In January, Simon Greer, the president and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ), a national foundation dedicated to social justice, will assume the helm of the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF), a family foundation with an endowment of more than $440 million. Greer replaces Lance Lindblom, who is retiring after more than a decade at the helm of the foundation — which devotes about 25 percent of its giving to Jewish causes.
At 42, Greer is one of the youngest tapped to lead a major Jewish foundation — signifying a beginning to the generational transition in leadership within the Jewish communal world. In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Week, Greer discussed his greatest achievements at JFSJ — including the recent merger with the Progressive Jewish Alliance — as well as the challenges he looks forward to tackling at the NCF, and how growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side sparked his lifelong commitment to social justice.
The Jewish Week: You’ve spent a 20-plus year career in the field of social change. How did you get started?
Greer: I grew up just up the street, on 84th Street and West End Avenue. There’s something particular about the Jewish community I grew up in, in the ‘70s. My dad always says that I was marinated in that. That was the kind of Judaism I was raised on. Whether it was the anti-nuclear movement or the anti-apartheid movement, my parents took me to those marches and rallies. This endowed in me the sense that that’s what it means to be Jewish. My mom grew up in an orphanage in the East End of London. We benefited from rent-stabilized housing. I remember waiting on the unemployment line with my mom. New York was a supportive place; the grocery store on the corner let us buy on credit when we needed to. We were that immigrant story.
How has the field of social justice changed over the past few decades?
People throw around the term “social justice” but they don’t define it. For me, it means creating economic opportunity and securing equal rights. Social justice is not just supported by Jewish texts, but also by the Jewish experience. Stories about the civil rights movement or when one’s grandmother was a sweatshop worker feel like ancient history to a lot of young Jews today. Part of what we endeavor to do at JFSJ is to give people direct engagement with issues of social and economic justice. Those experiences aren’t so everyday. In the ‘70s, there were homeless people on street corners; the Upper West Side was still a war zone. Young Jews growing up in suburbia today miss the grittiness of New York. What hasn’t changed is that our fates are inextricably linked. We launched a campaign [Caring Across Generations] that looks at how we treat our elders and how we treat the people we employ to provide that care. Instead of pitting them against each other, we believe that we won’t get the care we want [for our elders] if we don’t treat [the caregivers] with the dignity they deserve.
You began your career in the secular world. How did you get involved in the Jewish social justice movement?
For many years, I would have counted as one of those disengaged Jews. In the late ‘90s, I was working in South Carolina as a community organizer. Then the Ku Klux Klan tried to blow up the church I worked out of. I began to ask myself, “What am I doing here, risking my life?” The name Nachshon popped into my head. I called my dad and he reminded me that Nachson was the character who, during the exodus from Egypt, when the Jews got to the shore, he stepped into the sea until the water was up to his nose. And the sea parted. This was the first action of a free person — being able to risk your life for an unknown future. This opened the door for me. I helped start Jews United for Justice [an urban social change group based in Washington, D.C.]. In 2002, I co-founded the Selah Leadership Program, now a project of JFSJ, which is funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation. We wanted to invest in young Jewish leaders who wanted to change the world. The Nathan Cummings Foundation is the place that funded me before anyone had ever heard of me. They were willing to take a risk on someone like me, people who aren’t involved in Jewish life at all.
Since 2005, you’ve led JSFJ through a period of incredible growth, from a budget of $1.7 million to $5.2 million, as well as three mergers. What are you most proud of?
First off, the whole sector of Jewish social justice. When I got here six-plus years ago, this sector didn’t have the level of trust within it that it has today, nor the standing in the broader Jewish community or America. Last week, there were 170 people at the White House for the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable [a collaboration between JFSJ and NCF]. I looked around, and thought, “This is awesome.” I could not have imagined six years ago that you could have this kind of relationship at the highest level of government.
In what ways has JFSJ evolved during your tenure there?
When I was interviewing for the job [at JFSJ], I asked, “Is the purpose grant-making or is that simply a strategy?” I was told that it was a strategy; our purpose was — and remains — to create a just, fair and compassionate America. We wanted to change the way Jews do justice. We’ve since added a range of strategies, including lending, leadership training, service and advocacy. I’m an interdisciplinary person. When we make a loan in the Gulf, we make a grant in the same neighborhood, and we send a group of college kids to volunteer with the organization. We do our best when we marry [our strategies] together.
Under your leadership, JFSJ has gone through three mergers: with the Shefa Fund in 2006, the Spark Center in 2007 and in June with the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Mergers are rare within the Jewish communal world. What is the secret to a successful merger?
It is pretty unusual. We attribute it to our vision. The chair of board when I was hired, John Levy, is a venture capitalist. John had a brilliant and nontraditional way of looking at problems and solutions. Right off the bat, the Shefa Fund approached me. It was the first CEO/chair breakfast when I floated [the possible merger]. [John] said, “Yes, let’s get it done. Give yourself a 60-day window to negotiate it. If you let it drag on, you’ll find too many reasons to say no.” We would be nowhere close to where we are today if weren’t for the mergers. They gave us expertise we didn’t have. Shefa brought expertise in lending. For Spark, it was expertise in service learning. PJA brings regional and local community building. Both organizations have to understand from the beginning that we’re putting shared purpose and vision at the center, not turf.
What are you most looking forward to as you take the helm of the Nathan Cummings Foundation?
The Nathan Cummings Foundation is grounded in Jewish values and committed to Jewish social justice. They’re one of our largest funders, so I’ve known them mostly [from the perspective of] a grantee. They know that it’s not just about the raw dollars that you give away but the kind of relationship that you build with grantees and the thought leadership you bring along with the investments you make. The first task at hand is really building trust and rapport with all the trustees and all of the staff. That’s the only way to produce the best results. In its funding within the environmental movement and Jewish social justice, NCF has always been committed to advancing the whole sector. That’s what I’m most excited to build on. It’s not enough to make good individual grants; you need to build the sector to make transformative and lasting impact.