The new year will bring a new direction and a new leader to The Gershman Y in Center City.
Linda Steinberg was informed last week that her one-year contract to lead the cultural organization as its executive director would not be extended when it ended on Dec. 31.
The news comes as the Gershman Y continues to search for the right direction four years after it was spun off as an independent entity, following the dissolution of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia in 2009.
The organization, still housed in the 1924 building of the former Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association (though it hasn’t owned the building since 2000), is seeking to ensure its viability in an increasingly difficult environment for nonprofit arts entities. Despite its mission to be the region’s home for secular Jewish arts and culture, the center faces increased competition for both visitors and dollars from other museums, galleries and community centers, even as it seeks to attract new audiences.
“Every organization, in looking at its mission and what it does, has to make sure it fills a niche that isn’t already being filled by other organizations,” emphasized Anne Lazarus, the president of the Gershman’s board. She says the Gershman serves the cultural needs of the community well through events like the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival. And, she said, that while “The Gershman does that very well,” the leaders of the organization “have to understand who our audience is going to be: the 40-plus crowd. We can’t be the JCC of old; that’s not going to work.”
According to Lazarus, the board declined to offer Steinberg a new contract because “we are going in a slightly different direction. She did what she set out to do, and we are now looking for someone else.” When asked to list examples of Steinberg’s successes, Lazarus, a judge of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, mentioned that the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival “was outstanding this year — we got some very good feedback, and more people than ever saw the films.”
That success, however, seemed to be outweighed by other issues. Lazarus said the Gershman board would be “looking for someone who is more in touch with the Philadelphia Jewish community,” especially when it comes to recognizing the uniquely rich and diverse cultural environment of the area, which Steinberg recently told a reporter compared unfavorably to the scenes in New York and San Francisco.
A California native, Steinberg directed the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and “The Thomashefsky Project,” an effort to preserve early American Yiddish theater’s contribution to American cultural life.
For her part, Steinberg insisted that the parting was a mutual decision. “I only agreed to a one-year trial” to lead the Gershman, she said in response to Lazarus’ comments. “I also came to the decision that the relationship had to end due to total disagreement on mission and methodology between the board and me.”
Steinberg, who said she has received multiple inquiries from other institutions, said she is leaning toward becoming the founding director of an upcoming museum of Yiddish theatre in New York City. “Colleagues have told me that bringing change to any organization in Philadelphia is impossible. I wanted to prove them wrong, but they have been proven right.”
Another issue that Lazarus hopes to address with a new director is the Gershman’s application of social media and its online presence. Since the website was taken down in September for what was announced as a revamping, it has been irregularly updated and difficult to use. A visit to the site in early December to learn more about the organization’s Christmas Eve event, Kung Pao Klezmer, yielded no links or information about the event, simply a front-page banner touting the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, which ended the previous month. (The site banner has since been updated to include rotating images from various programs.)
The site’s calendar is still non-existent, but the number of events declined in recent months. In contrast to the spring 2013 schedule, which featured close to 20 cultural events, the fall/winter 2013 schedule contained just four: the film festival, a conversation with Ed Rendell, an exhibit of chanukiahs that were also for sale and the annual Latkepalooza festival. In past years, the fall calendar has included 20 to 30 classes, cooking workshops, author presentations and social events.
The Gershman Y is closed for its winter break until early January, at which point the search for at least an interim executive director to oversee the organization and its million-dollar annual operating budget will begin in earnest, Lazarus said. Until then, the organization’s 10-person staff will handle day-to-day operations. Staff members declined to comment for this article.