After interviewing Eric Robbins, I was happy to jump aboard the bandwagon supporting his hiring as the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s CEO. He’s a smart, experienced, creative nonprofit leader who isn’t interested in the Federation job as some sort of career achievement award; he’s coming to transform the organization and drag it toward the 22nd century.
Then I got an email from Rabbi Lou Feldstein, a former high-ranking Federation executive, with a link to a column he posted Monday, May 9, at eJewish Philanthropy.
Before I say more about it or you read it at ejewishphilanthropy.com/now-is-not-the-time-for-respect, it’s important to note that the column calls Robbins “a talented, skilled, remarkable and amazing individual” who in many ways “is exactly what a community like Atlanta needs.”
But Rabbi Feldstein noticed something I missed: Our three biggest communal organizations — Federation, Jewish Family & Career Services, and the Marcus Jewish Community Center — have hired CEOs since the start of 2015, and all of them are men. Because the previous JCC CEO was Gail Luxenberg, we’ve actually gone backward in terms of female communal leadership.
Each of those three hires was warmly received for good reason. Each of the three came from within the community; Rick Aranson at JF&CS and Jared Powers at the JCC came from within the organizations themselves. It’s an excellent sign for Jewish Atlanta that we are developing our own communal professionals who are as good or better than any leaders we might find out of town.
But Rabbi Feldstein looks beyond the trees to see the forest and is troubled, writing: “If Atlanta reflects Jewish life in North America, what does it say that after decades of struggles to engage and hire woman at the very top that when the three largest CEO positions are open in the same community, none were able to find a woman just as qualified or capable?”
It’s a question that could be asked of any traditionally disadvantaged group straining to reach the top, of course, and whether that group is women or blacks or Hispanics or, in the not-too-distant past, Jews, it’s hard to connect the big-picture ideal of equity and leadership that, as Bill Clinton used to say of his Cabinet, looks like America and the individual decisions that distort the picture. It’s an issue that’s even more glaring as we seem to move closer to electing our first female U.S. president this year.
Still, it took Federation nine months to find Robbins even though he was right here. Should Federation have kept looking until a woman just as perfect for the job emerged? Should Federation have tried harder to recruit one of our community’s outstanding female leaders for the position?
I’m not typically an advocate of affirmative action, but it’s easy enough for me as a white man to take the “hire the best person” position. And unlike Rabbi Feldstein and Robbins, I don’t have a daughter to broaden my perspective.
Rabbi Feldstein makes the case that we men must do more to encourage women and must challenge our own deep-seated biases but also that women need to be more aggressive — more like men. His column itself could have come from a woman standing up for herself.
The first comment on the column is from Robbins, who shows why he’s the right person for the job. He thanks Rabbi Feldstein for pointing out the “unfortunate reality” and emphasizes the importance of mentoring and staff development in his leadership practice.
Perhaps part of the transformation Robbins aims to bring to Federation will pave the way for female leadership.