For Manning-Kaplan duo, Jewish nonprofits are the ties that bind

Randall Kaplan, chairman of the board of Hillel, and Kathy Manning, chairwoman of Jewish Federations of North America, attend a fund-raiser in Palm Beach, March 8, 2010. (Courtesy of Hillel)

Randall Kaplan, chairman of the board of Hillel, and Kathy Manning, chairwoman of Jewish Federations of North America, attend a fund-raiser in Palm Beach, March 8, 2010. (Courtesy of Hillel)

PALM BEACH, Fla. (JTA) — It’s a cool spring night, and Kathy Manning and Randall Kaplan are battling their way out of the west lawn of the sprawling bay-side mansion of Jane Goldman and Benjamin Lewis.

Manning, the chairwoman of the Jewish Federations of North America, and Kaplan, the chairman of the board of governors of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, have just spent a few hours schmoozing with 80 donors, a handful of boards of trustees and several members of Hillel’s board trying to make the case for their organizations.

If there is a power couple in the world of Jewish nonprofits, Manning and Kaplan are it.

Manning is the lay leader atop the umbrella organization for the multibillion-dollar-per-year Jewish federation system, the world’s largest Jewish charity. Kaplan is the top lay leader at the $90 million-per-year network of centers for Jewish life on 500 college campuses around the world.

And here they are standing back to back alternately taking questions from Hillel donors and pitching their respective organizations as they work their way past waiters offering desserts trying to get out the door to a dinner reservation.

“It was fun last night,” Manning would tell JTA in a wide-ranging interview with Kaplan over breakfast the next day.

The power spouses — who live in Greensboro, N.C. — often spend time at events for each other’s respective causes.

“I am Kathy Manning’s husband,” Kaplan jokes of his role at Jewish Federation events.

This Hillel gathering, however, marked the first time they had actually headlined an event together.

Though there are plenty of differences between the two organizations, both are facing the same challenge: figuring out how to engage the next generation of Jews so that ultimately they pick up charitable responsibility for maintaining Jewish infrastructure.

Hillel often serves as the last opportunity for the organized Jewish world to reach out to young Jews for a decade or more between college and having children. If it is going to succeed, then it must figure out how to get as many students into its local chapters as possible.

The federation system faces a similar challenge in trying to figure out how to make itself known and relevant to an 18-to-36 cohort of some 1.2 million Jews, of which some 20 percent do not even know the term Jewish federation.

Manning likens the challenge to the different ways that her generation and that of her children use the computer.

“When we work on a computer we have one window open. We work on that and go to the next,” she says. “Our kids might have four windows open and they are very comfortable going from one window to the next and they also have messages popping up — and they can answer those at the same time. They are unbelievable at multi-tasking.

"Just like they are comfortable with all those different windows, they are comfortable with lots of different identities. So our task is to make sure that at least one of those identities is being Jewish.”

It’s a heavy task — one that occupies about 70 percent of the couple’s private conversations, they say. Fortunately, the two seem to share a healthy banter about their work.

Over breakfast, Manning playfully tells a reporter not to believe her husband when he says that something she said is “brilliant.” Kaplan implies that his wife is long-winded.

Manning, who spoke first on the panel the previous night, explained how Jewish Federations was attempting to reach out to young Jews by recognizing that Jews now are on the move, have more choices than ever, are accepted by mainstream America as Americans as opposed to rejected as Jews, and are incredibly individualistic.

“She kept stealing my lines,” Kaplan says. “I am not letting her go first next time.”

Manning grew up in the large, powerful Jewish community of Detroit. Kaplan is from Greensboro, where he was one of only five Jews in his high school class of 550.

They met in law school, started dating after graduation, then were engaged and moved to Washington, where they weren’t too Jewishly involved. Manning gave birth to the first of the couple’s three children (girl, boy, girl). The family moved to Greensboro, where Manning was hired by the city’s biggest law firm, and Kaplan joined his family’s business, Kay Chemical Company (these days he’s CEO of the Capsule Group).

One reason for the move, Kaplan says, is that they wanted to be part of a smaller Jewish community — but they didn’t have any friends in Greensboro. Then they got a call from the federation asking them to join its local young leadership council.

The call came right at the beginning of the Soviet Jewry movement, and Manning and Kaplan were able to take a leadership role in an emergency campaign that raised more than $1.5 million in the tiny Greensboro community of 3,000 Jews to help bring Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel or the United States.

The people they met in those early days are still their closest friends.

“The story then was easy because it was so compelling,” Manning says. “Now it is tougher to make the Jewish connection and the Jewish story as compelling and as urgent as it is in times of trouble.”

They might operate one window at a time online, but off the computer they do plenty of juggling. In addition to their Jewish communal involvement, both are highly active in non-Jewish philanthropic circles, too.

Kaplan has chaired the local United Way, is chairman of the board of trustees of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and says he has served on 30 boards over the past 10 years.

Manning is on the board of the Greensboro Symphony and plays leadership roles in several local arts and music festivals.

Kaplan jokes that he has become a master grilled cheese sandwich-maker because these days when Manning is on the road for Jewish Federations, he needs to feed himself and their youngest child, who is still at home.

Beyond the playful barbs, Kaplan says that Manning is the most incredible lay leader he knows. Manning returns the compliment.

“He is my best and wisest adviser," she says. "He gives me different perspective. Sometimes it is not always one that I want to hear, but he is a very good strategic thinker.

"It’s great for me to be able to run some of the challenges we face by him. He understands every nuance, but he is not totally involved in the politics of what goes on.”

Stopping the Jewish conversation has proven difficult at times.

“Some of our best non-philanthropic conversations — and our best philanthropic conversations — take place on weekends,” Kaplan says. “We take long walks with our daughter and our dog. We will jog and work out. When we go on vacation we try not to talk about it.”

Kaplan admits that sometimes he worries his kids will burn out on the conversation.

In the end, they say, their motivation is their children.

“They are the center. They are the reason we do all of this,” Manning says. “We were born into a community that has provided us with incredible opportunities. We want to make sure our kids live in an environment where they have the same opportunities. They are constantly involved in the conversation — probably more then they want to hear about it.”

But she adds, a bit unconvincingly, “We do talk about other stuff.”

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