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New Ujc Leader’s Working Style Stresses Humility and Cooperation

April 2, 2004
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Some people might find it jarring to leave an established and respectable position in middle America for a national post in New York City.

Not Howard Rieger.

The president of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh is slated to end his 24-year tenure this summer and jump to the Big Apple.

An internal search committee of the United Jewish Communities — the coordinating body of the North American Jewish Federation system — recommended Rieger for the post, pending the approval of the organization’s board.

Rieger’s outlook matches his path: simple, steady and open to new challenges.

After many years in Pittsburgh and, before that, with the Cleveland federation, Rieger, 61, decided there was something appealing about “sprinting to the finishing line” of his career as UJC president.

It’s an apt analogy, given Rieger’s history.

When he was about to turn 30, Rieger wanted to mark the milestone with a new accomplishment: He chose running, and today runs three to five miles a day.

Before turning 60, he wanted to tackle his greatest fear — water.

Under the tutelage of an 83-year-old coach, Rieger now can swim up to a mile.

“It’s one of the great accomplishments in my life,” he says.

He carries that resolve into the workplace.

Rieger’s management style has roots in his beginnings.

He grew up in a lower-middle class neighborhood a few miles from Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The family of four lived in an apartment with as many rooms.

Rieger’s father, a watchmaker, occasionally had been mocked by his siblings for taking what they considered a menial job — but that hustle brought him to America, while his siblings, who remained in Europe, perished in the Holocaust.

His father’s experience imbued Rieger with a salt-of-the-earth approach to life.

Asked to describe his management style, he says, “Try to remember who you are and where you came from.”

“I don’t think one should get carried away with position and title,” he says. “Whatever influence or authority or impact you can have comes with the job.”

That outlook contributes to Rieger’s rapport with federation lay leaders, a relationship that many professionals in the Jewish world find hard to navigate.

Several say one of Rieger’s key attributes is humility, which makes it easy for him to share credit with others.

Rieger has a “very good sense of what the correct relationship between professionals and lay leaders is,” says Steven Klinghoffer, who headed the UJC’s politically charged Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution committee.

“One of the great failures in the ONAD process” was that professionals “were the ones making key decisions, and lay leaders, for a variety of reasons, were left out,” says Klinghoffer, a lay leader from New Jersey’s Metrowest federation.

Rieger says that lay leaders aren’t meant to be “window dressing” in federation decisions.

With both lay leaders and employees, his management strategy revolves around empowerment, openness and rewards for good work, Rieger says.

“I love to give people the authority and respect to go do their thing and take their risks,” he says. “If they make a mistake: You know what, I’ve made a few mistakes in my life.”

But, he is quick to add, people who make too many mistakes “won’t be in an organization I work with.”

As for openness, “We live in a world now where you can get 90 percent of what you need to know out there anyway,” Rieger says. “Why act as though there’s anything that’s incapable of seeing the light of day?”

That resonates with some who say the federation system has cultivated a culture of secrecy.

Rieger “leads by example,” says David Sarnat, an old college friend of Rieger who now is the Jewish Agency for Israel’s North American director.

When he was an employee at the Cleveland federation, Sarnat encouraged Rieger to apply for a position. He got the job, and spent the first 11 years of his federation career there.

The length of time Rieger has spent in his previous positions is notable in the field. The lengthy tenures have helped drive his success, giving him the “ability to influence others and get the kind of respect that you need to be able to survive,” he says.

Ironically, both of Rieger’s children work at the UJC’s Manhattan offices.

Rieger says he’s proud that he and his wife “have kids who care as much about this as we do.” But he adds that he “never wants to see a personnel file.”

In spite of the challenges facing the UJC, Sarnat says Rieger may have it easier than his two predecessors, who had to weather the bulk of UJC’s growing pains after it was formed in 1999 from a merger of the United Jewish Appeal, Council of Jewish Federations and United Israel Appeal.

“Maybe Howard now comes in at a time when there’s greater receptivity to working collectively,” Sarnat says.

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