Debby Hirshman, the indefatigable force behind what could be the largest Jewish community center in America (the $85 million JCC in Manhattan) was suddenly let go as its executive director last week, according to JCC officials.
"We asked for her resignation," said Peter Joseph, co-chairman of the JCC’s board of directors. Joseph declined to discuss specifics whether the sudden departure was as a result of a particular incident.
Joseph said Hirshman’s departure was effective Sept 29.
The action comes 20 months after the 11-story building on Amsterdam Avenue and 76th Street opened to the public in the heavily Jewish neighborhood.
The news came as a shock to some Upper West Siders who watched as Hirshman over the last 13 years shepherded the center from concept to birth to a thriving Jewish institution featuring a 3,500-square-foot auditorium, a 25-meter pool, a nursery school, and a wide range of Jewish and secular programs and classes.
Hirshman, 49, raised millions of dollars and worked tirelessly on every facet of the construction, including learning how to operate the pool’s hydraulic lift, deal with environmental problems, and learn complicated accounting procedures.
But in the process she was said to have rubbed some people the wrong way with her forthright approach and management style.
Others said her strengths in providing the vision and can-do spirit to build the project did not translate to administering the fast-growing institution. The JCC now has a $15 million budget with 150 employees.
"There’s a reason why Moses didn’t make it to the Promised Land," said one JCC insider.
"There have been disagreements over how to run a large corporation," said another, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to sources, the problem came to a head when both senior staff at the center and lay leaders voiced complaints about Hirshman’s aggressive management style.
Nevertheless, some were taken aback at the news. "I’m stunned," said one local observer. "I thought she did everything right."
In a written statement Joseph said: "We are deeply grateful to Debby Hirshman for her extraordinary vision and leadership over the past 13 years. Her passion, creativity and dedication have been instrumental to our success."
Hirshman did not return a message left at her home.
In a Jewish Week interview in February 2002 just as the center was opening, Hirshman spoke about the institution as a "values-driven building," adding that "we believe the challenge of the Jewish community is to stay connected to itself." Said Rabbi Robert Levine of the Reform congregation, Rodelph Shalom, in that story: "The West Side really owes her a debt of gratitude. If you didn’t have her you’d have to invent her."
Joseph said JCC president Nick Bunzl, an investment manager, will serve as interim executive director until a permanent replacement is hired.
"Given the present void, I am happy and prepared to do it as needed," said Bunzl, whose wife Judy serves on the board of directors.
Joseph did not speculate how long the process could take.