His cause is still relevant, but his fundraising is obsolete
Tzvi: We need to do things differently to stay relevant.
Nachum: The Va’ad needs leadership who will really stay committed.
My in-tray was overflowing.
Just as I reached for the first letter, slitting it open carefully and placing the envelope to one side, the secretary knocked on the door, waving a sheaf of email print-outs.
“Thank you so much,” I told her, motioning to an empty spot on the desk.
The envelopes were mostly bills, a few official thank-you cards, the occasional and very welcome check. I smiled when I got to Jerry Grossman’s. He was a good friend of the Va’ad, he really was. Every Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, and Pesach, he sent “a little something,” usually a pretty generous “little something,” to say the least. One of our most loyal donors, never mind he lived way out in the boondocks and we rarely spoke. He knew about our work, believed in our goals, and sent his quiet support three times a year.
I took out a clean sheet of stationery to compose a few words of thanks. It was part of the ritual: Jerry delivered, I responded. Although we’d long moved from handwritten letters to digital, I knew Jerry appreciated my personal words of thanks. He once told me he kept the thank-you letters in a special file.
“I need it to show the jury Up There,” he’d joked at the time.
He was well-meaning, Jerry, and over the years he’d become more religious, especially now that his son was living in Israel, doing the kollel thing. And he’d always been sympathetic to our cause, ever since we were a fledgling organization struggling to help a community in desperate need with barely the funds to pay our rent.
There was a polite tap on my office door, and then it swung open. I looked up, let my gaze sweep over the plush carpeting, gleaming wooden doors, high ceilings, and long hallways filled with purposeful bustle. Things have changed, boy, have they changed. Sometimes, I still pinched myself when I thought about the building that we owned, the building that housed some of the most incredible activism that our community has known.
“Reb Nachum, good morning, what’s the good word?” Shlomo Cowen strode into my office, pulling up a chair. Technically, I was his superior, I was the organization’s president, after all. But Shlomo was a financial genius, and the legal advisor who handled anything that needed a lawyer — court hearings, appeals, legal advice for community members in crisis... he was the brains behind so much of what we actually did to help Klal Yisrael.
“Reb Shlomo.” I nodded and smiled. “Baruch Hashem, things are good, and how is everything by you? The mishpachah?”
He waved away the niceties. “Yes, yes, baruch Hashem, it’s good, it’s good. Listen, we need to speak, you know the project we were discussing last week? Raising awareness of the schooling crisis, the convention, setting up funding for worldwide change, new yeshivos, a new system for acceptance...”
“Yes, of course.” We’d been talking ideas for a long time, this was something that the community needed help with, and finally things seemed to be getting off the ground. We’d need a fundraiser, of course, maybe a mailing campaign or one of those Chinese auctions, we did one a few years back and it seemed to go down well.
“So here’s the thing, it’s big stuff, you know and we know how important this is.” He spoke like he was presenting a case in court. I frowned; where was this going? “So here’s the thing, Tzvi Fried is ready to take it on, you know, all the nitty-gritty details. It’s a huge amount of work.”
Tzvi Fried. Young guy, up-and-coming in the world of askanus, owned a wildly successful business, and moonlighted at our organization. He was dynamic and trendy and had a finger in every pie in the city. Political connections, organizations, the boards of various shuls and schools… you name it, Tzvi was there.
Shlomo was still speaking, as if he was nervous to let me get a word in. “He’ll do a great job, he’s got the connections, the young blood, he’ll get the community on board. I spoke to him last night, he’s got some great ideas, I like his style.”
“Sounds great,” I said, although I privately wondered what kind of new ideas Tzvi would be bringing to the table. Nowadays fundraising seemed all about cool gimmicks and clever marketing, where you spent thousands on the fundraiser alone. I didn’t see the point of pouring so much money in; the old-fashioned ways still worked, and we made money without the enormous investment of much-needed funds. Still, if Tzvi was happy to take on this project, that was fine with me. We needed someone with energy to make our vision happen.
“Yes, yes, it’s great to have him on board,” Shlomo said, in a rush, and then came to the point of the conversation. “Listen, there’s just one thing. Tzvi has put in a request, and the board of executives agree with him — if he’s taking on such a big role, it only makes sense for him to be given an official role within the organization, you know? At the moment, he’s a volunteer, but we can all see he has the capabilities — he should be in a position of leadership. And to be completely honest,” he said, lowering his voice to a confidential murmur, “we don’t want to lose this guy. He’s great and he gets things going. He’s led some smaller projects for us already, done a great job, and never mind his own business. So it’s worth our while to do this, give him a real title, have him run this project, and then hopefully go on to take on more responsibilities as time goes on.”
Something was bothering me about the last sentence, but I didn’t have time to focus on it.
“I have no problem with having Tzvi Fried on board, part of the administration,” I told Shlomo. “What position did you have in mind? Should we create a title? Give him an office? Let me know and I’ll get it organized.”
Shlomo cleared his throat. “So actually, this is what I wanted to run by you.” He looked at me, looked away, and then met my eyes again. “Tzvi has offered — and the board of executives are behind him — to become copresident of the Vaad.”
I’d been in the askanus world for decades, and I’d thought that I’d heard everything. My wife, Raizel, liked to boast that nothing could shock me. But now I was stunned into silence.
“That’s a big promotion,” I finally said. Shlomo nodded along, happy now that he’d said his piece, gotten the uncomfortable part out in the open.
“Yes, it is, but we all feel it will work well, a partnership like this can just spur us to greater heights, b’ezras Hashem.”
Platitudes, platitudes. He was trying to make me feel better, which meant I should be feeling bad, which meant that the decision had been made. The only thing to do was get on the bandwagon gracefully.
“I’ll be happy to welcome him on board,” I said, standing up. “I assume I’ll be meeting with him once he accepts this new position, and we’ll discuss a division of responsibilities, and so on?”
Shlomo seemed relieved at my acceptance of the situation. “Yes, definitely, shkoyach, Reb Nachum,” he said. He stood up too, leaned over to give a firm handshake. “I assume he’ll be in tomorrow or the next day, and you can meet with him then. At the beginning, at least, he’ll be working mainly on the new project, but I’m sure we’ll appreciate his input in all aspects of our work.”
All aspects of our work.
What he was trying to say, in the nicest way possible, was that they were phasing me out. Oldies but goodies didn’t make the cut anymore, apparently.
When Shlomo was gone, I closed my office door, put the paperwork to one side. Was I really getting old? Was it time to retire?
But this was my organization. I’d been running it since its inception, heart and soul. When we were floundering during a tough economic period, I mortgaged my house to keep it going. I came in on the day of my daughter’s chasunah when there was some crisis with the city council. I’ve lived and breathed the Va’ad for over 40 years daily, nightly, no vacations, nothing, for decades.
I appreciated that nostalgia alone wouldn’t cut it if they were making big decisions about leadership, but I didn’t think I was ready to become a relic of the past yet, either.
“You have more passion and drive than people half our age,” Raizel told me loyally, when I made a casual comment about my dilemma, over supper. “And you care, you really care. Not like these young people coming in all schmaltzy because it’s good for their résumé, and then bowing out a few years later when they move on to bigger and better. Remember Kleinberg?”
How could I forget?
Kleinberg was the hottest thing in the Va’ad a few years back. The board of executives had gone crazy over him. He was in his thirties, rich and charismatic, and wore suits that looked like they were molded to his figure, designer glasses, and shiny pinpoint shoes that used to be the height of fashion. He came on board to help out with the community’s housing crisis; he was big in real estate, and we were working on a huge project to develop cheap housing solutions for the kollel families. He was super-efficient and razor-sharp and had lots to say, so much to say. And after all those words and words and words, meetings and texts and emails and strategies and plans, he went off to Florida for a month-long vacation “to unwind, it’s for my marriage, I’m so sorry” — and switched off his business phone.
And I was left scurrying from donor to donor to try raise the money we needed to pull off the grand project that he left halfway through.
“This Fried, he’s a good guy, he’s got a lot to give,” I said, but it was half-hearted. He was a good guy and sincere and well-meaning. But would he give the Va’ad his all? Would he give his life and soul to keep things running even when crisis hits? Or would he give us a year or two and then drop out for the next big thing?
I made a few confidential inquiries over the next few days. Nothing too obvious, just to hear a bit more about the man who was apparently my new partner.
“Tzvi Fried? He was president of the shul, left recently, though,” Boruch Wagner, from the shul board, told me. “It was a shame, he had a lot of energy, got a whole lot of projects off the ground. But when they were done, he resigned. Said he didn’t have the time to do everything, and now that things were in place, he could have someone else take over.”
That was just what I’d been worried about.
I thought about discussing it with Shlomo Cowen, but decided it was pointless. Clearly, this was a done deal — there was already a new office set up across the hallway from mine, shiny plaque and all.
So I stopped my inquiries. This was the situation. I’d dealt with worse, and I’d keep on dealing with it — as long as I was allowed to.
But things weren’t so simple. Tzvi had a whole different approach to practically everything, and he’d taken to making decisions without even running them by me first. When I pressed him about fundraising, mentioning that I’d always tried to get the word out early, first with phone calls and mailing campaigns and more recently with those fancy email blasts, he looked at me strangely and threw out some comment about hiring an expert on marketing and branding using social media. I wondered about the project launch, picturing delegations and meetings and some formal event to lay a cornerstone, but Tzvi was flying a bunch of businessmen to a hotel instead. “You gotta spend money to make money,” he explained sagely, and everyone else around the table nodded along.
In the meantime, I continued doing my thing, even taking the time to call a few donors about our newest project. Yes, it was Tzvi’s thing, but extra donations were only going to help. Jerry Grossman, as always, responded generously, but to my disappointment, the general response was lukewarm.
“How is everything going?” I asked Tzvi one afternoon, when he came into the office to “tie up some loose ends,” in his words.
“Good, good, excellent,” he said, sounding distracted. “We’re right on schedule, almost set for the convention, a few details to iron out…”
I noticed a sheaf of brochures in a box on the desk. Glossy, stylish, bold silver print on deep-midnight-blue background. For the convention, no doubt.
“Wow, these are ready?” I reached in and flicked through one. It included a list of sponsors, the financial backers who were helping this event to take place. Gold, Brander, Leiderman, some familiar names, some unfamiliar.
Tzvi smiled slightly. “Yes… the donors have been invited, obviously, with their families… gotta give them some credit here, they’re the ones making this happen.”
I shrugged. I believe in old-fashioned fundraising, where the donors do it for the zechus and we don’t need to grovel or pander to them in the hopes of getting more money. But I had the feeling that Tzvi wouldn’t see things the same way.
I closed the brochure, and then realized something. “Wait, you said the major donors were all invited? I didn’t see — was Jerry Grossman included?”
The smile disappeared. “Grossman? Right, you sent me his donation.” Tzvi shifted uncomfortably. “Listen, he’s a sweet guy, but I’ve met him, he’s not the vibe we need. It wasn’t the biggest donation either,” he added defensively, “And honestly, he probably wouldn’t even enjoy this Shabbos, the crowd is all very heimish…”
He’s not the vibe we need?
Because he wasn’t a big-name frum philanthropist? Because he lived out in the middle of nowhere? Because he was a kind older man with no pretentions and no expectations?
“I think he should be invited,” I said firmly. “He’s one of our longest-standing and most generous donors, how can we leave him out of this?”
Tzvi pressed his lips together, didn’t answer for a while. “I’ll see if there are any rooms still available,” he said, finally. “But I doubt there will be.”
There weren’t, of course.
I wasn’t informed about that, though. And when I gave Jerry a call to wish him a happy Chanukah, he didn’t answer the phone. For the first time in all those years, he didn’t call me back, either.
As the convention neared, the offices were in a frenzy. It wasn’t just the logistics and the planning and the last-minute emergencies; there were still all the regular issues and events and phone calls and community crises to deal with. My days in the office started earlier and ended later, and Raizel put up with it with the same patience and forbearance that she’d shown for the past few decades.
Then I had another meeting with Shlomo Cowen. This time, two of the board members accompanied him.
I knew what they wanted before they even began.
“Reb Nachum, what can we say?” Mechel Spitz began, spreading his arms wide. “You’ve given everything to this organization, to Klal Yisrael, mamash, what a zechus…”
They spoke in that vein for a while, and I waited for them to get to the point. “I appreciate that, rabbosai,” I said, letting a delicate question mark into my tone.
Mechel leaned forward. “So, it’s been many long and incredible years, having a leader such as yourself at the helm of the Va’ad, and we can’t begin to acknowledge all the tireless work and efforts you’ve given to it, from the ground up.”
I bit my tongue to stop myself from saying but…
“As you know, times have changed, baruch Hashem, we’ve been zocheh to recently employ a copresident, Tzvi Fried, and he’s proven himself already… we’re in good hands.”
Shlomo Cowen brought the conversation to its blunt conclusion: “You know, Reb Nachum, I wonder if you haven’t been thinking of it yourself, how everyone has their time, you’ve given us your everything and you deserve to let go of the burden. Be able to spend time with the family, you know, you’ve done so much already, and the Va’ad, it’s been set up with wonderful rock-solid foundations, it can move forward strongly and with confidence, thanks to what you’ve put in.”
Words, so many words, it was hard to pick out what they were trying to say. Was I being fired? Asked to resign? Told to resign? Was I going to be that figurehead, vainly trying to hold onto my post while the world — and my organization — moved on without me? Should I gracefully step down now? And Tzvi — was he the one behind this? Surely he wasn’t brash enough to think he could take on the entire burden of such a huge and multidimensional organization of work for the klal.
I looked at the delegation and all I could do was shake my head. “I haven’t considered retiring, no,” I told them honestly. “Yes, we have excellent candidates for leadership, we have a staff that is bursting with energy and potential, but…” I spread my arms wide. “What worked 50 years ago was mesirus nefesh, giving over everything for the Klal, and I don’t believe that that has changed.”
Mechel shifted in his seat, Zalman — the other board member — looked at me a little pityingly, and Shlomo hummed a little in a Gemara-type tune before responding, “You know, 50 years is a long time, a lot of things have changed.”
They were wrong, so wrong. Young people nowadays, they know the “shprach” and they get the ball rolling, they like to do their thing fast and loud, and maybe they even get results — but it’s a chesed, a side thing, a shtickel askanus to further their portfolio. There’s no personal emotion, no heart and soul, and I was willing to bet that in a few years Tzvi would be giving up this post, and onto something bigger.
The Va’ad existed for Klal Yisrael; it needed a leader who would devote his life to it. If I bowed out gracefully, as they clearly wanted me to, what would be with it?
If I could tell Tzvi one thing, it would be: I devoted my life to build this organization with blood, sweat, and toil. How can you ask me to hand it over?
It was Miri’s idea for me to get involved with the klal.
Business was, baruch Hashem, going well. So well that I had the time to devote to askanus, a few side things here and there, helping out, doing my bit for the community. I’ve always been the type to enjoy being busy, seeing the niche and filling it, like the times in yeshivah that I launched fundraising campaigns for things like extra learning programs and a new A/C system, stuff like that.
I was acting as shul president for a while, was invited to the boards of all my kids’ schools, helped out a few smaller organizations, and then I started volunteering for a large nonprofit that runs many initiatives to help the frum community. Eventually, I found that I couldn’t stretch my time and energies in so many directions, so I resigned from the shul presidency — after recruiting and training in a replacement, of course — and devoted my spare time to help make big things happen. My specialty has always been in fundraising, and that’s where I focused my energies when I initially stepped into my new role. The Va’ad always needed funds, and I was there to help them find a way to get them.
The only thing in my way was the organization’s executive president. Reb Nachum was a wonderful person, principled, determined, devoted. He was a man of real integrity, meticulous with his words, first one in every day, last one to leave the building. But what can I say, he was running the place like it was still the 1980s.
It was frustrating to watch — and even more frustrating to be involved in trying to make things happen, while we were being hampered from within.
“Fundraising dinners are not formal sit-down events with a panel of rabbanim speaking,” I told Donny Bitton, one of the other askanim involved. “Get with the picture, man! We need to be hosting nights out in the city, sushi bars and grills, you know, steaks and stuff… have a TED-talks kind of guy as the keynote speaker, maybe a therapist or some business expert…” I gritted my teeth. “They don’t get it, these people who’ve been doing it for years, they think it’s still like it was.”
Donny shrugged. He did the accounts and stuff, he sympathized with me but wasn’t out there on the battlefield. “They do bring in bucks, you know,” he pointed out.
“But they could be bringing in 50 times the amount if they got with the times,” I countered. Enough was enough — things would have to change around here, at least if I had any say in the matter.
And then the board of executives emailed me about their newest project, the worldwide schooling crisis initiative. They had goals, they had a plan — I knew all about it, I’d been at the meetings, too — but they needed someone to make it happen.
I had to admit, it was a compliment to be asked.
“I mean, they’ve had guys who’ve been there for years,” I told Miri that night as she piled my plate with cauliflower rice that I never touched. “And this is biiiig stuff, a project that they really want to go places.”
“Well, I’m not surprised,” Miri said sweetly. “Everyone knows you’ve got the drive to do it. And the experience, c’mon, look at the business. You’re gonna do a great job, Tzvi.”
I discreetly helped myself to more spare ribs and gravy, hoping she wouldn’t notice that I hadn’t touched the veg. “Thanks. But I’m not sure I’ll take it on.” I frowned a little. “I mean, it’s frustrating enough now, trying to get things done without any real authority. Imagine I’m running a whole huge project and have to do it with old-fashioned mass-mail campaigns and stuff. Reb Nachum is incredible, he’s a powerhouse, but he doesn’t understand how things work nowadays.”
Miri tutted sympathetically. “But I don’t understand, if you’re in charge of the project, why won’t they let you do it all the way? Like make the decisions and everything…”
“It doesn’t necessarily work like that,” I told her. “But then again…” I stopped eating, narrowed my eyes. “Maybe you’re right, maybe I can use this as an opportunity to do something about the situation. To make real change.”
My wife gave a proud smile. “Go get ’em, Tzvi,” she said gaily, and cleared the plates without commenting on my terrible performance on the cauliflower. “Dessert?”
Mechel Spitz from the board knocked on my door almost as soon as I arrived at the office the next day. Waiting for me?
“What’s the good word, Tzvi?” he asked jovially, without any preamble. “Can we count you in?”
I took a deep breath. “The good word is yes — on condition,” I said. I hoped he would take this the right way. “I’d be happy to run this project, but we’re talking big stuff. I need the authority to run it my way, you understand that, right?”
Mechel’s brow furrowed, and he abruptly took a seat. “Talk to me,” he demanded. “What’s the problem with how things are going? You’ve got a good head, Tzvi, we want your input. What’s this business about more authority? Something’s not going well with the leadership?”
He wasn’t off the mark. And I’d been waiting for the opportunity to voice my misgivings about the way the organization was running. Now was the time.
When I finished, Mechel was frowning more deeply. “I hear you, I hear you,” he murmured. “Let me discuss this with the board, get back to you.”
But I knew he was with me. He got it, how we had to cater to the community now, move forward with the times. It was just a matter of working out how to do something about it.
Miri was overjoyed when I was promoted to copresident. I got an office and a letterhead and some fancy plaque on the door, but that wasn’t really what I cared about. The main thing was, now we could actually get things off the ground, make change, bring in the big bucks. And a project of the magnitude that we hoped for needed all that backing, if not more.
I threw myself into the schooling-crisis convention. We needed corporate sponsors and private donors and I wanted to make this big. We reserved a hotel and I immediately dedicated one wing to the big-name donors and their families. This was going to serve a dual purpose: bring everyone together to find solutions to the crisis, and raise more money by bringing our donors to one place, giving them a Shabbos to remember, and getting instant pledges toward the programs we’d decide to implement.
Things were going great, but Reb Nachum — ostensibly my partner — couldn’t seem to let go. He was constantly asking questions, checking up on me. “How are things going, Reb Tzvi?” he’d ask. “Funding come through?”
Every so often he passed me a check or small donation toward “the cause,” which was sweet, but unnecessary. I was taking care of the fundraising for this, he had other projects to run. Besides, I wanted to get this right: a few, big-name donors who would be proud to be named in conjunction with this huge initiative, not some measly thousand-dollar checks from a motley collection of retirees.
“I feel like he’s checking up on me, doesn’t believe in what I’m doing,” I complained to Miri. “As if I don’t have the organization’s best interests at heart, or something.”
“Of course you do,” she replied instantly. “I mean, that’s why you volunteered in the first place, right?”
Of course. But it didn’t seem it was that simple. “I’m just doing things the way we do them in the 21st century, and he’s about 30 years behind,” I said. I understood him, I really did, and I’m sure his methods worked great way back when. But I knew how to work with the contemporary fundraising climate, and he had to be on board with that.
Then there was the issue with a couple of donors. Reb Nachum had his guys, built a relationship with them over the years, they were generous and kind, but honestly, you can’t cover a multimillion dollar project with a few grand from the private donations of two gentlemen out in the boondocks. I knew one of them vaguely, Mr. Grossman, and when Reb Nachum suggested inviting him to the convention, I knew I couldn’t. He wasn’t the type, wouldn’t fit in with the honorees I’d invited. We needed to lead the organization in a certain direction to keep it sustainable and advanced enough for 2021.
It didn’t go down well. Apparently, this Jerry Grossman had seen the ads on social media (I guess even the older guys keep on top of the news these days), and was hurt by the lack of an invitation.
Reb Nachum didn’t take it well.
“Jerry Grossman isn’t just a donor, he’s a friend,” he told me, sounding agitated.
I lifted a hand, palm up. “Reb Nachum, this isn’t about friends, it’s about what’s best for the Va’ad,” I said. Maybe my tone was a little brusque, because his lips tightened and he left the room abruptly.
But a couple of days later, he cornered me by the coffee machine, struck up a conversation about his years in askanus. “Forty, fifty years, you know, it’s a long time,” he mused. “Askanus, it’s a whole world. Tell me, how are you finding things here? Do you envision yourself in the field for a while?”
I blinked. What was this interrogation all about? Was he trying to check how committed I was? I mean, I came in almost every day, after work, and had devoted hours and hours to the cause already.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to work for the klal,” I said finally. “I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
Then I nodded and escaped to my own office, before I could get angry. Here I was, working overtime to get the job done in the best way possible, bringing in so much more in the fundraising arena that his formal dinners and mail campaigns ever did — and he just didn’t seem satisfied.
Why couldn’t he see that I was simply doing what worked, what needed to be done, and that times have changed?
It was clear to me that it was time for the organization to move on. I just wondered uncomfortably how long it would take until things came to a head — and how much discomfort we’d have to deal with along the way.
If I could tell Nachum one thing, it would be: What worked 40 years ago isn’t working now. Why can’t you accept that gracefully and let the new generation take over?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 840)
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