Fall from a High Place: The Firing of Debby Hirshman

My God, she built the institution. I just don’t know what happened.” This is how a top Jewish organizational professional described the departure of Debby Hirshman the executive director who brought the widely praised Jewish Community Center in Manhattan from dream to $85-million reality.

Two years ago, Hirshman was profiled in LILITH as one of the highest-ranking and most visible women executives in the Jewish world. Last September, erev Rosh Hashanah, she was suddenly fired. Until Hirshman’s dismissal, she was praised by board members and donors for her leadership; she had brought in a new generation of young philanthropists and attracted some 12,000 members. She’d also gained the support of all 17 Upper West Side synagogues, skillfully threading the needle on issues like Shabbat hours.

Hirshman said that her dismissal took her by surprise, coming a week after rounds of praise from board members and staff at her 50th birthday party. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, she expected to discuss with the board’s executive committee whether to hire an external management consultant. Instead, according to Hirshman, two executive committee members told her that they had lost confidence in her capacity to manage the institution. Then they asked her to resign.

JCC board co-chair Pete A. Joseph told LILITH in a phone interview: “Basically Debby had a wonderful run, and it was time for a change. All 14 members of the executive committee approved her leaving, and 56 of the 59 board members.” Joseph noted that no board members or top staff resigned in protest over Hirshman’s dismissal. Elizabeth H. Scheuer, the other board co-chair and the wife of Peter Joseph, echoed his words: “Debby was a fabulous visionary and creator. It is often the case that visionaries and creators are best at visioning and creating.”

The JCC has yet to inform its members directly of Hirshman’s forced resignation. The official silence has spawned rumors, especially when Jewish Women Watching (JWW), an anonymous group using dramatic tactics to challenge sexism and other discriminatory practices in the Jewish community, awarded the JCC the “Fear of Too Queer Award,” announcing in a press release that “Debby Hirshman spent a dozen years building a showplace JCC…. Yet soon after she became more vocal about her lesbian identity, the JCC board forced her to resign. Congrats to the JCC for letting misogyny and homophobia triumph.”

Those close to the organization say, in fact, that Hirshman had been out as a lesbian to the board for some time, and point to the JCC’s pioneering gay and lesbian programming. The charge of misogyny seems misplaced as well, given that almost all the institution’s senior staffers are female.

Hirshman’s micromanagement appears to have been a more serious issue than the JWW charges. According to Hirshman, the board’s concern was, “Look, she was still worried about picking up towels in the locker room.”

The perception that Hirshman was concentrating on minutiae rather than the remaining $20 million needed to complete the building’s $85-million capital campaign seems to have been a sore point for board members. Hirshman’s overall management skills also became an issue. As for the towels, Hirshman said, “In an environment and business that didn’t have any systems yet, there was micro-managing people in roles they never did before. Often that word is ascribed to me as a negative. But that was what assured the quality needed to move forward.”

In fact, those close to the JCC characterize Hirshman as both charismatic and difficult. Despite her philosophy of inclusiveness, she reportedly was capable of bringing staff members to tears.

Said one insider who did not want to be identified: “The JCC board had the right to do what it did, but because of the precipitous way it was done it led people to believe that something was wrong. It was bad for the board and bad for Debby. But it’s settled.”

Not so fast. No matter what precipitated the firing of this powerful woman, the institution that celebrates itself as “a place of safety and comfort,” taking pride in its Center for Mindfulness, will have to pay more than lip service to the innovations and values that were Hirshman’s vision.

In the words of Barry Shrage, long-time president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, summing up Hirshman’s accomplishments: “She created a brand new institution that was the talk of the Jewish world. She raised a huge amount of money for a project that people thought couldn’t be done. She created programs that were the buzz of the Jewish community.”

It is not easy to institutionalize a founding director’s vision. The challenge now will be to keep that spirit part of the JCC, so that it doesn’t become a big-budget Jewish organization built by a visionary who took the vision with her.