Former Timberland CEO addresses extraordinary failures of Jewish leadership

The American Jewish world today is characterized “by noxious, repulsive, ungoverned, hateful, polarizing rhetoric from sanctioned bullies who spew venom from the left and from the right at each other,” Jeff Swartz told 500 people gathered for a luncheon hosted by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation on Sept. 22.

Swartz, the former CEO of Timberland who now chairs Maoz, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing positive transformations in Israeli society, devoted his keynote address at the Federation’s Day of Philanthropy to what he called the “extraordinary failures of Jewish leadership.”

 

Jeff Swartz

“In this generation, we’ve raised Jews who are broadly illiterate Jewishly,” Swartz said in a 40-minute long speech that pulled no punches. “Way too many young Jews in America have little or no common cause with the Jewish democratic State of Israel. Way too many of our cousins and our kids value their birthright little more than a free 10 days of adventure in Israel.”

 

Held at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, Day of Philanthropy is an annual event in which the Federation brings together philanthropists, nonprofit leaders and entrepreneurs for a daylong program that includes wealth and estate-planning seminars and thought-provoking speakers and panels.

The Federation honored three Bay Area philanthropic leaders at this year’s luncheon: David A. Friedman received the Robert Sinton Award for distinguished leader of the year, Marilyn Yolles Waldman received the Judith Chapman Memorial Women’s Leadership Award and Sam Goldman was honored with the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Young Leadership.

Swartz, in his address, expressed admiration for the honorees and others who devote their time and resources to service. But Jewish leadership as a whole, he asserted, has lost its moral authority and focus on pursuing the common good.

“You can’t say ‘never again’ and keep marching along” when more than 300,000 Syrians have been killed in a civil war, Swartz said. “You can’t say ‘tikkun olam’ and walk by the homeless in the city.”

Swartz, however, finds promise in the new generation of entrepreneurial Jewish leaders, including those who have started Bay Area organizations such as Mission Minyan, Urban Adamah and Moishe House.

“Ultimately, these change agents are the ones that can shine light. They are not by and large sitting in places of power. They are innovators from the outside,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Goldman, who sits on the board of Wilderness Torah, an organization that connects Jewish learning and holidays to outdoor experiences. He spoke on an afternoon panel with his fellow honorees; the topic was “Storytelling with Three Inspiring Leaders.”

“What we have that the other cities don’t have is a drive to innovation. The fact that we have to innovate to stay relevant is a blessing,” said Goldman, who is the California program director of the Conservation Lands Foundation and co-chairs the Federation’s LGBT Alliance. “I love being a Jewish Californian.”

The honorees shared many connections, both philosophical and personal. Waldman, as it happened, used to drive the carpool that brought Friedman to religious school as a teen.

“I take credit for his success,” she joked.

On a serious note about planting the seeds of success, she said one of the highlights of her many years of activity in the Jewish community, which included being a founder of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, was starting a jobs program for Russian immigrants at Jewish Vocational Service in the 1990s.

“When I see so many people succeed, I feel grateful to have been a part of that,” she said.

The panel’s third honoree, Friedman, a generous donor who has been involved with many organizations, including the Jewish Home of San Francisco, said he learned lessons about giving from his family, who had a long legacy of philanthropy.

“We grew up with privilege. We grew up with money. There was no hiding it,” said Friedman, who has had a long and distinguished career as a structural engineer and seismic safety expert. But, he added, he was always made to understand, “You’re lucky; you’re not special. With the luck came responsibility.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.