It’s widely known that Cleveland’s Jewish community is revered far and wide.
“In the prime minister’s office in Israel, they know Cleveland. In the Knesset and in Washington, they know Cleveland,” said Michael Siegal, a Northeast Ohioan who’s chair of the board of trustees at The Jewish Federations of North America.
That’s due in large part to an illustrious list of visionary leaders who’ve spent time living in and serving the Jewish community here.
One of those leaders is Stephen H. Hoffman, who this year celebrates 40 years at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and in early December 2013, marked 30 years since he was named Federation president.
“He’s the glue. We wouldn’t be where we are without Steve at the helm,” said Siegal, who recently completed a three-year stint as Cleveland’s Federation board chair. “The presence we have locally, nationally and internationally is really a reflection of Steve’s ability to lead and manage. Without Steve, we would be a much different community.”
Hoffman’s fingerprints can be found on nearly every meaningful initiative that’s passed through Cleveland over the last three decades. His ability to create solutions and move forward agendas to better the Jewish community that don’t create enemies or lead people to disengage from the process have been key to his success, according to Siegal.
“He’s a great listener, great negotiator, great process manager, very patient and very thoughtful,” Siegal said. “He’s able to get the community to understand it’s the will of the majority, not the will of the few. Steve’s able to manage that probably better than anybody I’ve seen in the Jewish world.”
Involved at early age
Hoffman grew up in Philadelphia. His father, Philip, was a car salesman and his mother, Ruth, was a homemaker active in the American Jewish Congress. He received a Conservative-congregation Jewish education and went through three years at a Hebrew high school.
Hoffman also was active in BBYO and took part in its summer leadership training camp, Kallah, at the International Leadership Training Conference.
“Ultimately, I became the aleph godol, which is the equivalent of president, of the AZA ... for all of Philadelphia,” said Hoffman, adding that covered about 800 members across several chapters. “I served on the national board at the same time.”
If that’s where the seeds for Hoffman’s leadership abilities were planted, those seeds grew when he arrived at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., in the fall of 1968. At the time, Dickinson’s student body was about 1,600, including 200 Jews – 190 men and 10 women, as Hoffman recalls.
“Here I am an activist teenager, so to speak. The big thing on campus was the antiwar movement, but for me, in addition to that, it was Jewish life,” he said. “What I found at Dickinson were Friday night services, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, and every once in a while we had a bagel brunch on Sunday – and that was pretty much it.”
Dickinson had a Hillel, but in name only and not affiliated nationally. A psychology professor served as adviser but there was minimal programming.
So Hoffman got involved. As one of the few who knew how to daven, he often led services. During that same time, he held a summer job as a librarian at B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pa., where organizers focused on programming by introducing campers to the likes of Mordecai Kaplan and Elie Wiesel. Hoffman sought to reproduce at Dickinson the systematic and organizational things he had learned at camp.
By the time he graduated from college, both Friday night and Saturday morning services had been established; all of the Jewish holidays during the academic year were observed; the first succah was built on campus; Passover seders were held for those who didn’t go home; speakers such as Rabbi Meir Kahane were brought in; a Jewish newspaper for central Pennsylvania was founded; a Hebrew school was started for the children of faculty who previously had to take their kids 20 miles away or nowhere at all; and the first trip to Israel – for class credits – was taken.
“We also got the first professor of Jewish studies,” said Hoffman, explaining the professor first arrived as a replacement for a department of religion professor on sabbatical.
“They brought in this guy, Ned Rosenbaum, to teach Jewish studies for a year. He was very successful; everybody liked him,” he said. “The students, we lobbied to keep him ... and then we raised money. I used to go out as a senior with the administration to speak to Jewish donors about how great this was and (asked whether they) could help us keep this guy by making contributions.”
Coming to Cleveland
While at Dickinson, Hoffman also was active in the student senate, which in time led to him being the chair – as a student, not an administrator or faculty member – of the college’s committee on admissions and financial aid. Among his responsibilities was speaking about Dickinson to potential students at college nights in nearby cities, one of which was Baltimore.
Coincidentally, “Charm City” was also where the director of the leadership training program at B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp, Daniel Thursz – who when he wasn’t directing the program was dean of the school of social work at the University of Maryland – and one of his chief associates, Rabbi Leivy Smolar, lived.
“They asked to see me the night I was in Baltimore. They said, ‘You know all this stuff you’ve been doing as a kid? You can actually get paid for it – more than you can get paid to be a librarian at camp,’” recalled Hoffman, smiling. “They said, ‘There’s a new program that the Federation movement has started to train young people to become executives in the Federation field. It involves getting a master’s in social work and a master’s in Jewish studies simultaneously, and we’re going to start one here in Baltimore.’”
Hoffman, a psychology major, had considered pursuing clinical psychology or law school, but decided to apply to the Federation Executive Recruitment and Education Program. He landed a scholarship in the process, and in 1972, entered the program.
He graduated in 1974, but prior to that, his resume was passed along to federations in Los Angeles, Newark, Dallas and Kansas City for potential employment. He interviewed with all of them, but at least at the start, he received no offers.
Then one morning, after getting up at 4 a.m. to get in line for gasoline during the 1973-74 oil embargo, a sleepy Hoffman received an 8:30 call from David Sarnat, director of community relations at then Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, asking him to interview for a position in that department.
Hoffman did so, and along the way, encountered two pillars of Cleveland’s Jewish community.
“I don’t think I met (Henry) Zucker other than to say hello, but I did interview with Sidney Vincent, who was the executive director. Hank was the executive vice president,” he said. “Zucker and Vincent were giants in the field. If there were a top four people in the field, they were two of the four. Everybody knew them.
“I remember (Vincent) asking questions, and I’m answering, and then he said, ‘I guess that’s it.’ And I said, ‘Don’t you want to see my transcript?’ He said, ‘Not really,’” said Hoffman, laughing about what he thought was a missed opportunity to impress Vincent. “I had a very good transcript.”
Cleveland subsequently made an offer, but in the meantime, so did Los Angeles. After receiving counsel from Baltimore’s Federation director, Robert Hiller, whom he knew through the master’s program, Hoffman chose Cleveland.
“The director in Baltimore, who had been the campaign director in Cleveland in the ’50s, said, ‘You know, if Hank Zucker wants you to be a gopher for him, take the job, because Cleveland is a special place,’” Hoffman said. “It was then known as a training Federation. People would serve in Cleveland, learn the profession and then go on to lead in the field. So, I took the job – even though community relations was not what I thought Federation life was about. But it was in Cleveland, so I came.”
Ascending to the top
When Hoffman started at Federation in the fall of 1974, he joined the rest of the staff at the office on Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland.
“I wasn’t even 24 years old yet and I got this big desk, big windows and a secretary I’m only sharing with one other person – and the volunteers couldn’t be nicer,” said Hoffman, adding he lived in Shaker Heights upon his arrival in Northeast Ohio. “And I could afford to pay rent!”
Along with the perks and professional opportunities that arose, Hoffman conceded that like almost any young college graduate, he was a little rough around the edges at first.
“I was a fairly glib, and some would say brash, person – some people might say it today – and they had to work on me to pin my ears back occasionally,” Hoffman acknowledged. “The other thing that was happening was the first week I arrived, they made the announcement that Zucker and Vincent were going to retire the next year and that the current campaign director would take over as CEO.”
On July 1, 1975, Stanley Horowitz began his tenure as Federation’s leader, at which time Hoffman shifted from community relations to both social planning and campaign. He subsequently was named assistant planning director and eventually planning director – all before he turned 30.
Hoffman then added director of operations to his responsibilities and later was named an assistant director. Then, in 1983, Horowitz announced he was leaving Federation to become CEO of the National United Jewish Appeal in New York City.
“That was upsetting,” Hoffman recalled. “(The Federation) had a search and they asked me to be a candidate. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ I was 32 years old. There were two others (internal candidates) in the office, and another who’d been in Cleveland and was running the Pittsburgh Federation at the time. When the process was finished, they asked me to do the job.”
Hoffman said he’d “always wanted to be a federation director.” He recalled a conversation he had with Horowitz shortly after Horowitz became director in 1975.
“He asks to see me. I’m in my first year and don’t have a lot of interaction with him, and he says, ‘How are you doing? Would you be interested in doing this or that?’” Hoffman said. “I have this memory of him asking me, ‘Where would you like to be when you’re 40?’ He was then 40 or 41, and I said, ‘Oh, I want your job!’ I was sort of kidding but that was my ambition.
“The idea in those days was at about 40, you should be able to do those jobs. I thought at the age of 32, I was probably too young to be considered, but I thought, ‘OK, they’re asking, so what do I have to lose?’” Hoffman said. “They surprised me – and maybe themselves.”
Leaving his mark
To say he’s accomplished a lot in the 30 years following that “surprise” would be an understatement, but Hoffman remembers his first goal as president – following the likes of Zucker, Vincent and Horowitz – was modest and simple: don’t mess up.
“Cleveland was very prominent, and when you’re being given the keys to the Cadillac, the first thing you want to make sure of is you don’t wreck it,” he quipped.
Hoffman’s first challenge arose early on in his tenure when Ethiopians were being smuggled out of Sudan and Cleveland was asked to raise a special fund to settle Ethiopians in Israel.
“Regardless of how old you are or what’s going on in Cleveland, international challenges come along and they require Cleveland to lead,” he said. “This was my first test outside of the annual campaign, and we did it well. We stepped up.
“It has to be organized,” he said. “The job of the executive is to work with the top funders to get the structure right so they’ll respond generously and set an example for others to respond generously. I don’t take a lot of credit for it, but that’s the job of the executive.”
Years later, Cleveland’s involvement with Ethiopian-Israeli immigrant children led to the development of Parents and Children Together, an educational support program that proved so successful it was eventually implemented in some American inner cities.
Hoffman also considers Federation’s involvement with Jewish education in Cleveland to be a top accomplishment. The issue arose following an international meeting between Mort Mandel and the Israeli minister of education, Hoffman explained.
The international focus led Mandel and Hoffman to more closely examine the Jewish education system in Cleveland, and from that, a multiyear plan to overhaul and improve the system took shape.
“We set on a path that changed the course of Jewish education in Cleveland,” he said, noting changes in curriculum at congregations, better salaries at day schools, more training for teachers, and youth programs for Jewish teenagers.
“It was a huge change that goes on today,” Hoffman said. “It also radically altered for the better the relationship between the Federation and the congregations. Today, I think we have the best relationship with our congregations in the world. There may be others that are as good, but none are better.”
In 2001, Hoffman took a leave of absence from Federation to become president and CEO of United Jewish Communities in New York City, which was the product of a merger a year earlier of the Council of Jewish Federations, United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal. Today, UJC is known as JFNA.
Hoffman’s services were leased during that time, so to speak. When he returned to the helm in Cleveland in 2004, he said he did so with a more complex understanding of how Washington, D.C., works with Jerusalem, a better understanding of national Jewish security issues, and a wider understanding of the impact of the second intifada, which spanned his entire tenure at UJC.
Like any leader who’s held a post long enough, Hoffman isn’t immune to criticism. His salary is sometimes questioned when it appears near the top of The Jewish Daily Forward’s annual list of highest-paid executives at American Jewish nonprofits and disapproval over moving Federation from downtown Cleveland to Beachwood in 2010 still lingers.
Hoffman, however, takes it all in stride and understands it comes with the territory.
“I’m not an impervious, unfeeling professional, and whenever the attacks get personal, you feel it. But if you’re going to be a paid, leading professional, then you know they’ll occur and you move on,” he said. “You don’t let it figure into your decision-making process, you just pack it away and put it off in a little corner of your head.”
Looking to the future
Hoffman, 63, still lives in Shaker Heights and is a member of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike. He’s been married to his wife, Amy, for 35 years. The couple has two daughters: Emily, who lives in Cleveland with her husband, Eric, and has a 20-month-old daughter named Molly, and Jessica, who’s a social worker at a hospital in Chicago.
With all he’s accomplished as president, Hoffman is by no means resting on his laurels. Rather, as those who know him would expect, he’s actively planning for the future.
“We’re at the beginning of a significant effort to create larger endowments for the Federation, and when I say ‘Federation,’ I mean the community,” Hoffman said. “We have a donor base that cares deeply about the community today, and we’re encouraging them to make provisions in estate plans for the community of tomorrow.”
Hoffman also said there’s a need for better outreach efforts to address the changing demographic of the Jewish community.
“We have many more interfaith families than we had decades ago, yet our demographic studies tell us there’s a lot of openness to identifying with the Jewish people and Jewish community,” he said. “We have to find ways that are convenient and nonjudgmentally accessible for people to pursue their desire for engagement and join in the larger Jewish people.
“At the same time, we also need to do a better job of supporting Jewish education in our day schools and our congregation schools, and grappling with the technology challenges that are coming at us as a society, which impacts our congregations and organizations and the changing nature of identification, relationships and affiliations,” he continued. “These are changes in American society that affect the Jewish community.”
Hoffman said another challenge for the future revolves around America’s relationship with Israel and diaspora.
“Some people worry we’ll grow apart because of the nature of religion in Israel and how it’s defined very differently than here, and at the same time, I think we need to be concerned that the seemingly intractable geopolitical situation doesn’t pessimistically lead us to not care. I think we have a role in the United States to ensure that Israel has a strong ally here and that there’s an understanding of what Israel faces,” he said. “The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, as manifested most recently by the American Studies Association, is just the latest eruption of a very long-term effort to delegitimize Israel from the left. I think it’s deeply rooted in anti-Semitism, personally, and I think it needs to be combatted for the good of American society, let alone Israel.”
Impact of a ‘visionary’
Planning for the future is something Hoffman does quite well, according to Siegal.
“Steve is such a forward thinker, he’s usually ahead of you by years,” he said. “One of the things I find particularly unique about Cleveland is our endowment is exceedingly, disproportionately large compared to other Jewish communities, and that’s partly because Steve had a vision 20 years ago and understood our sustainability could be at risk if we just count on a campaign.”
Renee Chelm, who succeeded Siegal as the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s board chair, agreed, describing Hoffman as “a visionary” while pointing to his recent work with Global Cleveland.
“He really championed that,” she said. “Because of our commitment to the city of Cleveland, we were one of the first funders to Global Cleveland – and we brought staff to the table. Steve was instrumental in getting that started.”
Chelm and Siegal both praised Hoffman’s leadership abilities. In fact, Siegal considers Hoffman’s impact on past and present leaders perhaps his greatest accomplishment.
“When you look at the national Jewish leadership from Cleveland, all of us grew up to some degree under Steve’s influence,” he said, mentioning Howard Kohr, CEO of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International; William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office at The Jewish Federations of North America; Bobby Goldberg, ex officio member of JFNA’s board of trustees; Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston; Charles Edelsberg, founding executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation in San Francisco; and himself.
“People want to talk about Bill Belichick in the NFL, but nobody talks about Steve Hoffman and his influence,” said Siegal, comparing Hoffman to the successful football coach whose assistants have at times gone on to become head coaches. “When you look at those who’ve come through Cleveland over the last 30 years, it’s remarkable.”
Siegal acknowledges there have been criticisms of Hoffman over the years but feels those criticisms often overlook Hoffman’s oeuvre as Federation president.
“Nobody is perfect, but from a systematic perspective, we wouldn’t be where we are without Steve Hoffman,” Siegal said. “People have a tendency to concentrate on aspects that are less important than what we’re trying to achieve in Cleveland, which is to maintain a vibrant Jewish community.
“People focus on what they don’t like instead of looking at his accomplishments and asking why Cleveland is respected around the entire Jewish world,” Siegal continued. “You have to look at his body of work. From his leadership to his vision and compassion, Steve is the best of the best.”