Hoffman Set to Pass the Torch as Federation President
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By Alyssa Schmitt
In the weeks leading up to his Dec. 31 retirement, Jewish Federation of Cleveland President Stephen H. Hoffman’s office appeared ready for an impromptu meeting. Photos and gifts adorned with plaques engraved with names of organizations he’s worked with were still strewn around the room. Unlike others who may be preparing to vacate their office, not one cardboard box sat waiting to be filled.
In other words, Hoffman looked as if he wasn’t slowing down. Packing bags and emptying his desk could wait until after the Federation’s Campaign for Jewish Needs wrapped up on Dec. 12, he said. Even as he winds down, his cellphone rang with calls from people looking for advice, and his door was open to those seeking guidance.
Despite his steadfast involvement – and despite a hint of envy for the journey on which his successor, Erika B. Rudin-Luria, will embark on that attendees of the Federation’s Nov. 12 tribute dinner might have heard during his speech – Hoffman feels the time is right to retire.
How did Hoffman arrive at that conclusion? He recalled a conversation he had with the late Alan Schonberg, whom he regarded as a leader for the Jewish community.
The talk took place at a community dinner when the now 67-year-old Hoffman was in his late 50s. Schonberg warned that in the coming years, Hoffman would often be asked when his retirement will come. To put people at bay, Schonberg suggested Hoffman should say he’ll retire at 65. Yet, in reality, Schonberg encouraged him to look at his status year by year and ask himself, “OK, do I want to go on?”
When Hoffman asked himself that question this year, he said he felt healthy and like he had accomplished many things in Northeast Ohio and at the national and international level. In addition to professional accomplishments, there were personal matters to consider. For example, he was trying to plan vacation time with his wife, Amy, and could only find one free week in July.
“(This job is) 24/6, you’re all in and you’re in all day,” he said. “It’s very hard to separate your private life from your professional life. It’s like being in politics to some extent. You’re all in and when you’re all in, you’re always at the command of the community.”
Completing his bucket list with his wife was one motivation for retirement. Another was his belief that now is an opportune time to open the door for the next generation to bring fresh eyes to the community’s challenges.
“It’s one thing to have wisdom and experience, sometimes they go together, and there’s value in that,” he said. “At the same time, it’s not bad to have wisdom and a younger perspective – at least in Jewish life – and I thought it was a good time for that because the challenges we’re facing have a lot to do with how we’re going to engage younger generations.”
Long ride to Cleveland
Hoffman crossed Pennsylvania from Philadelphia, where he was raised, to settle in Cleveland and start as a community relations associate in 1974 at the Federation, then located on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland.
“It seemed like a long ride at the time,” he recalled.
He was offered the job through the Federation’s Executive Recruitment and Education Program run by the Council of Jewish Federations, now known as the Jewish Federations of North America.
Cleveland wasn’t the only offer on the table. Los Angeles had extended a similar proposition to Hoffman. But at the advice of Robert Hiller, Baltimore’s federation director who previously worked at Cleveland’s Federation as an associate director, Hoffman took the job in Cleveland.
Hiller instructed Hoffman if Henry Zucker, then-executive vice president and the “top person” at the Cleveland Federation, “wants you to be a gofer, take the job, because he’s brilliant.”
Once in Cleveland, Hoffman was given opportunities to grow his leadership skills and learn through different departments. He shifted from community relations to both social planning and campaign, then was named assistant planning director, and eventually planning director. In 1983, Federation President Stanley Horowitz announced he was leaving to become CEO for the national United Jewish Appeal in New York City.
Hoffman subsequently was invited by the search committee to put his name in for the position. At 32, Hoffman said he didn’t have anything to lose.
“It was this huge honor to be asked to be in the search process, and of course, I was stupid enough to think I could do it,” he quipped. He got the job.
Michael Siegal, chairman of the board of governors of The Jewish Agency for Israel, said Hoffman’s fingerprints can be found on many of the achievements throughout Cleveland’s Jewish community. Yet at the beginning of what would be a 35-year tenure, Hoffman’s biggest goal was “not to screw up.” He didn’t have a grand vision at the time, though he recalled wanting to improve human service offerings and Federation-synagogue relations.
“At that age, it was a lot for me just to keep it moving and then you deal with whatever comes across the desk,” he said.
Within the year, the plight of the Ethiopian Jews came across his desk. He had learned about Ethiopian Jews being smuggled out of Sudan during the JFNA General Assembly that year. Cleveland, along with other federations, was asked to raise funds to settle them in Israel.
Years later, the Federation’s involvement would lead to Parents and Children Together, an educational support program that helps Ethiopian children pass pre-kindergarten and kindergarten today.
Another challenge that year came from Morton Mandel, chairman and CEO of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, who said they needed to change the direction of Jewish education in Cleveland. Together, Hoffman and Mandel recruited volunteers to lead the effort for the Federation and through the congregations and they formed a plan, raised money and continued the efforts each year. Those changes included more education for teachers, youth programs for Jewish teenagers, changes in congregations’ curriculum and better pay at day schools.
“The prime directive of the Federation –to quote from ‘Star Trek’ – you do it,” Hoffman said. “You want to do it, you have to do it, you’re going to do it.”
When asked to be temporary president and CEO of United Jewish Communities in New York City in 2001, that thinking returned – along with a feeling of responsibility to say yes. Joel Fox, then-executive vice president and COO at the Federation, filled Hoffman’s role during the three years he was leading UJC.
Upon his return, Hoffman had a more profound understanding of the role of a professional leader. Engaging at the national and international level – where he worked with the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel, among other legislators – changed his perspective on how to get things accomplished.
“It makes you more serious,” he said. “You also learn that there are things that can be done that you didn’t think could be done before – if you can get to the right people.”
Around this time in his leadership, security in the community also increased. He saw a need through his international travels to places like Argentina and Turkey, where acts of terrorism took place and as a result, security expanded. Yet, before the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, that security wasn’t present in the United States.
“The lesson I learned, and this was after 9/11, is we need to pay attention more to the security agenda in the Unites States as a Jewish community,” he said. “We were doing nothing.”
As a result, Hoffman turned to a national colleague and said there was a need to raise concern in the U.S. Thus, Secure Community Network was created so in the event something happened, it could be communicated across communities. SCN has been built up over the years and remains in use. When Hoffman came back from his term at United Jewish Communities, he formed a security department for Federation to address security daily.
Throughout his career, he continued to strengthen Federation-synagogue relations to a point he considers a full partnership today. There used to be a belief there was competition for leadership and money between the two, he recalled.
“There was a notion of separation of ‘church and state’ – Federation was the state, synagogues were the church – and they didn’t mix. We got rid of that notion,” he said. “We believe today that we can’t be any more successful than the synagogues. We need them to be successful and we need to work with them on that.”
Hoffman also considers the strong network of housing solutions for people with special needs as a top achievement during his tenure.
Susan Bichsel, president and CEO of Jewish Family Service Association of Cleveland, remembered a time in the ’80s and ’90s when families were in search of safe and affordable housing for their adult children yet none existed. Hoffman, in turn, worked to make a community plan for special needs housing, which now allows JFSA to provide services in more than 60 community residences in Cuyahoga, Summit and Geauga counties.
“Whenever there is a problem that families are facing where there are very limited resources, he really works with us to help find a solution,” Bichsel said.
Hoffman inherited a community that had exceptional lay and professional leadership, said Albert Ratner, a past board chair of the Federation. Even so, Ratner said Hoffman enhanced the leadership when changes took place.
The community, Ratner recalled, was often worked by the lay and professional leadership. Over time, leadership opened up in the non-Jewish community and attracted Jewish leaders, thus putting more responsibilities on Hoffman. Some of that responsibility took the form of raising funds for the Federation or supporting more causes overseas, Ratner said.
He added there was a change in giving directly to Israel or Soviet Jews instead of giving through pre-existing systems. Support from the community was needed with all of this and Hoffman was able to involve the general community throughout.
Hoffman’s strength as a leader, Ratner said, comes from his ability to listen and continue to learn.
“Great teachers are great students,” he said. “If you don’t always remain a student, you cannot continue to be a great teacher and Steve has the ability and flexibility to be both. There’s a tendency, when people become a CEO of an organization, to not be a good listener. Steve is a great listener.”
Bichsel said Hoffman’s success comes from his ability to switch from big picture to small. While he’s working on projects overseas, those in the community know they can call him when needed.
“There are very few people who can flip a switch and jump from those large-scale problems to working on a very individual solution for people with that kind of effectiveness,” she said.
Siegal, a former board chair of the Federation and JFNA chairman, said Hoffman’s intellect and caring soul have led to success.
“A lot of the time you see the professional Steve or the intellectual Steve or this kind of iconic Steve, you don’t really get to see his deep, endured caring about the community,” he said.
Siegal also cited Hoffman’s ability as arbitrator. There’s always emotion and tension in the Jewish world, Siegal said, yet at the end of the day, Hoffman is able to find a solution.
“Steve is kind of the go-to person when sides don’t agree,” Siegal said. “Everybody has the deep respect for Steve and Steve’s counsel, and so Steve is this great arbiter of disputes between factions to make sure we all stay on track. ... When Steve talks, everybody listens.”
Gary L. Gross, board chair, added it hasn’t been a job for Hoffman. Instead, Gross described it as a desire to sustain Jewish vitality. He cited Hoffman’s encouragement for the community to march in Washington, D.C., in 1987 in solidarity with Soviet Jewry.
“I’ve seen time and again that he has this unwavering passion to help Jews in need,” Gross said. “It’s not a job to him, it’s a calling, it’s a passion. He couldn’t have done it for 35 years if it wasn’t a calling.”
When disputes arose in the community, Gross said Hoffman “wanted to make sure he was able to bring the community along so that the community would stay together. It doesn’t happen in every city.”
Although his leadership is highly regarded, Hoffman is not immune to criticism. Over the years, his salary has been questioned. According to the Jewish Forward’s 2017 annual rank of top earning Jewish not-for-profit CEOs, Hoffman ranks 12th with a $546,515 salary. The board delegates the responsibility of seeting salaries to a compensation committee, composed of past board chairs and current officers.
“I consider every dollar we raise precious,” Hoffman said. “We call thousands of people and we ask them to contribute to the work that we do. It costs money to get the work done, it’s not just me who gets paid. We’re paying other people here and whether you’re providing security or oversight of our cemeteries or community relations work or planning with our agencies, it costs money to do all that. ... I take the spending of that money very seriously, so when somebody criticizes you for making your living doing it, it can’t help but get to you a little bit.”
‘Something in the water’
If onlookers were to look at North American Jewish leadership, they may think there’s “something in the water” in Cleveland, because many leaders come from the shores of Lake Erie. That “something” is considered by many to be Hoffman’s willingness to mentor.
Siegal said Hoffman’s leadership has guided Charles Horowitz Ratner, immediate past chair of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency; Bobby Goldberg, past board chair and ex officio member of JFNA’s board of trustees; Howard Kohr, CEO of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International; and himself.
For Hoffman, the proof of a well-functioning Federation is its ability to constantly turn out leadership. Looking at the next generations coming into the leadership position, Hoffman feels comfortable saying the next 15 years of leaders is present. Going past that, he quipped, is up to Rudin-Luria, who begins her tenure Jan. 1, 2019. As he encouraged leadership, he also looks for diversity.
“If you look at a picture and don’t like what you see, you change it. You don’t just sit there,” he said. “At some point, we looked at the gender diversity of our committee, our board and our leadership ranks and concluded we weren’t satisfied with our diversity, and that diversity was in fact what you needed to have to be relevant – and we’re about community building and being relevant.”
Albert Ratner commended Hoffman’s ability to involve the entire community, especially involving women, without affecting the involvement of men.
“It’s never been an either/or,” Ratner said. “It’s always been ‘we are a community of people and some are women and some are men and we need everybody involved.’”
Proof of this initiative is Rudin-Luria, the first female president of Cleveland’s Federation. She said she chose to move to Cleveland nearly 17 years ago because of the Federation’s reputation for being a learning organization and among the top federations in the country.
“Steve was a champion of this initiative, working with some of our volunteer leadership, and you can see it around the board table, you can see it in terms of who standing committee chairs are,” she said.
She also noted his model of being a constant learner and being able to hear all perspectives before forming his opinion, both things she’s been able to learn and improve on under his mentorship.
“Steve leaves us with a great legacy,” she said. “Part of honoring that legacy will be us continuing to move forward, raise the bar and continue to engage more people in the Jewish Federation and Jewish life. This is a phenomenal community and Steve has developed partnerships that are very deep with agencies and volunteers and our role is to build on those, and that, ultimately, will be his legacy.”
Next generation’s challenges
Hoffman said he plans to be like many retired Clevelanders and travel to Florida during the winter months, specifically to Sarasota, where he owns a home. When he is at his Shaker Heights home, he plans to do more at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, where he is vice chairman on the board of trustees. What he’ll be doing exactly, he said, he doesn’t know.
As he passes the torch to Rudin-Luria, he said there will be new challenges she and Federation will face. First, he said is the evolving Jewish identity, citing a decrease in synagogue affiliation.
“The fastest growing segment of Jewish affiliation is just Jewish – not Orthodox, not Conservative, not Reform, not Reconstructionist – just Jewish,” he said. “What does that mean? She has to figure that out.”
That identity is particularly prevalent in younger generations, which are often unaffiliated. With affiliated Jews aging, and thus unable to donate, younger donors will need to be attracted to the Federation to sustain its financial needs. The nature of Cleveland philanthropy is also changing, with organizations like hospitals and arts venues competing for the same dollars.
“I’ve often believed the annual campaign is a referendum on how I feel about being Jewish this year,” he said. “That’s what I think the annual campaign is. It’s partly a vote of confidence in the Federation, but I think it’s much more a reflection of how the donor feels about being Jewish.”
In his parting words to the community, he said it needs to work harder at hanging together. While many in the community have opposing views or values, Hoffman encouraged them to set them aside as success happens when the community works together.
“We have to be ourselves and true to our own values, but not at the expense of being able to look at other Jews as just as good as us, just as valuable as us and seek them out as partners for the greater good of the Jewish community,” he said. “There are a lot of things in the community that we don’t see eye-to-eye on, that we have different values, that we have different political views, we have different interests, but at the end of the day, we can help everyone with what they want to achieve if we hang together as one Jewish community.”
What Federation partner agencies say about Hoffman
“He has always reminded us that we aren’t in this alone. When the community and the families we serve have faced particularly painful milestones in their lives, to the extent possible, Steve has made sure we had the necessary tools available to help. Charged with protecting and caring for the welfare of many, often in countries far away, Steve never lost sight of the pressing needs of individuals close to home.”
Harvey Kotler, Outgoing Board Chair and Susan Bichsel, President and CEO
Jewish Family Service Association of Cleveland
“Although I have only been in the community for two years, Steve has reached out many times to address a variety of issues. His interest is always ‘peace’ in the community and to help us provide the very best service we can. When there were concerns, Steve wanted to understand the facts and then he worked to represent everyone’s interests fairly. It is clear that the very strong Jewish community we see today has been largely and positively influenced by Steve’s long-term leadership and hard work.”
Jim Newbrough, CEO, Menorah Park
“Steve Hoffman has been a tremendous leader in our community and has always been so supportive of Montefiore and all of the partner agencies. Steve’s guidance and insight has made Montefiore a better place for our residents, staff and family members. His work has directly led to better care, improved security and an enhanced Jewish experience for all of our clients.”
Seth Vilensky, President and CEO, Montefiore
“Steve Hoffman has been an incredibly important ally, friend and supporter of Hillel, and of enhancing Jewish life on campus. He has shown an enduring commitment for ensuring young adults have the resources and ability to explore and build their Jewish identity during college, a formative time in their lives and in their individual Jewish journey. Steve has given the best of himself to all of us in the Jewish community and beyond. He is a man of integrity and boundless energy to serve others. Cleveland Hillel is thankful for Steve’s support of our efforts to fulfill our mission and vision.”
Jared Isaacson, Executive Director, Cleveland Hillel Foundation
“Shortly after I arrived in Cleveland in 2003, I had the good fortune to meet with Steve. His passion and concern for the Cleveland Jewish Community and the Mandel JCC were immediately evident. In all my years working with Steve on behalf of The J, my first impressions never changed. Steve has challenged us as an organization to dream big, work hard towards accomplishing our goals, never settle and always put the well-being of our members and the Jewish community first and foremost. But most of all Steve has been a leading advocate for The J and its mission to build a strong and cohesive Jewish community.”
Michael Hyman, President and CEO, Mandel Jewish Community Center