The JDC’s Next Rescue Mission Is To Rescue Its Leadership
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The JDC’s Next Rescue Mission Is To Rescue Its Leadership

The famed Jewish relief organization is facing a board split as it searches for a new CEO.

Camp Szarvas in Hungary is one of the JDC’s top projects. An $18 million capital campaign for renovations there “are going ahead” despite leadership shakeup.  Szarvas.org
Camp Szarvas in Hungary is one of the JDC’s top projects. An $18 million capital campaign for renovations there “are going ahead” despite leadership shakeup. Szarvas.org

The Joint Distribution Committee, a storied Jewish institution devoted to rescuing and assisting Jews and others in distress, is now facing problems of its own.

The $366 million philanthropy is about to appoint a new CEO at the same time that its board is split over the choice of its president, its top lay leader.

Both transitions are unusual for the organization. The new CEO will be its third in the last decade; before 2016, the JDC was headed by top executives who had served in that position for a decade or longer.

And for the first time in its century-long history, the JDC (commonly known as “the Joint”) will offer its board of directors, at its upcoming annual meeting, two competing candidates as president. The traditional process — featuring a sole, uncontested candidate — was upended by dissenters within the board.

As the overseas arm of the American Jewish community, the Joint had long carried out its international mission of rescuing and aiding Jewish individuals and communities without bringing attention to its administrative or bureaucratic operations.

While the Joint’s delivery of services to Jews in Israel, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and other lands has continued without interruption, the turnover and the contested presidency raise questions about the JDC’s ability to engage in long-range planning and short-term fundraising.

Some donors “are holding off” in making donations to the JDC (its annual budget comes from a combination of local Jewish federations, foundations and private donations) until its leadership picture becomes clearer, said Stan Rabin, its outgoing president. Some future projects have been put on hold until the identity of the organization’s new leaders is known, although current projects, like the network of Chesed social welfare programs in the former Soviet Union and the $18 million capital campaign renovation of the Szarvas summer youth camp in rural Hungary, “are going ahead,” said Asher Ostrin, a longtime JDC leader who will become interim CEO on Jan. 1.

He will replace David Schizer, who had served as the Joint’s CEO since 2017, who is returning to the faculty of Columbia Law School.

Rabin, the outgoing president, said overall fundraising remains strong, and the financial viability of the organization is not threatened.

The planning and fundraising questions, Ostrin said, are likely to disappear once the new CEO is appointed and the new president is elected.

Appearances to the contrary, “things are not in disarray,” said Ostrin, who was based in Israel and most recently served as the Joint’s senior executive for international affairs. “The work we do in the field is not interrupted. The mission — saving Jewish lives and building Jewish lives — remains the same. How we carry out the mission changes.”

Seeking Longevity

Schizer was dean emeritus of Columbia Law School when he was named CEO in 2016. According to the JDC, fundraising from individuals and foundations increased by 45 percent during Schizer’s tenure, although, sources said, Schizer’s management skills were reportedly not a good fit for the sprawling JDC. Toward the end of his first year, the board hired an outside consultant to conduct a performance evaluation, according to Jewish Insider, which first reported on the challenges at JDC.

“I’ve enjoyed serving as CEO at JDC, and I am proud of everything we’ve accomplished in the past three years,” Schizer told The Jewish Week. “I was brought in to make changes, so we would run JDC more like a business, and we got a lot done — a new planning process for our programs, a 45 percent increase in two years in fundraising from individuals and foundations, a new approach to delivering care in the former Soviet Union, a new strategic plan for our work in Israel, the launch of a number of important capital projects, a closer relationship with key partners, and much more. I love JDC, but I also love Columbia, and do not want to give up my tenure there. That’s the reason I’m leaving JDC.”

Jews attending a Rosh Hashanah dinner at Hesed Triaspol, Transnistria, in 2018. The Hesed is a JDC-funded local initiative. (Courtesy of JDC/via JTA)

Schizer’s predecessor, Alan Gill, a veteran Joint employee, served from 2013-16, ending what was also a relatively short tenure when he reached retirement age. Before him, Steve Schwager, Michael Schneider and Ralph Goldman headed the JDC for 10 years, 14 years, and 11 years, respectively.

These considerations will play a role in the selection of the next chief executive. The board’s search committee, working with the Russell Reynolds Associates executive search firm, is “always looking for someone with maximum longevity,” Ostrin said.

A search for a new CEO (the job pays at least $500,000 a year) is effectively on hold until the organization’s board of directors meets here on Dec. 9 to vote on the new president. The president will play a crucial role in the ongoing search, according to a source familiar with the JDC operations.

The appointment for the new president was thrown into disarray after an unexpected challenge by a group of board members. Mark Sisisky, a wealth advisor who has been a JDC board member for a decade, was originally the consensus board choice for president, until Harvey Schulweis, a real estate investor and also a longtime board member, challenged him for the role, with support from some other board members. Both are active in philanthropy, and their differences are said by at least one source to be more personal than substantive.

“Both are committed to our mission,” Ostrin said. Their competition for the JDC presidency indicates, Ostrin said, “that there are a lot of people who are passionate about our mission.”

The JDC, founded in 1914-15 to bring relief to the indigent Jews of Palestine and Russia, now operates in 70 countries, providing a variety of services to some 1 million people, according to a spokesman.

Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have grown more self-confident and more self-sufficient in recent decades, usually led by younger members who grew up after the fall of communism. As a result, the Joint’s focus has shifted to social welfare activities on behalf of elderly, often-indigent Jews there. It is also supporting JDC educational and welfare programs in Israel.

In the last decade, annual fundraising has risen, with some dips along the way, from $118.4 million in 2009 to $160.8 million in 2018, the last year for which complete figures are available, according to the Joint. The totals do not include funds from the Claims Conference, the Israeli government and the Joint’s Second Century endowment campaign.

“Nothing’s stopped” in recent years as a result of the turnover in the  CEO’s position, a member of the Jewish community familiar with the JDC’s operations told The Jewish Week.

The identity of the next CEO will not affect the arc of the Joint’s work, Ostrin said. “The organization is bigger,” he said, “than any one individual.”

Note: This article was updated to remove the sentence saying David Schizer could not be reached for comment by deadline. His comment is included  in the updated article.

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