Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Leaders of the Tribe [part 4] from Up-and-comers to Insiders, Portraits of American Jewish Leaders

September 27, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The American Jewish community boasts a variety of leaders. JTA has selected a sample to show some current models in championing the causes of Jewish life. “The Up-and-Comer”

Matthew Grossman, executive director, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization

For Matthew Grossman, 33, one of the youngest professionals heading a major American Jewish organization, Jewish life has just come full circle.

The new director of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization lost interest in Judaism after his Bar Mitzvah. In an attempt to reconnect their son, Grossman’s parents sent him to a youth group event at the lone synagogue in his hometown of Chesire, Conn.

The lessons he learned there stuck.

The Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth gave him a home of like-minded friends, unlike his high school where he “could easily get lost in a crowd.”

Grossman went on to assume leadership roles in his chapter, eventually becoming social action vice president of the region.

It was through his youth group that he had “one of my first powerful Jewish experiences,” Grossman tells JTA.

As a high school junior in 1987, he joined the historic march on Washington to free Soviet Jewry.

“I don’t think I had ever in my life been in a room of more than 200 Jews,” he marvels. But on that December day, he was surrounded by more than a quarter of a million “passionate people who were determined to do exactly the same thing I was determined to do.”

It was the first time, he says, that he “felt part of a people” — and one that “wasn’t afraid to flex its muscle, to speak for what they believe in and to do something important,” he says.

“That’s what I want to this day,” he says, to “do something important.”

Over plates of risotto at a colorful Times Square cafe, Grossman tells his stories begrudgingly.

He seems to abhor talking about himself, but radiates warmth when he quizzes others or discusses his work.

Grossman is exceedingly unassuming.

For example, he marveled at the honor of being a pallbearer at the funeral of his beloved mentor Henry Everett, a Jewish philanthropist involved with Hillel, where Grossman worked for nine years.

Everett, notorious for sticking to his principles, even when they were unpopular, taught him integrity, Grossman says.

“If the line is blurry you stay on the side that is clear, and I will always stay on the side that is clear,” he says.

Grossman says he never wanted to be a leader.

“I only had a desire to do good things for the Jewish people,” he says.

BBYO’s reach, which cuts across all religious streams, may give him a chance to do so.

With half of Jewish teens coming from intermarried families and only 20 to 30 percent connected to Jewish life in any meaningful way, Grossman says his mission is simple: “Get more Jewish teens involved in more meaningful Jewish experiences.”

“The Newcomer”

Kinney Zalesne, executive vice president, U.S. division of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life

Kinney Zalesne, 38, may seem an unusual candidate to direct Hillels across the country for the worldwide campus organization. Her career has been steeped in the most prestigious icons of secular America: A law degree from Harvard, a White House fellowship and a clerkship for Janet Reno when she was attorney general.

But Zalesne — a Jewish leader who at one time was wishy-washy about her Judaism — embodies her dream for Hillel.

She plans to cultivate into Jewish leaders noncommittal Jews, who represent the largest segment of Jewish students. As such, they provide Hillel with the reach to spread its message of Jewish engagement.

“The future leaders will come from the margin,” she says, referring to Jews with the ability to tap into and influence both the secular and Jewish worlds.

What Zalesne has in mind is “social entrepreneurship.” It’s a way of shifting the proverbial paradigm in addressing social problems with the aim of broad social change.

College Summit, a nonprofit that promotes college enrollment among low-income students, was “a poster child for this emerging sector,” says Zalesne, who headed the group for nearly four years. To fundamentally change a culture, the group worked to “change the underlying question of ‘Are you going to college?’ to ‘Which college are you going to?’ ” she says.

“At Hillel our challenge is to change the question from ‘Is Judaism worth living?’ to ‘How do you live your Judaism?’ ” she says.

In part, her move to a career in the Jewish community has to do with her desire to apply the theory of social entrepreneurship among her own people.

In the wake of Sept. 11 and Israel’s war on terror, she also felt a growing concern about “how Jews would fit into the new world picture.” And she worried Israel was no longer a source of pride but rather of “disconnectedness” for young American Jews.

Hillel initially brought on Zalesne as a consultant in the spring of 2004 to advise the organization’s interim incoming president, Avraham Infeld, about Hillel’s structure and mission. (Infeld was asked and agreed this year to become Hillel’s president for at least two years.)

The stint also provided a window for Zalesne and Hillel to see if they fit well together.

Zalesne was hired in June as executive vice president for Hillel’s U.S. division, making her the No. 2 at the organization.

She has made some changes since taking the job, such as providing every director in the field with a liaison in the Washington office. That tightens the team to provide better services and spot trends more quickly, she says.

With piercing blue eyes and a thin frame, Zalesne exudes drive and intensity. But she is soft spoken, choosing each word slowly and deliberately.

Asked whether she might succeed Infeld as Hillel president, Zalesne said no commitments were made by either side. But her influence may be felt on campus for some time to come.

“The Insider”

Steven Nasatir, president, Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago

Steven Nasatir, 59, is “inculcated with the neshama,” or Jewish soul, “of our community,” says Richard Wexler, a longtime federation lay leader from Chicago. “He has the ability to articulate that neshama.”

As federations struggle to maintain pre-eminence in their communities, Chicago boasts a die-hard federation town. At a time when donors want to specify which projects they finance, the Chicago federation stresses its commitment to the general funding pool for overseas needs.

Nasatir, who will celebrate his 25th year as federation president this fall, has championed that direction.

The Chicago community’s commitment to collective responsibility — a term to describe fund raising to run the coordinating body for the North American federation system and its overseas agencies — is “a sacred trust,” Nasatir says. “What makes federation special — and the place where people should trust that a significant part of their tzedekah should go — is our connection to the greatest events in Jewish life,” such as airlifting Ethiopian Jews to Israel or rescuing Soviet refuseniks.

“We’re still not large enough in my opinion to really impact those great events in Jewish life as a single community,” he says, but can do so by “banding together with other federations and getting the synergy and the leverage of collective action.”

That belief explains why Nasatir was the brains behind the Israel Emergency Campaign, the federation-wide response to the intifada. Since it was launched in September 2001, the emergency campaign has raised more than $360 million for Israel, above the system’s annual campaign drive.

The intifada revealed how strong the bonds still are between Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel, Nasatir says, adding that, together with America’s own war on terrorism, it showed American Jews that “we’re in this game together.”

Furthermore, focusing on the global agenda helps raise money, he argues.

Those federations that emphasize the global agenda have raised the most funds per capita, said Stephen Hoffman, former CEO of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of the federation system.

Curiously, most of them are in the Midwest.

The heartland is “more rooted,” Nasatir says.

In any case, it’s more traditional and less transient: Nasatir is only the fourth director in the Chicago federation’s 104-year history.

For the Chicago-raised Nasatir, the 1967 Six-Day War prompted him to leave a teaching organizational administration at the University of Illinois to enter Jewish communal life.

The “rush of fear and pride were fumes that I think we really inhaled deeply,” he says.

Nearly four decades later, he is still committed to the community.

“I love the Jewish people, all of them, with all of our warts and blemishes and all of our strengths and real qualities,” he says. “That’s what still does it for me.”

“The Empowerer”

Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, New York City

It is not uncommon for Jews far from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to

eagerly discuss its burgeoning synagogue they have heard of or visited.

Underscoring the congregation’s warm and unconventional approach to Judaism, both its rabbi — “Roly” — and the synagogue — “B.J.” — go by sobriquets.

The non-traditional style has worked: B’nai Jeshurun’s emphasis on innovation, coupled with inclusiveness and community, has elicited a following and a buzz far beyond the neighborhood. Jews around the country have visited the congregation in hopes of tapping into the phenomenon and borrowing ways to spark spirituality and outreach at home.

But the synagogue is a manifestation of its rabbi, who cannot be copied, says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL: the Center for Jewish Leadership and Learning.

Matalon, 48, possesses “spiritual depth, authenticity, integrity, talent gentleness and humility,” Kula says. That contrasts with a “dearth of leadership in America,” in general, where many leaders exude arrogance and what Kula calls a “turf orientation.”

By contrast, Matalon shares the bimah with another rabbi, showing that leadership comes by way of collaboration.

“That is so counter-cultural,” Kula says. “We basically live in a world in which there has to be one CEO,” and Matalon’s model is a refreshing improvement for the congregants, many of whom come from what Kula calls New York’s “competitive, fierce, dog-eat-dog world.”

Those that swear by B’nai Jeshurun cite its inclusive, participatory style. A deeply musical service — ranging from Carlebach tunes to folk music, coupled with a band — rouses participants who say the service feels spiritual, liberating, and simply, fun.

And the synagogue makes a priority of nurturing communal life: Families spill into the aisles to clasp hands and dance to Lecha Dodi as they welcome the Sabbath; hundreds crowd the Friday night singles service and linger afterward on the steps outside; and B’nai Jeshurun offers a range of community-based programs, from team sports to interfaith and civic work to rallies for various progressive causes.

Matalon studied in Buenos Aires at the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary founded by Rabbi Marshall Meyer, with whom he helped revitalize B’nai Jeshurun. The two shared the bimah for several years until Meyer’s death in 1993.

“The Catalyst”

Shifra Bronznick, founding president, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.

A recent report confirmed what many long have suspected: Women are sorely underrepresented in leadership positions at North American Jewish federations.

The impetus behind the report was Shifra Bronznick.

Her three-year-old organization, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, partnered with the United Jewish Communities to come up with an action plan to address deep-seated bias against women and even sexism in the federation system.

“I continue to believe firmly that the work we do to advance women is parallel and equivalent to the work we need to do to advance new ideas about the ways to make Jewish organizations healthy, vibrant and productive,” says Bronznick, 50.

Bronznick’s career has traversed the for-profit and nonprofit industries and the Jewish and secular worlds. In recent years she has catered her consulting business to the nonprofit sector, with major Jewish organizations comprising half her client base.

For example, she has been working with Hillel to help staff balance their personal and professional lives; helping the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services provide flexible schedules for employees. She also worked with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to help women rabbis compete successfully for rabbinical jobs.

Throughout her career, she says, “I’ve really focused on how to be a catalyst for change and how to empower other people to expand their capacity for creating change.”

Bronznick describes her philosophy as one of humility joined with ambition, or recognizing the fleeting profundity of life.

“You have to give people a chance to think about how the issues you’re raising as an advocate resonate for them,” she says, “and then you really have to create a context in which they can think about ways they can contribute to making change and they can benefit from change happening.”

Bronznick is a firebrand, constantly pushing the Jewish community to better itself and rarely mincing words when it comes to harsh criticism of Jewish organizational life.

“It’s critical to engage publicly in healthy conflict,” says Bronznick, who wishes the community did more of it. She also sees as herself as a “bridge between the innovators and the institution builders,” and wants mainstream Jewish groups to provide meaningful support for innovations in Jewish life taking place beyond their doors.

Shira Dicker, whose public relations firm represents many Jewish clients, calls Bronznick a “ba’alat tzedek,” a righteous person. They both live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Bronznick is “an accessible role model to a whole generation of young women,” including Dicker’s own teenaged daughter, she says.

“I think she’s somebody who’s really making an impact. I think history will remember Shifra Bronznick,” Dicker says.

For Bronznick, “working inside the Jewish community is a commitment that I’ve made because I believe I’m in a too-small minority of people who believe that the organized Jewish community has too many resources and responsibilities to simply be written off as irrelevant. And yet, I’m passionate about the urgency of transforming the way the community does its work.”

“The Gadfly”

Michael Steinhardt, philanthropist, Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation

When Michael Steinhardt had the floor at the 2003 General Assembly of the North American Jewish federation system, he pounced on the opportunity.

“You who are gathered here — the cream of the leadership crop — represent committed Jewry. Who speaks for the unaffiliated?” he asked. “The sad truth is that the leadership ranks of the Jewish community have become so accommodated to decline that we haven’t even mentioned the absence of the very group we should be fighting to reach.”

Steinhardt, the philanthropic powerhouse who made his fortune on Wall Street, was notorious for a raging temper — according to a review of his autobiography, he excoriated an employee for mismanaging bonds. And when the employee said he felt like killing himself, Steinhardt, 63, asked if he could watch.

Often wry and more often to the point, Steinhardt took the G.A. stage to push his prized platform: innovative outreach to Jewish youth.

In the 2003 speech, Steinhardt blasted the organizational leadership for failing to galvanize a declining American Jewish community with little to unite it.

He then threw down a gauntlet, proposing a “Fund for Our Jewish Future” to endow “the most important outlets of Jewish identity-formation,” such as preschools, day schools, camps and college programs.

Upon having a child, a Jewish family would get a voucher toward early childhood Jewish education and a trip with birthright israel, the free trip to Israel for 18- to 26-year-olds in the Disapora that Steinhardt co-created.

Steinhardt said he would put $10 million into the fund — on the condition that contributions from others raised the total to at least $100 million.

To date, “there are informal commitments for a substantial fraction of the fund, and significant interest beyond that group,” said Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.

But the speech was classic Steinhardt: He at once chastised the

federation system and challenged it, and electrified the audience.

A speech to save Jewish children might seem ironic coming from a man who says he can’t seem to reconcile the existence of God. But Steinhardt says he does believe in the Jewish people.

He often extends his charitable efforts on a person-to-person basis, incessantly trying to match-make for marriage unwitting Jews.

Steinhardt has the chutzpah to match a businessman’s drive for innovation — and the will to put his money where his mouth is.


Part 1: What makes a leader?

Part 2: Wanted: A Jewish leadership pool

Part 3: Lay-professional relationship is key

Part 4: Portraits of leadership

Recommended from JTA