job and time-consuming.”
Robert Goldberg, who will replace Tauber in October, has worked closely with Hoffman at the Cleveland federation, where Goldberg used to be chairman.
Just as Hoffman “is leaving Cleveland now for three years and no one has any concern about the organization falling apart, when he’s through with his tour in New York and comes back to Cleveland I’m sure he’ll have the UJC in a position where they’ll miss him but carry on very strongly,” Goldberg said.
Privately, colleagues say Hoffman’s move is a smart insurance policy, as the UJC job — which forces the chief executive to please a large number of often-dueling constituencies — is far less secure than his current post.
Since its formation, the UJC has struggled both to combine organizations with different cultures and to please the local federations, which some say have sought to micro-manage the umbrella group.
In addition, many critics say the UJC has been slow to articulate a vision or demonstrate real leadership.
Hoffman is hardly unaware of the UJC’s challenges. He played a key role in designing the new organization’s governance structure and has worked closely with its overseas partner — the Jewish Agency for Israel — which he helped to create a strategic plan and communicate more effectively with the federations.
John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of Greater New York, described Hoffman as “a person who sees both the large picture and is constantly asking the question of what is needed, and is mindful of the multiple details that need to be attended to.”
In a field with its share of big egos, Hoffman is known for his modesty and for “not dominating meetings,” according to the executive of one large federation who asked to remain anonymous.
“Steve will be at a meeting — whether it’s national, international, or local — and he will sit quietly and take everything in,” Goldberg said.
“But when he speaks it’s because he has listened and is speaking from knowledge,” he continued. “Often afterwards, everyone’s quiet and then follows” Hoffman’s recommendations.
Hoffman also has earned praise for his management style and for making Cleveland a national training ground for federation professionals.
Hoffman knows how to “delegate and expect performance, and then have accountability,” Tauber said.
Hoffman is “one of the few executives in the field who ever really took the time to mentor,” said Cindy Chazan, director of alumni and community development for the Wexner Foundation and former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.
One federation leader who worked under Hoffman in Cleveland is Barry Shrage, now president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Shrage, considered something of a gadfly in the federation world, described Hoffman as “very forceful, plain-spoken and very up front.”
“He doesn’t pull punches,” Shrage said. “We’re very old friends, but when I’m wrong he lets me hear it straight up. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Hoffman, who became one of the youngest people to head a large-city federation when he was named Cleveland’s president at age 33 in 1983, said he is “in this work because I was the regional aleph gadol of the Philadelphia AZA” — B’nai B’rith Youth Organization lingo for president of his regional youth group chapter.
“I really get charged up by the ability to work with some of the best and brightest Jewish people in the United States who share my passion for worrying about Jews, solving problems for Jews and working as Jews to improve the conditions of other human beings among whom we live,” Hoffman said.
A graduate of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Hoffman earned a master’s degree in Jewish studies from the Baltimore Hebrew University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland.
He has a wife and two daughters and belongs to B’nai Jeshurun Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in suburban Cleveland.