He’s taken his share of lumps over the years (too slow to integrate Russian speakers into the federation world; too timid in standing up for a film festival highlighting the daily lives of Arab Israelis). But overall, UJA-Federation of New York CEO John Ruskay, the most respected federation exec in the country, has had an excellent 14-year run at the helm of the mega-charity. He initiated and championed the idea of a “caring community” and, though the philanthropic winds were against him, he was a vigorous defender of the notion of centralized giving. As boutique giving became the rage he pivoted adroitly, arguing that it was actually countercultural (cool, even) to support the agencies that did all the heavy lifting. But he also took some chances and funded numerous incubator-type projects, from Bikurim to the irreverent Heeb magazine.
Whoever replaces him will have big shoes to fill. Finding his unique combination of traits won’t be easy. He has the heart of a compassionate social activist and he’s been unafraid to give a full-throated defense of the role of Jewish values in the wider world, yet he’s a pragmatist at the same time. If his replacement is too much of a technocrat, the risk is that East 59th Street becomes too cold a place, and the “secular religion” of federation work loses the passion and strong Jewish educational component that has undergirded it under Ruskay.
Our wish: that the new hire make a big push to attract small givers. It may not be the most cost-effective strategy, but it could create a much bigger federation tent, add the leverage that accrues from swelling donor rolls and lead to a reservoir of good will from a community that senses that only big givers seem to count.
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