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Inside the top-level layoffs at Jewish Federations of North America

The Jewish Federations of North America informed its board of trustees last Tuesday that it was letting go of three senior vice presidents: Rob Hyman, organizational development and stakeholder relations; Eric Levine, development and the Center for Jewish Philanthropy; and Barry Swartz, continental community development and capacity building.

The Jewish Federations of North America informed its board of trustees Tuesday that it was letting go of three senior vice presidents: Rob Hyman, organizational development and stakeholder relations; Eric Levine, development and the Center for Jewish Philanthropy; and Barry Swartz, continental community development and capacity building.

Consider it a very clear reminder that Jerry Silverman, the new CEO of Jewish Federations, came to his job with an impressive corporate resume, whose experience in the philanthropic world took place outside of the federation system. He was brought in as an outsider who could make changes, and in forging his leadership team he’s letting go of three longtime executives at Jewish Federations and its predecessor, the United Jewish Communities (and, in the case of Swartz and Hyman, at the UJC’s predecessors, the Council of Jewish Federations and United Jewish Appeal).

The federation system’s umbrella organization has laid off dozens of employees over the past couple of years in the name of cutting costs, and many of the moves generated a good deal of anger. Four years after Vicky Agron, then-senior vice president for development, submitted her resignation, some are still complaining that she was wrongly pushed out.

So far, however, these layoffs, do not appear to be sparking outrage from the staff — even though by all accounts Swartz, Hyman and Levine were dedicated employees of the federation system, and helped the organization transform and evolve over the years.

There could be a few reasons for that.

First, the layoffs came right from the top, from Silverman’s office.

According to insiders, when the organization laid off huge swaths of employees, the leadership would decide on how much money had to be cut from the budget, but middle management made the personnel decisions.

"Each department had to just trim this and trim that and it was left to the more senior people in the department" to figure out who was cut, said a former UJC insider intimately familiar with the situation involving past personnel moves.

In addition, during earlier rounds of cuts, as the organization was cutting 25 percent of its budget, top-tier employees seemed immune to the layoffs.

"You had to cut 10-15 percent," said the insider. "But it was their pound of flesh being cut. And there was a sense that it was never being addressed at the top. The executives were off limits."

Not this time: Swartz, Levine and Hyman were senior vice presidents.

Jewish Federations would not confirm it, but insiders said the three combined to make somewhere between $750,000 to $1 million per year in salary and benefits. (JFNA’s overall budget this past year was about $30.3 million.)

So these cuts should go a long way toward placating the critics of Jewish Federations who have said that its budget is bloated at the top.

Officials at Jewish Federations are stressing the notion that the cuts are strategic, designed to make the organization more nimble, not just leaner.

"There is no question that this is about strategy," the organization’s spokesman, Joe Berkofsky, said. "We are not just getting rid of a couple of bucks. We have a strategy for the organization and we need the right people to move it forward."

As for the details as to how the layoffs will work: Swartz’s job, which involved him wearing a number of hats, including running UJC Consulting and overseeing the Washington office, will be folded into the Washington office. He will not be replaced.

Hyman’s duties, which consisted primarily of managing board relations, also will most likely be folded into another job.

Levine’s job, as the head of the organization’s financial resource development operations, is the only one that looks like it will stay intact, though Silverman clearly wants someone with a different take on things. That job most likely will be filled from within the federation system.

One Jewish Federations insider said more reductions could be coming as the organization starts to discuss its 2011 budget this spring, but most likely not the wholesale layoffs that we have seen in the past.

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