For the first time in almost three decades, Jewish Family Service of Greater Seattle is set to bring on a new leader. Will Berkovitz, who will succeed long-time CEO Ken Weinberg, takes over the social-service agency at the beginning of July.
“It is extremely exciting,” Berkovitz said, but “I really find it immensely humbling.”
The humility comes, in large part, from the work Weinberg and his staff have done in building the organization from what served a much smaller Jewish community with fewer needs when he began in 1975 to an agency that now has nearly 200 employees and a $9 million budget that serves more than just Jews. JFS now serves clients across the region from multiple religious, socioeconomic and ethnic groups.
“This community feels just a passion and sense of protectiveness to the agency. It’s really special,” Berkovitz said.
Berkovitz, 44, is already well known within Seattle’s Jewish community. He is an ordained rabbi who spent seven years at Hillel at the University of Washington, four of them as its executive director. The social justice and service work he infused into Hillel led him three years ago to the national Jewish social justice and service organization Repair the World, where he served as vice president of partnerships. His history will allow him to hit the ground running at JFS, he said. Still, “there’s going to be an awesome learning curve.”
However, he added, “it’s not completely foreign territory for me, and I’m hoping the professionals there will be teaching me and I’ll be a student of theirs for a strong period of time.”
Berkovitz’s career has taken him parallel to the Jewish Family Service world. Last year he was a keynote speaker at a national conference for the umbrella agency for Jewish Family Services across the country. He provides ongoing couples counseling, which he has done since his Hillel days. And his travels with young adults at Hillel to perform service trips in developing countries brought him in contact with indigenous populations similar to those served by JFS’s immigrant and refugee resettlement program.
Berkovitz will come into JFS with a vision for how he wants to run the agency, but he will need to put that into the context of what already exists.
“It’s going to be an interesting balancing act,” said Eric LeVine, JFS’s incoming board president.
Berkovitz’s vision begins with continuing what he did at both Hillel and Repair the World in measuring outcomes of program areas, which feeds into a revisiting of the agency’s strategic plan, some of which had to be put on the backburner after the start of the 2008 recession. And the need for emergency services such as the food bank and rent assistance continues to grow.
“Demand in a post-recession world still continues to be very high,” LeVine said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to take a step back and challenge the status quo a little bit and test our assumptions.”
Of course, revisiting the agency’s strategy means growing the agency, which means finding new revenue streams.
“A static agency is a dying agency, so I think we can’t be static,” Weinberg said. “We have to find ways of finding new leads, new projects, as well as those things that are already important to us.”
Even in the very near term, Berkovitz and his staff will face some heady obstacles.
“I can see cuts from the federal government, cuts from the state government, and I think it’s going to be enormously challenging to keep the agency going [and] keep the agency vital, to grow where we need to grow,” Weinberg said.
In the long term, Berkovitz can see expansion — and revenue — from small neighborhood service centers, much in the same way banks are opening corner branches, or using the Internet to reach people in outlying areas to provide services.
In the near term, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act will affect both the agency’s clientele and its administration, as JFS will be required to provide health insurance for its sizeable part-time staff.
Similarly, as the Baby Boom generation approaches retirement age, the need for Medicare and other services will be unprecedented.
“For the next 10 years we’re going to see the largest increase of older adults in the history of the world,” Weinberg said. “What are we going to do about it? And who will assist us? Who will be our partners in facing those challenges?
“I will do my best to share with him my thinking on these, but he and his team here will have to come up with solutions,” Weinberg said.
As much as JFS supporters, and Berkovitz himself, acknowledge the big shoes he will need to fill following Weinberg’s departure, Weinberg said Berkovitz needs to be judged on his own merits.
“He is his own unique human being with his own strengths, and I think it’s really important the community, the board, the workers, everyone pull for him, and sort of let go of Ken,” Weinberg said.
“I come from a rabbinic background, so I believe deeply in understanding the roots of the tradition that comes before you and not cutting yourself off from your roots,” he said. “It’s in my nature to move with that understanding.”
That reflective perspective was a big reason why Berkovitz rose above, as LeVine put it, the 20 candidates the agency vetted for the CEO position.
“He brings a really outside-the-box creativity at how to look at some of the problems the agency’s been looking at for decades,” LeVine said.
Michele Rosen, who with former Starbucks president Howard Behar led the CEO search committee, told JTNews that Berkovitz’s ability to connect both with donors and the agency’s clientele resonated with the search committee.
“That was the first thing that people noticed, that he really had empathy for the people that come to JFS,” she said. “I think that’s critical.”
Berkovitz did not slide through the search process, Rosen emphasized. Her committee began searching in August, and continued until the May 3 announcement.
“There were at least 20 candidates that…had long screening processes, so this was not a shoo-in at all,” she said. “We had to do right by us and by him.”
Rosen, was a board member at Hillel UW during Berkovitz’s tenure there, so she knew firsthand about his work on social justice issues and how he centered that mission around Judaism. But she said many members of the search committee learned only during the interview about that added dimension to how he can move JFS forward.
“Will’s ability to understand the role of Judaism…and say this service that we perform on behalf of others, the responsibility we feel to take care of people in need who can’t take care of themselves at that moment, is in the very of DNA of what is in the Torah and other teachings,” she said. “That’s our responsibility.”
Berkovitz has long struggled with the idea of God and religion, and he said he has given a lot of thought into what the Jewish part of Jewish Family Service will mean in the future.
“It’s some of the work that’s done in a secular space that actually allows for the possibility of serving the Jewish community as well,” he said. “The balance of that is going to be something that is going to have be worked out deeply.”
It was only having the opportunity to work on a national scale that gave Berkovitz the realization he could be more effective at home.
“The impact I want to make is on the local scale in our community,” he said. “The degree to which that was important to me, that my kids could see [my wife] Lelach and I live out our values deeply like that, I don’t think I could have understood it until I was in the thick of it.”