Jerry Yanowitz: from counterculture to federation head

Jerry Yanowitz actually likes asking people for money.

No, really, he does.

"It's important work. I think it's an honor to ask people for money for important things," said Yanowitz, who was sworn in this week as the new board president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

"It's not an easy thing to do all the time. But we have a lot of important work to do in the Jewish community. We need people's involvement. We need their time, energy and resources."

For the next two years, the 44-year-old cable television executive will have plenty of opportunity to exercise his enthusiasm.

But Yanowitz doesn't only want to solicit funds. He wants to cull ideas from Jews in Alameda and Contra Costa counties about the kind of community they want to create.

"I think we need the federation to enhance its role in the community, not simply as the annual campaign but as a central resource provider, a community visionary, a community craftsman," the Oakland resident said.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Yanowitz moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s after graduating from Antioch College. He readily acknowledges he was part of the anti-establishment movement that planned to change the world.

"Jerry is probably our first federation president to have come from a bit of counterculture background," said Ami Nahshon, the federation's executive vice president.

Like many others of his generation, Yanowitz has since shed the trappings of hippiedom.

Today, he is vice president of federal affairs for the California Cable Television Association and flies to Washington, D.C., at least once a month to lobby for the industry.

Married and a father of two, he and his family belong to Beth Jacob Congregation, Oakland's modern Orthodox shul.

Still, Yanowitz doesn't see his current community involvement as a break from the past. He considers it a continuum of working to make the world a better place.

"In the '60s we thought we were going to change the world in a big sense. Now people are trying to do it on a community level," he said.

Yanowitz moved to the East Bay about 13 years ago when he got tired of San Francisco's cold, foggy summers.

He got involved in the East Bay's organized Jewish community about a decade ago, joining the Jewish Community Relations Council's board. He later became JCRC's chairman.

Since then, his involvement has snowballed.

Yanowitz has been a vice president of the Jewish Film Festival and the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California. He served as chair of the federation's allocations committee, as well as one of its vice presidents for the past several years.

"Once I got involved, I came to see federation as one of the most important organizations in the Jewish community, in terms of its mission and what it was doing for the community."

He now serves on the board of the Oakland Hebrew Day School, where both his children will be enrolled this fall. He also is a board member of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and a vice president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"I do organizations," Yanowitz joked. "For better or worse, I'm good at it."

Yanowitz is actually following in his parents' footsteps.

His father, who flew here to lead the swearing-in ceremony, was a president of Cleveland's federation. His mother was a president of the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies.

Yanowitz believes he is taking over the top post at a time when the East Bay federation has turned a corner. Since the early 1990s when the annual campaign began to lag, the federation has undertaken what Yanowitz called "radical changes."

It reworked the lay leadership. The structure now consists of a board of trustees for major givers and a board of delegates who represent more than 40 organizations in the East Bay.

It cut staff, as well corporate ties to the JCRC and the Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay.

At the same time, the federation reorganized its fund-raising campaign, adding specific funds for social justice and human needs, learning and culture, Israel and world Jewry, and spiritual renewal.

Last month, it added a new fund for religious pluralism in Israel.

Though all of the campaign pledges aren't in yet, Yanowitz expects that annual fund-raising will be up 7 to 10 percent from last year's $2.68 million. That would be the first significant growth in annual campaign since the early 1990s.

Yanowitz has been particularly proud of two recent projects: the Volunteer Action Center and FedNet, the federation-led effort to connect all East Bay Jewish groups via the Internet.

Though he's still developing his goals right now, Yanowitz said he generally wants to make sure federation volunteers do what best suits them, given their time restraints.

In the meantime, he'll be raising money, attending meetings and poring over paperwork. He doesn't seem to mind.

"It's sometimes hard to see the nitty-gritty as holy work, but it is."