Come next week, when Keith Dvorchik spends his first days in his office at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, he’s got one item on his agenda: To listen.
“When I get off the plane, my first job needs to be to meet with people and to listen,” said Dvorchik, the Federation’s incoming CEO. “When I’m done meeting with people and listening, I need to meet with people and listen. I need to learn what’s going on. I need to learn what the strengths are and what the areas of improvement will be.”
The Federation’s board announced Dvorchik’s selection on June 28, with an official start date of Aug. 19, following a year-long search after the resignation of Richard Fruchter last July.
Dvorchik, 45, will come to Seattle from Hillel at the University of Florida, Gainesville, where he spent 15 years as the student organization’s executive director and built the small organization into a powerhouse that serves between 8,000 and 10,000 students annually and has been recognized by Hillel International as well as by students both Jewish and non-Jewish.
When he began at Hillel, “there was very little impact on campus,” Dvorchik said. “We changed that fairly quickly. We made a decision that we would be out on campus, that we would be making a public presence, that we would become a significant part of the university and become an integral part of students’ lives.”
Today, he noted, the organization has strong ties with student government and has sent key leaders, including several student body presidents and former Gators football coach Urban Meyers to Israel. And if the students don’t know what goes on inside Hillel, they can’t miss the building: It’s across the street from the football and basketball stadiums, constructed from a capital campaign completed in 2004 under Dvorchik’s leadership.
“We were able to secure a site that nobody thought we ever could have secured,” said the lifelong sports fan. “You come to Gainesville, you literally cannot miss us.”
Though the bulk of his career has been at Hillel, Dvorchik’s life has taken some interesting twists and turns. He earned his undergraduate degree from Penn State in accounting, realized he’d made a mistake, and a year later returned to Penn for a master’s degree in counseling. His internship took him to Gainesville, where he ended up working in the criminal justice system with patients ranging from troubled adolescents to death-row inmates.
“When the Hillel opportunity was presented to me, I actually had two choices: One choice was to come work at Hillel, the other was to run an inpatient adolescent facility,” he said. “At the time, it was a big question.”
Dvorchik chose Hillel and threw himself into one of his greatest challenges during his tenure — building excitement for an organization that’s a five-hour drive from its biggest stakeholders.
“It’s not easy to come see what’s going on,” he said. “It’s not easy to feel the passion first hand.”
But it gave him insight into how Hillel needs to serve a community beyond its walls, which he believes that can transfer to Federation leadership as well. What he would like to see, he said, is a unified community with the Federation serving as its backbone.
At an organization’s event, for example, “it’s not just a JFS event, it’s not just a day school event, it’s not just a JCC event,” Dvorchik said, “it’s a communal event.”
He also wants to be sure that any organization — whether it’s his own or a partner agency — is doing top-quality work.
“We can’t waste people’s time,” he said.
Dvorchik has one pet peeve: “I don’t ever want to hear a reason for doing something is because we’ve always done it that way,” he said. “I don’t accept that.”
But he also doesn’t want to begin ruling with a heavy hand.
“I don’t know what the community wants and what the community needs,” he said.
Celie Brown, the Federation’s board chair as of July 1, said Dvorchik’s ability to listen is one of the key reasons he received her board’s vote of confidence.
During the search process, “one of the comments that we got the most was that ‘When he talked to me, he looked right at me and I knew he heard me,’ and that resonated with so many people,” she said.
Brown, who has a background in leadership coaching, said Dvorchik’s skills as “a change agent” resonated with her.
Dvorchik joins a Federation staff that has been humming relatively smoothly over the past year and has demonstrated a dedication to community building.
“We have the best staff since I’ve been volunteering. They’re all a team, they’re excited about him coming,” Brown said.
Will Berkovitz, who became CEO of Jewish Family Service on July 1, knew Dvorchik during his tenure as executive director of Hillel at the University of Washington. He called Dvorchik “a big-tent thinker.”
“He understands the diversity of the Jewish community [and] he understands the ability of how to engage the next generation, which I think is vital,” Berkovitz said. “[The Federation needs] somebody who is going to bring a very different perspective to what it means to convene community and what it means to build community.”
Rabbi Oren Hayon, the current Greenstein executive director at Hillel UW, agreed.
“I am personally very pleased about his background in the Hillel world because Hillel is an organization that rewards creativity, agility, thoughtfulness and innovation, all of which are qualities that will mean the success of the new Federation CEO,” Hayon said.
At the same time, however, Hayon cautioned that a lot is riding on Dvorchik.
“Everyone recognizes that the stakes are really high with this appointment,” he said. “It’s a time that the Federation needs to succeed.”