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MJF Reimagining culminates in hiring of Hannah Rosenthal as CEO/President
July 18th, 2012
Almost two years after beginning a process of introspection and restructuring, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation has hired a new leader. Hannah Rosenthal.
Currently serving as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the U.S. State Department, Rosenthal will join the federation as chief executive officer/president this fall.
The MJF Executive Committee unanimously ratified the hiring at a special session on July 18.
Rosenthal comes to the federation with a resume that includes top positions at the state, national, and global level. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and spending two years in rabbinical school, she became involved in political and civic affairs in Wisconsin.
Following five years as Midwest regional director at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, she served from 2000-2005 as executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community and the umbrella group for organizations like MJF’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
Before joining the State Department, she spent four years as executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women and was corporate vice president of Wisconsin Physicians Service.
Hiring Rosenthal embodies the transformational change that our community strongly encouraged through the Reimagining process, said MJF President Jerry Benjamin.
“We were looking for somebody who would be a champion for the process that we’ve been going through as a community. We heard loud and clear that our organization should be, first and foremost, a fundraising organization and a convener. If we could have invented the perfect leader to lead the Federation now, it would be Hannah Rosenthal,” said Benjamin.
Dan Bader, who led Federation’s CEO Search Committee, echoed Benjamin’s enthusiasm. “We hired Hannah Rosenthal because she understands the vision for where the Federation wants to go and has the leadership skills necessary to get us there,” he said. “She has tremendous talent and strong leadership experience in many areas.”
Bader led a volunteer committee that included a diverse group of community members: Jerry Benjamin, Alan Borsuk, Mark Brickman, Fred Croen, Mark Goldstein, Bonnie Jacobson, Rabbi Wes Kalmar, Marlene Lauwasser, David Lubar, and Andrea Schneider.
With the help of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence, the committee conducted a broad national search. Based on information gleaned from listening sessions with various groups in the community, the committee developed a set of criteria used to rate the candidates. They fell under the broad categories of:
• Business skills: Fundraising skills, builds trusted relationships, business management skills, knowledge of the Jewish community and Federation system.
• People skills: Leads and manages change, promotes a productive work environment, and ensures teamwork and collaboration.
• Personal qualities: Dedication to excellence, integrity and credibility, balance, intelligence/savvy, continuously learns and communicates effectively.
• Visionary leadership: Demonstrates passion/commitment for Jewish life and values, communicates a compelling vision of Jewish communal life grounded in Jewish ideas and values, and understands and communicates the organization’s vision and strategy to others.
“Hannah Rosenthal was head and shoulders above all the other candidates we encountered,” Bader said, noting her extensive experience as a community builder, fundraiser, and leader of organizational change.
National leaders are enthusiastic about Rosenthal’s decision to come to Milwaukee.
“Hannah Rosenthal is an exceptional and inspired choice to help lead the Milwaukee Jewish Federation,” said Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America. “With her extensive background in fundraising, deep Jewish communal ties locally and nationally, and global experience, Hannah will help the community grow for generations to come.”
“I am thrilled to learn that Hannah is assuming senior professional leadership of the Milwaukee Federation,” said Martin Raffel, senior vice president of the JCPA and Israel Action Network project director. “The community is fortunate to hire a leader with the depth of knowledge, experience and dedication that she will bring to this position.”
“Hannah and I worked side by side during the difficult period of 9/11 in the United States and the so-called Second Intifada in Israel,” Raffel continued. “Together we joined with our colleagues at The Jewish Federations of North America [then United Jewish Communities] in developing the Israel Advocacy Initiative, which continues to play an important role for years in enhancing community-based advocacy through the JCRCs and Federations.”
“Israel’s security and well-being have always been a passion for Hannah. This complements her deep commitment to social justice. During the last few years, Hannah has been able to be part of our country’s effort to address the challenge of global anti-Semitism, and it has been my privilege to work with her on this enterprise as well,” Raffel said.
Rosenthal has lived and studied in Israel, and has been an advocate for policies that support Israel, including the creation of the Israel Action Network (see above).
She has said, “I think Israel is a country under siege, and I think that people who put the blame on Israel for all the ills of the region and the world are fundamentally anti-Semitic.”
Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, developed a relationship with Rosenthal when she led the JCPA, of which ADL is a member.
Foxman said, “While we did not always agree on every issue, I respected her leadership of that umbrella Jewish communal organization and the manner in which she encouraged open and respectful debate across the diverse spectrum of positions and ideas in the American Jewish community and among the broad-based constituency.”
Rosenthal is excited to return to Wisconsin, where her two daughters and her sister live. “I’m coming back home to continue to work passionately for the Jewish people,” she said in a telephone interview from Berlin.
“Milwaukee is a perfect sized city,” she said. “It’s got a fabulous Jewish community that just went through a process that affirms that it wants to embrace change and make the Federation even better and the Jewish community even better. What more could you want?”
The Reimagining process was a powerful factor in Rosenthal’s interest in the position. “When I looked at the dream statements that came out of the Summit [the two day community gathering in June 2011], I saw a community that appeared to be very serious about embracing change,” she said, noting that the call to be a welcoming and inclusive community, with doors open to all, was ubiquitous.
“When I saw what the community really wants their future to be and recognized what their future must be, I got very excited and felt that my life experiences — the various leadership roles I’ve had in my career, the passion I have for the Jewish people — put together a person that I felt could really get this job done.”
Rosenthal is very clear on the CEO’s role. “Our staff’s job is to enable the board vision,” she said. “The board decides x, y, and z — be it budgetary, programming or policy — and the staff’s role, with the CEO leading the staff, is to enable that vision, that policy or that program.”
Her first order of business is financial resource development. “My number one priority will be to see how we can meet the financial challenges that the Jewish community has,” she said.
She will also focus on outreach, within and beyond the Jewish community. “I think right away we have to figure out how to reach out to young people. Not only to young people, but also to new people,” she said. “We need to enlarge the table.
“We also need to recognize that our outreach to the non-Jewish community is not only the right thing to do, it is enlightened self-interest,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal will be the first woman in the top professional position at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the sixth woman heading the 39 large and large/intermediate federations. That’s a significant statistic, as women tend to make up federation professional staffs, but rarely make it to the top spot. But breaking barriers is Rosenthal’s modus operandi.
She was one of very few women in rabbinical school in the 1970s. She was the first director of the Wisconsin Women’s Council (serving under Governors Tony Earl and Tommy Thompson) and one of the first women to serve as regional director of a federal agency. She was the first woman to head the JCPA and at that time was the only woman ever to head a national Jewish organization that was not a Jewish women’s organization.
“In all those times,” Rosenthal reflected, “I regarded the fact that I was a woman and was raised by a rabbi who was ordained Orthodox, who told me I could do anything I wanted to do.
“My mother, who was a feminist before the word existed, always said, ‘If someone puts a barrier in front of you, kick it down’ and I always believed my parents wouldn’t lie to me. So I figured all doors would be open to me.”
A professional with a proven success in community building and consensus building, Rosenthal is unafraid of conflict and tension. “Our culture, our religion, our educational system throughout the ages, has been to argue. When a Jew dies, the family is supposed to question whether God exists,” she said.
She recalled a visit last week to Worms, Germany, where she sat on the chair of Rashi, the great medieval Torah and Talmud commentator.
“I said, ‘Can you imagine the arguments that happened in this room?’ That’s how we learn. That’s how we Jews have survived over the millennia,” she said.
Rosenthal summarized her passions and her reasons for taking the job: “I’m going back home to continue to work passionately for the Jewish people in a community that wants that passion and recognizes that change is needed.”
Rosenthal is expected to begin her new role in October 2012. Sheryl Primakow will continue as MJF Interim Executive Director until that time, and then will move into a new position as Chief Operating Officer.
In August 2012, Jerry Benjamin will step down as Board Chair, and Board Chair Elect Marlene Lauwasser will take that position.