Jewish Federation plans to begin search for next executive leader

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

After two decades heading the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, Barry Rosenberg plans to leave the job at the expiration of his present contract.

“I’ve always said there was a next chapter,” Rosenberg said. “When that next chapter would come wasn’t always completely clear but the last number of years we’ve been thinking this might be the best time to do it.”

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Rosenberg, 60, came to St. Louis in 1993 from the Jewish Federation of North Jersey where he served for 14 years, the last eight as its executive director. His tenure in St. Louis oversaw an active period that included the launch of such initiatives as Partnership 2000 with Israeli sister city Yokneam-Megiddo, the 2010 Strategic Plan and major renovations to the Kopolow Building. He also presided over five consecutive record-breaking campaigns through 2007 as well as the shrinking figures that have plagued the organization’s annual fundraising effort in the years since the onset of the economic crisis.

Sanford Neuman, president of the agency, said a search committee will be formed over the coming weeks and the process of selecting a replacement may take nine to 12 months. Still, he stresses that it could stretch longer if needed to find the correct candidate.

Either way, the search needn’t be hurried. Rosenberg’s present commitment extends through October 2013, which he plans to serve out regardless of when a new executive is found. Neuman said the lead time would ensure getting a wide selection of candidates. After a choice is made, the remaining period would allow Rosenberg to transition duties to his replacement smoothly.

Neuman said that the lengthy head start was decided based on the opinion of a consultant who works with Jewish Federations of North America.

“She advised us that there was going to be a big turnover in executive directors around the country,” he said. “There are already two or three major cities looking for executive directors. In a few years, that number will increase and we wanted to get ahead of the curve.”

Neuman said Rosenberg was the sixth executive the federation had hired in the decade prior to his arrival.

“One of the things we’ve been very fortunate about since Barry came here is continuity, the length of time he’s been here,” he said. “Prior to his arrival, we had a number of short-term executive directors and when that happens communities lose momentum. It’s hard to maintain enthusiasm in terms of your donors and programs and so forth, so we want to do this right.”

Rosenberg’s announcement comes at a time of transition for the Jewish community’s umbrella organization. Earlier this month, the Federation board voted to start the search after hearing a report from the Structural Alignment Task Force, a preexisting group which was examining the logistics of implementing the agency’s strategic plan formulated last summer. The initiative focused on six priorities which include engagement of future generations, retaining young families in community life, advocating for a strong Israel, building a social safety net for vulnerable Jews, recruiting and training volunteer and professional staff, and optimizing community infrastructure.

Rosenberg said it was good to have such a framework in place before looking for a candidate.

“One of the things that we believe is that as we go through this transition and search process, having a clear sense of where the community is and where it is going and what it understands as its strategic direction will actually be very helpful in hiring that person because that person will know what our expectations are very, very clearly,” Rosenberg said. “If there isn’t agreement around those strategic directions, this might not be the right place for that person.”

However, he also observed that the ever-changing nature of Jewish community needs will require a dynamic leader who can adjust to shifting realities.

“On the other hand, having set a broad strategic plan, there is an awful lot of room for that new person to be involved in how that’s implemented and how that’s carried forward,” he said. “What we want to achieve most of all is continuity, ownership and accountability.”

Rosenberg said he felt his biggest accomplishments included his role in the recently completed strategic planning process, the five years of record-breaking campaigns, the organization’s bolstered ties with Israel and the Federation’s work in promoting professional development through such initiatives as the new I.E. Millstone Institute for Jewish Leadership.

The biggest priority for the next executive is unambiguous, he said.

“Clearly fundraising is at the top of the list,” he said. “That’s the core function of the Federation. We think one of the big agendas for our community in general and for the Federation is cultivating and bringing on board the next generation of top donors and leaders so reaching out to new cohorts of people will be a big agenda item.”

Hit hard by the economy and the deaths of major givers, the campaign has suffered in recent years, dropping from a record high of just over $11 million in 2007 to $10.3 million in 2009. Final figures have not been released yet for last year but in November, Ruth Lederman, assistant executive vice president and director of development, said the numbers going into the final month were the worst in more than a decade.

Neuman said the Federation was approaching the search both “cautiously and enthusiastically” and was seeking a committee that would represent broad stretches of the community.

“I think everyone is very appreciative of everything Barry has done and recognize these are large shoes to fill,” he said. “It will not be an easy job. With his cooperation and the cooperation of everyone in the community, I’m sure we will find someone up to the task.”

Rosenberg said that he was gratified to see the transition being handled with vision, wisdom and sensitivity.

“We believe we’re actually creating a model for the right way to handle executive transitions, not only in Jewish federations but in any non-profit company for that matter,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rosenberg, who said he may explore part-time teaching or consulting opportunities after his departure, still has more than two-and-a-half years on the job.

“While we’ve made this decision to go forward into succession planning and transition, we intend to keep running on all cylinders to fulfill the agenda that’s in front of us,” he said.

Rosenberg is an adjunct professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University and has served in leadership in organizations such as the Advisory Board of the Center for Social Justice at Saint Louis University’s School of Social Service and the Dean’s Advisory Committee and Management Specialization Advisory Committee of the Brown School of Social Work.

He and his wife Barbara Levin are the parents of one daughter and attend services at Congregation B’nai Amoona.