New Chronicle Column, “The Decision.”
Putting Family First: How a Charity Founder Decided It Was Time to Step Down
“Is everything OK?” came the note from my friend’s BlackBerry to my inbox. “Everyone is worried about you.”
Only minutes before, the charity I’d been running for the past decade — Jewish Family & Life — had sent out the news that I was going to be stepping down as its CEO in the fall.
“Everything is great,” I wrote back. “Zamir just came home.”
Zamir is my fifth child, a 4-year-old AIDS orphan whom my wife, Susan, and I adopted from Ethiopia. Zamir is thankfully HIV-negative, but does have some other medical problems. And the anticipation of his arrival into our family helped me acknowledge what I already knew to be the case: My attempts to balance work and life were in need of major change.
Turning the corner mentally was agonizing.
Like other CEO’s with families, I’d long struggled with the imperfect juggling act of competing pressures, obligations, responsibilities, and opportunities.
In comparison to many of my friends with major positions and families, I was doing well. The office in Newton, Mass., has always been less than 10 minutes from my home. I managed to be with my family for dinner almost every night, except when I was out of town.
Yet as my family and the charity grew, the strains grew too.
I co-founded Jewish Family & Life when Susan and I had only two young children, Aliza and Hallel. The idea was to publish magazines and develop Web sites to present Judaism as relevant and meaningful to Jewish families who didn’t have many formal affiliations with Jewish organizations.
By the time we adopted Adar, our third child, the organization was a $2-million operation. And when Ashira was born nearly three years ago, the charity hit $3.5-million.
From the beginning, the culture of the organization was very family friendly, with employees having lots of flexibility to attend school events, take their kids to the doctor, and the ability to work from home when needed. We offered three weeks of paid vacation, plus all the Jewish holidays.
But I rarely used my vacation time, and typically put in 60-plus-hour weeks by staying up late and working often on Sundays and secular holidays.
The hours started to take their toll.
Increasingly, the parent-teacher conferences emphasized that my children needed more attention. We hired a nanny, and often brought tutors into our lives.
I kept up the pace of accomplishments, projects, initiatives, awards, grants, innovations, and, of course, travel and late nights in the glow of the wireless computer as Susan slept next to me.
Over the years, Susan started to dream out loud about my finding a 9-to-5 normal job, whatever that was. And each time I went through my bullet points of how that was unrealistic. And besides, I was doing what I was placed on earth to do. There is no arguing with a fulfilled CEO on a mission.
But as we prepared for Zamir’s arrival, I had to acknowledge the many other unwelcome side effects of my job’s schedule.
I’ve been on Prilosec for heartburn and Ambien to help me sleep for quite some time. The hours I’d set aside for exercise frequently got taken over by work, even though I’d blocked out the time on Friday mornings with the cryptic “senior executive learning agility seminar” notation in my calendar.
At my annual physical, my doctor repeated the recommendations he’s made for years: lose 10 pounds, sleep more, and get more exercise.
Susan says that I have been less patient with the kids in the last year or so and less fun at home. A regular refrain is that even when I am home, I’m very tired, and she can tell my mind is elsewhere. That elsewhere is usually on the charity’s cash flow.
About 90 percent of Jewish Family & Life’s budget is project-specific, with very little general donations. Despite my worries — or maybe because of them — I’m proud that in more than 260 pay periods, we’ve never missed or delayed salaries even once. But the psychic weight of that burden does chip away.
The wear and tear of the job has little to do, however, with the actual day-to-day work, which has been energizing and creative.
At age 41, I had hit my leadership stride. I led a staff of 37, raised $4-million a year, and had just been appointed by Moshe Katzav, president of Israel, to the new World Jewish Forum, an annual gathering to chart new directions in Jewish life. Our Web sites had a record 11 million page views last year, and we were working in 3,500 classrooms in Jewish schools.
Yet with four children 12 and under and a fifth on the way, it became clear it was also time for me to step up more as a parent and partner.
Susan has always dreamed of having five children, so a year and a half ago we began our second adoption process. She has always been supportive of my dreams, which often stretch the family. So sharing Susan’s dream of a family with five children became my own. And each child clearly has needed me lately.
As I came to grips with what I knew to be the right decision, I was overwhelmed with its implications not only for my career, but also for our donors, board, staff members, and projects. Luckily, my board was open to redefining my role so that I could maintain a senior leadership position within the organization and still oversee several key projects. A national search is now under way for a new CEO, to whom I will report.
If an organization has the ability to weather a major transition of a founding CEO, it is a sign that it is indeed growing up.
But I can see that while the home front is already improving with the recent reduction in my travel schedule, Jewish Family & Life has a major challenge ahead of it: Namely, will the donors understand the need to redefine my role and still support the organization in a new era?
Yosef I. Abramowitz has served as CEO of Jewish Family & Life and writes a daily blog at http://www.Peoplehood.org. He can be reached at CEO@JFLmedia.com. He previously wrote a column for The Chronicle on the challenges of fund raising as the chief executive.