Stepping down: Jennifer Gorovitz, first woman to lead major federation, resigns JCF post

After more than four years at the helm of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, CEO Jennifer Gorovitz announced last week that she will step down on March 31.

Reaction from the community came swiftly.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said Gorovitz had brought “tremendous intellect and passion to her leadership. Her own deep connection to Jewish life and Israel has permeated her tenure at the federation and is behind the great authenticity she has brought to the position.”

Longtime federation donor and lay leader Roselyne Swig said was “very sorry “ to hear that Gorovitz will be leaving. “I think she’s done a remarkable job,” Swig said. “She came from within and blossomed into a real leader. Jennifer had a contemporary vision that augurs well for the future.”

With her formal appointment to the position in May 2010, after seven months as interim head, Gorovitz became the first woman to lead a large Jewish federation in the United States. Her departure ends a comparatively long period of stability in the federation’s top spot, as well as a time of significant change for the venerable San Francisco–based institution.

Gorovitz, who has worked at the federation for a total of 10 years, told J. she made her decision after a 2013 summer sabbatical, during which she reflected on her life.

“I’m turning 50 this spring,” the Berkeley resident said. “I have two teenagers, one graduating from high school next year, and I have very limited time with her. So I prefer to return to a more private life with my family, and spend time with [my daughter] visiting colleges.”

She also said she wanted to return to her “first passion,” the practice of law, focusing on trust and estate planning. A native of Salt Lake City and a graduate of both Stanford University and Georgetown University Law Center, she is married to attorney Eric Gorovitz.

In an open letter to the community dated Jan. 3, the federation’s board chairman, Tom Kasten, praised Gorovitz’s leadership, citing in particular the increase in donor base, donor advised funds and legacy gifts during her tenure.

“None of this would have been possible without Jennifer’s ability to build a strong, dedicated staff team and an engaged, hardworking board of directors and other volunteer leaders,” Kasten wrote.

Kasten told J. that a search committee, co-chaired by Jim Koshland, former federation president, and current treasurer Jim Heeger has been formed and will immediately begin its task.

He added that he hopes a new CEO will be hired before Gorovitz leaves, but a contingency plan will be devised in case the search takes longer.

Gorovitz arrived at the top following a period of volatility in the federation’s executive suite. Her immediate predecessor, Daniel Sokatch, served 14 months, which followed a 20-month tenure by Tom Dine. So her 41⁄2 years on the job, come March, would make for a relatively long run.

That’s still brief compared to Wayne Feinstein, who served for 10 years, and Rabbi Brian Lurie, who held the post for more than 17 years in the 1970s and ’80s.

Lurie, who applauded Gorovitz’s performance, hopes the next chief executive will stick around longer.

“You want someone there for at least 10 years,” he said. “When you turn executives over quickly, it is not a best- case scenario. But if an executive can go 10 years or more, there are tremendous advantages. They build up such confidence in the lay leadership. It’s the maturing of the partnership that should be there.”

Koshland told J. his committee will conduct a broad search, looking across the North American federation system and beyond for a candidate who can manage both the federation and the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, which Gorovitz also headed.

Jennifer Gorovitz speaks at the federation’s annual Business Leadership Council breakfast in 2011. photo/peter g. marcus photography

Meanwhile Koshland, too, had high praise for Gorovitz.

“She’s done a terrific job solidifying the organization,” he said. “She hired good people, strengthened the financial aspect, and she’s been an innovator.”

As she prepares to depart, Gorovitz said the federation’s financial health  is “fantastic.”

After a few years of decline in both dollars and number of donors, in 2012 the federation’s annual campaign raised $18.2 million from 6,100 donors. Last year those totals rose to $18.65 million from 6,300 donors.

The picture was not as rosy when she took over as interim CEO following the abrupt departure of Sokatch in September 2009. He left after little more than a year at the helm to become executive director of the New Israel Fund.

Gorovitz had been Sokatch’s chief of staff and a senior development officer with the Jewish Community Endowment Fund before that. So she knew the players in-house and across the local Jewish community. But the economy was mired in recession, which posed challenges to the federation and all nonprofits.

It meant she had to make tough decisions.

“We released over time as much emergency support from the endowment that we thought was prudent,” Gorovitz said, “trimming $5 million from the budget to release more into the community. That meant laying off 21 [staff members] and eliminating 33 positions. Then we took efforts to streamline the federation going forward so we would not go back to the previous size.”

She also came to the job three months after the uproar over the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s screening of a documentary about the late anti-Israel activist Rachel Corrie and the inclusion of Corrie’s mother for a Q&A following the screening. Partly in order to stave off similar debacles in future, the federation, in partnership with the JCRC, established in February 2010 guidelines for its grantees regarding permissible limits of anti-Israel speech or activity.

It was the first federation in the country to do so.

The tumult over the screening, the guidelines and other contentious topics led the federation to team up with the JCRC to launch the Year of Civil Discourse, a 2011 program that enabled conflicting factions within the Jewish community to learn effective ways of communicating about tough topics, primarily the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That project, which Gorovitz considers one of her proudest achievements, was created, she said, “to enable a community with strong beliefs about the Israel-Palestine conflict to communicate in ways that were not so divisive.”

She is equally proud of several innovations that emerged from the federation’s 2011 strategic plan, among them the Impact Grants Initiative, a venture philanthropy and engagement model for young adults. Exhibit A: the “Big Mitzvah” event last year that drew more than 500 young adults for an evening of partying and speed grant-making. More than $36,000 was raised for local Jewish nonprofits.

“Youth has been a huge emphasis of mine,” Gorovitz said, “and a mandate of our major veteran donors, who felt it was crucial to create engagement and excitement among young people, not only for the federation but for the Jewish community itself.”

Toby Rubin, CEO and founder of UpStart Bay Area, an incubator of innovative organizations fostering Jewish life, credits Gorovitz with helping her nonprofit thrive. Last year, the federation granted UpStart, which works largely with startups run by younger Jews, a second annual $175,000 grant.

Rubin appreciates Gorovitz’s enthusiasm for innovation in the Jewish world.

“For years people couldn’t understand how we could be in Silicon Valley and [yet] the Jewish community could be so far behind in embracing innovation,” Rubin said. “That’s the change she got in motion. She inspired younger generations to step up in ways they hadn’t before.”

As the first woman to head one of the 20 largest Jewish federations in North America — and still the only one, according to the Jewish Daily Forward — Gorovitz is a pioneer, but an “underpaid” one, according to the publication.

Jennifer Gorovitz strategizes with Super Sunday co-chairs Tom Kasten (left) and Bob Tandler in 2010. photo/dan pine

In a survey published last month, the Forward cited Gorovitz’s 2012 salary as $311,000 and noted that it was less than 31 other Jewish organizational leaders earn. Moreover, factoring in the size of the federation, survey authors wrote that Gorovitz was “underpaid by 38 percent compared with predicted salary.”

Gorovitz is not the only woman to head a local Jewish federation. Jyl Jurman is the longtime CEO of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley, and Michal Kohane was the executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region for six years. Kohane’s successor, Melissa Chapman, is also a woman.

Lurie, who is halfway into his three-year term as president of the New Israel Fund, commended Gorovitz on a job well done.

“She has stabilized the federation, both its campaign and its finances,” he said. “Structurally she has been solid,  adding new, quality staff. Altogether I give her a very good rating.”

Lurie remembers a time when Jewish federations had a reliable, built-in donor base. That is no longer true, as younger generations of Jews have found different, more individualistic ways of expressing their Jewish identity than their parents’ communal affiliations.

“The federations’ purpose has radically changed since the days I was an executive,” Lurie said. “In 1987, over 80 percent of the money that went to Israel came from the federation movement. The last year that was measured was 2007, when it was down to 15 percent.”

At the same time, according to Lurie, total private and foundational philanthropic grants to Israel from American Jewry went from $1.2  billion in 1987 to $2.2. billion in 2007.

Lurie also said that when he was CEO, 20 to 35 percent of the budgets for local Jewish day schools and Jewish community centers came from federation annual campaigns. Today, he said, that figure has fallen to 5 percent or less.

Though he hopes the next CEO will stay for a decade, that may not be so easy to achieve.

A new study from the University of Missouri and Temple University showed that the optimal length of tenure for CEOs is 4.8 years, and that their effectiveness diminishes over time. The study only looked at for-profit companies, but it may provide lessons for the nonprofit world.

“People with 25-year tenures are from another era,” said Rubin. “We have some here — Abby Snay [of Jewish Vocational Service] and Anita Friedman [of Jewish Family and Children’s Services] — but it’s not the way of the world anymore. Federations are a challenged concept in 21st century America. Umbrella giving is not an approach that people choose anymore.”

As she prepares to step down, Gorovitz is still developing new initiatives. For example, a senior task force, which will explore ways the federation can better serve older Jews, has just been launched, as has the first phase of the Healthy Jewish Community Index, which will help improve federation grant-making.

She leaves with a sense of gratitude and gratification that she made a difference in a community she cares about so deeply.

“This was an opportunity to develop as a leader and also lead the federation in a direction that I thought would be beneficial,” Gorovitz said. “I’m really glad I could be a role model for my own daughter and for young women coming up in the federation. When the first woman enters an arena it provides hope and a sense of empowerment.”

Federation board chair Kasten said Gorovitz did exactly that in her years as CEO.

“We owe Jennifer a debt of gratitude for her leadership and all that’s been accomplished in her years,” he said. “She really left the federation in a much better place. We have a number of innovative new programs that have really allowed us to move forward.”

Citing a strengthened Israel office, a family-funds approach to grant-making and addressing issues of young family, teen and LGBT engagement, Kasten added, “We’re in great shape and in a good place to find a successor.”


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.