The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s hiring of Eric Robbins as its next CEO caught us by surprise. But that fact reflects a lack of imagination on our part — a problem we’re happy to say didn’t afflict Gerry Benjamin’s search committee, any more than it troubles Robbins.
We’re excited to see Robbins take arguably the most important job in Jewish Atlanta.
The Federation board was right to choose someone different from Michael Horowitz, who announced his resignation as Federation CEO in September and left the post in mid-February.
Horowitz came from Detroit, where he was a businessman and philanthropist involved with the Jewish communal world only as a lay leader. Moving into nonprofit leadership was an alternative to semiretirement, and he made that move with a personal style that could rub people the wrong way.
Robbins isn’t from here, but he’s close. Atlanta became his home away from home when he was 10 and first attended Camp Barney Medintz, which he liked so much that he refused to go home after the first session. He attended Georgia State University and worked at Camp Barney, and after a sojourn in New York, he came back to Atlanta more than 10 years ago to run Camp Twin Lakes. He knows and loves the Jewish and non-Jewish communities here and won’t have to learn who’s who.
He’s a career nonprofit leader, usually working within or with the Jewish community, so he approaches Federation from the perspective of a professional. The growth of Camp Twin Lakes the past decade shows his effectiveness, and he’s as likable a person as you’ll find.
At 53, he might be a few years older than the ideal next-generation leader we envisioned, but his energy and infectious enthusiasm serve as reminders that age is just a number. He certainly is comfortable in the social media world.
All of those traits are nice, but they wouldn’t mean much if not for Robbins’ commitment to transform Federation. He’s open-minded: He acknowledges needing to go through an extensive process with the community to develop a detailed vision of what the Federation of the future needs to be, but, crucially, he’s starting with the belief that it cannot be what it was 50 years ago and what it largely remains today.
Marty Kogon, the former Federation chairman who received the Lifetime of Achievement Award on Thursday, May 5, the same day Robbins was hired, offered valuable ideas in his acceptance speech for what Federation should do in the areas of programming, facility construction and leadership development. But he began with the old-school idea of Federation as the center for Jewish philanthropy — that is, the place to raise and distribute money for the Jewish community.
Robbins said Federation can and should do a better job with fundraising, which hasn’t fully recovered from the 2008 recession. But he sees the organization’s core function as community building, not developing donors.
Turn Federation into the central convener for all of Jewish Atlanta and everything else — the programming, the leadership, the facility cooperation, the fundraising — will fall into place.
We don’t know whether that 21st century transformation of Federation is truly possible, but we’re optimistic that if anyone can do it, Robbins can.