IIt seems that most everyone was caught by surprise this week when word leaked that Daniel Sokatch was leaving his post as the CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Francisco to become the CEO of the New Israel Fund after barely more than a year on the job.
Few are begrudging his decision. Sokatch, after all, is the prototypical liberal progressive Jewish professional, the one who helped build the Progressive Jewish Alliance out of nothing, and is widely regarded as a rising star in the Jewish world. And the job at the New Israel Fund, which gives out tens of millions of dollars a year to progressive causes in Israel, seems tailor made for him.
Sokatch was hired in 2008 with much fanfare, as many viewed him as a breath of fresh air that would benefit the federation system. It seemed a sign that a federation could make a daring hire and potentially transform itself in order to reach a broader swath of American Jews.
Now that he is abruptly leaving his job after barely more than a year, however, some are bemoaning the departure as an omen that perhaps the system really isn’t ready for change.
Sokatch says there is no clear answer to that question.
"Everybody knows that the federated system is in a period in which it is engaged in varying degrees of introspection and re-evaluation," he told me just before this newsletter went out Thursday. "In some places it is more explicit than in others, but declining membership and fund raising are indicative of more than economic troubles. We need to rethink the functions behind some of our traditional community organizations."
Sokatch said the Jewish community is quite capable of change and historically has been a "community of change," dating all the way back to 70 CE, when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. He noted that Judaism went from a focus on giving sacrifices, and on one city on one hill, to one that suddenly was mobile, with mobile values and purpose.
Sokatch had a broad vision for what San Francisco ultimately could look like, and much of it included some radical change.
"There were some who were incredibly open to that change and some who were closed," he said. "It was not an easy year."
He and his staff had rolled out parts of their entire vision, and some were readily accepted by the community’s elders.
For instance, Sokatch was able to push forward the Catalyst Initiative, which called for using millions of dollars from the federation’s endowment to provide relief during the economic crisis and to address what he called a "deeper demographic crisis" by funding a new service learning initiative and projects with synagogues to reach out to a new cohort.
But he found a real sticking point and rigidness when it came to Israel. Sokatch believes in creating a broad tent to discuss and address Israel-related issues, one that would include more liberal viewpoints than the federation system typically embraces.
"That conversation is a harder one," he said.
To be sure, Sokatch took a battering over Israel. While the region’s Jews certainly line up on the left, some community powerhouses are not in line with the masses there and trend conservative on Israel.
Sokatch found himself smack in the middle of a melee over San Francisco’s Jewish film festival when its organizers decided to screen a film about Rachel Corrie, the pro-Palestinian activist who was killed when she lay down in front of an Israeli bulldozer about to raze Palestinian homes, and invite Corrie’s mother to speak at the event without presenting other viewpoints. That was not Sokatch’s doing and he publicly criticized the decision to invite only Corrie’s mother to speak (a pro-Israel speaker was added later). But the backlash fell squarely on his shoulders.
More recently, Sokatch irked some leaders of the San Francisco community when he agreed to speak at the annual conference of J Street, a new organization that has lobbied for U.S pressure on Israel (and the Palestinians) and criticized Israel’s invasion of Gaza.
Sokatch insists that he was not nudged out of the federation and that he left the job only because NIF is and always has been his dream job — one where he felt that he personally could have the most impact given his skills. But the fact that San Francisco, which historically has been known as a federation willing to make radical moves, did not fully embrace him has some very concerned.