The column | Federation’s new CEO has a gleam in his eye

It makes sense that Danny Grossman used to make toys designed to get kids off the couch. That’s pretty much what he wants to do now at the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation, where he took the reins as CEO just four months ago.

“This Jewish community is exploding with creativity,” he told me last week at his office near the Embarcadero. (Yes, he has a great view of the Bay Bridge — that would get me up off the couch.) “There are so many new organizations, and a spectacular network of agencies, including J.”

OK, that’s what a federation head is supposed to do — cheer on the troops, including those sitting right in front of him. But when Danny says it, I believe him. His eyes shine a little, and I can see the same excitement he must have felt when he founded Wild Planet Entertainment, the S.F.-based company that made creative kids’ toys, including pint-sized spy gear.

Just a coincidence that he used to be a diplomat — in Russia?

Danny doesn’t know this (yet), but as he was graduating from Yale 35 years ago with a B.A. in Russian and East European Studies, I was just starting my M.A. in that subject at the same school (I finished elsewhere). But whereas I parlayed my fancy degree into a key position mopping floors in a children’s house on a kibbutz, he put his to much better use, joining the State Department and, starting in 1985, serving as a diplomat in Leningrad.

That’s where he formed his understanding of federation.

“I grew up in San Francisco and, like many people, took for granted the community assets that we had and was wholly unaware of the role federation played,” he told me. “Then I got to Leningrad, it’s the Cold War, the [Jewish] community is oppressed. And as I looked around at the community, I thought to myself, why doesn’t this community have assets like ours? Why isn’t this community coordinated? Why is it that when visiting American tourists bring jeans and other things to support the community, there is near-internecine warfare over who should get them?”

That scene stayed with him, and when he left the diplomatic service and returned to San Francisco, the memory moved him to get involved with federation and work to strengthen his own Jewish community. For more than 20 years he’s served on various federation and endowment boards and committees, giving richly of his time and intelligence.

The last five or six years have seen a big shift in the federation world, he told me. Jews who didn’t experience the Holocaust or the founding of the State of Israel give money differently than their parents did. “The means by which they engage, if they engage, have changed. They don’t think in terms of a single gift to the community. They give gifts for specific projects, to fill specific needs … and they demand measurable results.” There’s a “significant creation” of wealth by Jews in the Bay Area, he noted, which “needs to be harnessed” to the changed needs of the community, while at the same time, “it’s important that [federation] be as transparent as possible about our work, our assets and our tools.”

So what are some of this federation’s plans? We’ll be seeing more of a focus on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), Danny promised. And a continued focus on increasing Jewish engagement, which is not the same as affiliation. “People don’t need to go to a building to engage” in Jewish life, he said, noting that some of the most successful new Jewish organizations “take Jews to places where they’re not used to engaging Jewishly.” He names Urban Adamah, The Kitchen and G-dcast as good examples.

Dealing with the volatility of the Israel conversation is another priority. “The political situation in Israel can often obscure what Israel means and all it represents,” he said. “The nature of our philanthropy in Israel has changed; our presence on the ground not only engages Israelis in fundraising, but in strengthening organizations that strengthen Israeli democracy and build a shared society.”

Lots to do. Lots of nuance. Lots of challenges.

“Personally, I thought as a next career, after diplomacy and starting a couple of businesses, there’s nothing I’d rather do more than this,” he said. As for being the S.F.-based federation’s sixth CEO since 2000, he said, “I’m acutely aware we’ve had too much transition these past 15 years.” However, he intends “to be here for a while.”

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J., and can be reached at [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].