The First Annual Greasy Latkes: Mislabeling the JCC

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Jewish Women Watching, the radical Jewish feminist organization that distributed an all-too-cool postcard the year-before-last with an affixed condom bearing the phrase “Practice Safe Politics,” along with a warning that the “condom will NOT protect you from the real intentions of the Christian right wing,” have upped their ante this year, by staging the first ever Greasy Latke Awards outside the UJA-Federation building on 59th Street.

The awards, which ‘honor’ those guilty of “Saturating Our Community With Their Greasy Behavior,” tackle the heinous behavior of organizations such as the UJA, the ADL, the AJCommittee, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, and—among others—my very own JCC, where I have been employed for 3½ years. Yes, my friends, The JCC of (sic) Manhattan has earned itself “The Fear of Too Queer” award.

Or has it?

The JWW’s über-snarky awards handout reads,

Debby Hirshman spent a dozen years building a showplace JCC for the well-heeled Jews of Manhattan, and in the process emerged as one of the most powerful women in the Jewish community. 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.

Argh, it’s so hard to jump into this, but, here I go, head first…

Debby Hirshman was out of the closet at the JCC—always had been. It was common knowledge among staff, and even among the JCC’s members. The day I had my interview with the JCC’s director of HR, in fact, I was asked if I had “issues” with homosexuals. At the time, the majority of the JCC’s staff was, actually, queer. Truth be told, when we occupied two floors of the Jewish Guild for the Blind on 65th St., I was the only straight male on the 4th floor for the first six months of my time there. And, come to think of it, when I told my Orthodox sister from Teaneck, that I had gotten a job there, her first question to me was, “Did you know your CEO is a lesbian?” So, as far as I can tell, it was exceptionally public knowledge.

But here’s where it gets complicated: Debby was and is out, as far as I know. But “how out” is she really? Out enough that she wouldn’t mind having her name brandished across the NY Jewish news circuit as having been dismissed from her job for being lesbian? That’s a much tougher question. Having spoken to a member of The Forward‘s editorial staff this past Saturday night at a Chanukah party, one of the reasons JWW’s ad was rejected by that particular publication, was because they didn’t feel it was appropriate to out Debby like that. I think that’s a totally reasonable response. Perhaps if JWW had contacted Debby and gotten her permission to make such a statement publically, it’d be alright. But being that I’ve spoken to her herself, and that she wasn’t even interested in talking to the press about “the official story,” I have my sincere doubts that she would offer any sanction to such publicity.

Even if Debby’s sexual orientation did actually play some part in her dismissal—which, if it did, in my mind, would be no more than a minor role—Debby’s a highly-paid consultant to various up-and-coming JCCs around the world, including those in Moscow and London. Public knowledge of her homosexuality in what may be considered “less-tolerant” communities could, in fact, harm her career. I believe she has every right to want to protect her privacy like that, and even as I write this, I am having second thoughts about posting it. JWW’s put it out there, though, and someone’s gotta clear the air.

My CFO dragged me into his office the other day because he’d heard from my brother-in-law (whom he attends shul with) that I’d told him Debby was fired because she was gay. My brother-in-law neglected to mention the two other components that make up the triumverate of possibilities which I, indeed, offered him. Concerned that I was misled and spreading faulty information, my CFO wanted to know what I believed to be the reason that Debby ‘left’ the JCC.

Here’s a more astute articulation of what I told him:

  1. Debby’s a strong and brilliant woman, and she is an incredible leader. Debby was so deeply committed to the JCC and its mission, she invested herself wholly in every facet of the organzation’s operations—from the temperature in the pool to the copy on our print collateral. The woman would get to the JCC at 4:30am, and leave after 7pm, every day. And while this speaks volumes about her passion for her work, and also yielded success as her approach, what it boiled down to for others, in practical terms, was micromanagement—deeply resented micromanagement. Debby butted heads with the best of ’em, and, over the years, earned herself a reputation as being quite a piece of work. That being said, people don’t like being called out on their bullshit, particularly members of executive management, which is something, I find, Debby was exceptionally good at as well. A master orator, she could also be extremely calculating when dealing with others. She is warm and even huggable at times, but can also be rather cold when she feels the need. Straight or gay, these traits are threatening, particularly in the workplace. And people who like their cushy do-practically-nothing jobs don’t like feeling threatened. And so maybe some of them decided to do something about it. 12 years or not, sometimes all it takes is a phone call.
  2. Debby’s involvement in the day-to-day operations of the JCC apparently prohibited her from fulfilling one of her primary tasks as the mouthpiece for the JCC: fundraising. While Debby did a great deal to make the JCC what it is today, the word on the 8th floor is, Debby wasn’t raising enough money. As the organization is currently operating within a deficit, utimately that—in the eyes of the board—is more important than, for example, making sure the locker rooms are stocked with fresh towels. This, of course, is a task for the COO. That Debby never had a wholly competent COO working under her (whereas they’re hired by the board who deal only with each other and never the staff), appears to have served only as a strike against her. She didn’t have the time, nor the energy, to kiss ass for money. I don’t blame her for it. But take a look at our earnings and you can see why the board did.
  3. Debby is a lesbian woman whose partner was bearing their child towards the end of her tenure. It is perfectly natural to assume that when Debby showed up to her 50th birthday party at the JCC and introduced Edgar Bronfman, Sr. to her pregnant fiancée, that certain individuals in attendance internally regressed into what might be deemed less-civilized modes of understanding. Perhaps some folks were simply displeased with the notion of Debby’s family representing the model Jewish Upper West Siders, who, while being amongst the most liberal, still see some things as intensely taboo. Or, perhaps they simply feared that their more conservative (aka wealthy, Republicrat, possibly Orthodox, and definitely against gay marriage) benefactors might be turned off by Debby’s sexuality—no pun intended. Perhaps they were—in part—stricken with “The Fear of Too Queer.”

Is it homophobic? Is it abhorrent? Is it just about money? The answer to all of those questions may be yes. Is it the case, though? That can not be confirmed, nor denied (as exemplified by the response of my CFO, who simply nodded and said, “Well, not exactly,” throughout my exegesis). It may, in fact, be possible, that, with a child on the way, and a marriage to look forward to, after 12 years of hard service, Debby decided she wanted to take some time to herself. That’s just as plausible as her being fired for being gay, and was also one of the reasons offered to me by two different senior staff members on separate occassions, corroborating the claim of a “mutual understanding” put forth to the press by the JCC board.

But since you can be sure Debby has no interest in exploring this topic further, nor, I’m sure, does the JCC board or staff, it is ultimately irresponsible of JWW to publicize these allegations, particularly in the Jewish press, because they have no way to verify their statements. They’re not even inside the organization and they think they know what went down. But they don’t. And I know this because I’m inside, and I don’t even know for sure. It’s pure conjecture, plain and simple. The reasons I cite above are just the “big ones” as I see them. There are plenty of smaller, yet significant causes to tack onto the end of that list that I’ve heard in passing. One thing is clear, however: If Debby’s sexual orientation played a role in her dismissal/resignation, it wasn’t the sole basis of the board’s decision by a long shot. Likely, it was just grease for already-spinning wheels.

If JWW really wants to go after a target, how about systematic gender discrimination against males at the JCC? The female-to-male ratio at that joint is outrageous, and there are barely any men in managerial or leadership roles in the organization. All departments but technology, sports (note, not fitness, which is a much larger department), and finance are managed and operated by women. In fact, the CFO is the only male in the six-member financial staff, and the only male considered senior staff (with the exception of our interim CEO, who’s just a volunteer board member). Qualified men are turned down for positions in favor of unqualified women all the time. It’s like the flipside of the corporate world. But then again, considering that JWW is a radical feminist organization, I’ll probably need to put together my own organization before this issue can be properly addressed. Perhaps I’ll call it JMM, for Jewish Men Masticating. Our slogan will be, “We too have some fat to chew!”

Or how about the fact that the only time black people attend JCC programs is when they’re pushing strollers ensconcing white children, or on Saturdays for tutoring, when no one else is in the building? You should’ve heard the uproar Frédéric Brenner’s photograph of a cooking class for South African shiksas (indentured servitude implied) caused when it was hung in our lobby—not by our black visitors, of course, but by the Upper West Side mothers who had a hard time looking in the mirror. How about the fact that all of the organization’s black employees, with the exception of five mid-level employees (out of an organization of 400 or so), all hold low-level positions? That’s a bit of unsavory information right there. Of course, black people don’t need their own organization to address these issues. They’ve already got one. It’s called the Nation of Islam.

Thus, I say, to the ladies of JWW: Please. There are so many greater injustices—so many greasier latkes—that are way more tangible, and more relevant, than the reasons behind Debby Hirshman’s departure from the JCC. Brush aside these wild goose chases, rooted in nothing more than specious conjecture, and maybe you’ll get to the crux of the biscuit. There, perhaps, you can make some real progress, and some real change. Because in the absence of fact, all you’re really doing is potentially fucking up someone’s life. And a good person’s, at that. Don’t champion “Debby’s cause” without first asking her whether its her cause or not. You could crucify the unwilling like that, drawing such undesired attention, and I don’t think any of you want that on your conscience.

Frankly, it’d only be Debby that would suffer from this; Debby, and maybe even the JCC (which, for all of its shortcomings is still a remarkable institution, no small thanks to her). But it won’t be the board. Those people are impenetrable—ivory tower wealth of the Upper West Side. The JCC is just their hobby, and they can brush their hands of it and walk way squeaky clean, with their conscience in tact. What’s the use in that?

Do the right thing. Print a retraction. Or at least do teshuva: Next time, before you act, determine whether the action will elicit the desired goal. Because in this scenario, I forsee only backfire, and the smoke blowing in the face of someone who I truly respect and admire.

Resume fair use.

[Update] Ami Eden has a related post here, as does Protocols here. Man, Blogger needs Trackback.

[Update] Debby Hirsman tells The Jewish Week: “Homophobia is both conscious and unconscious in people, therefore one can never know fully if my firing had anything to do with it. My real hope for the Jewish community is that we become a community committed to ending phobias.” Word.

6 thoughts on “The First Annual Greasy Latkes: Mislabeling the JCC

  1. A fascinating post, especially given how much I like JWW. Given the anonymity of JWW, is there necessarily a reason to disbelieve that they have contact wit Debby Hirschman that you don’t know about, or that they have inside information that you don’t? I don’t know that they do, of course–I only know that I know I don’t know (to use a Rumsfeldian phrase).

  2. JWW boils my blood because many of their accusations are rude and insulting to an extent that their targets don’t deserve – JWW needs to refocus on gender issues and therefore I fully agree with Mobius in his analysis of the fact that the JCC is overly gender biased towards women – JWW should focus their attention better.

  3. I’m stunned that you don’t seem to realize that firing someone ’cause she’s gay, even IN PART because she’s gay, even 1% because she’s gay, isn’t a fair, cool, chill, awesome, or “ambiguous” decision. Actually, it’s discrimination, and it’s illegal. Actually illegal. Have you talked to any women or gay people about this issue, or is your cool, hip, chill, awesome, old-skool hetero male opinion all you think is needed in this case?

  4. funny, did i say it was fair, cool, chill, or awesome? no… i said, “Is it homophobic? Is it abhorrent? Is it just about money? The answer to all of those questions may be yes. Is it the case, though? That can not be confirmed, nor denied.” innocent until proven guilty is the way of justice, not the other way around.
    “Have you talked to any women or gay people about this issue”
    uh, how about the staff at ma’yan, the jewish women’s project at the jcc, several of whom happen to be lesbian? uh, how about debby herself?
    and your remark about “cool, hip, chill, awesome, old-skool hetero male opinion” is sexist in and of itself.
    no love for feminazis.

  5. Just when I think this site actually has merit…..we get a screen full of this yenta crapola. Ugh

  6. Very interesting article you wrote. Personally I am sick the gay crowd. Most likely what brought down DH was that she was miserable to staffers and treated people poorly. Then the knives came out, and they found an in and that was it.
    The interview I read with her irked me. She sounded like a horrible person to work under, and I do think you need to treat people with respect. Sounded like She Demanded Respect, but most likely had None For Others.
    Bingo. Eventually the bigwhigs catch on and you’re gone.
    Hopefully she is unemployed.

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