Scott Kaufman

by Vivian Henoch

Amidst the flurry of congratulatory calls and casual drop-by visitors to his office, it’s clear everyone still wants a moment of Scott Kaufman’s time. Those who have come to know him best — those who have been energized, motivated and inspired by his friendship, partnership and leadership — certainly will miss him as he steps away from his day-to-day role as Federation’s CEO.

Scott, himself, admits he has his own high-wire act to follow . . . his own big shoes to fill. With the experience, self-awareness and boundless energy of a seasoned exec running a Jewish Federation considered to be a national model, Scott leaves his office hitting his stride — a communal leader with a formidable track record.

Made in Detroit

A real estate developer and founding partner of Joe Dumars’ Fieldhouse in Sterling Heights, Scott jumped full throttle into Federation as a young volunteer, recruiting and leading missions to Israel. In 2007, he joined the staff as Director of Strategic Initiatives, responsible for addressing the issue of attracting and engaging young talent within the Jewish community. Two years later, after a national search, Scott was named CEO — successor to the community’s visionary leader, Bob Aronson.

Scott has proven to a nimble, innovative and visionary communal leader as well. During his tenure as CEO, the Jewish Federation increased its endowments and other assets from $450M to nearly $700M, the highest level in its history. The Centennial Fund, launched in 2013, has now raised close to $240M to support a variety of core Jewish areas. Federation also grew its unrestricted Annual Campaign from $28M to over $34M, with eight consecutive years of increases, securing more than $800M distributed to Federation’s agencies and service recipients. Among many breakthrough initiatives, Federation’s CommunityNEXT, NEXTGen Detroit and affinities-based approaches to outreach and engagement have become national models used in communities across North America.

In an announcement to the community, Federation President Beverly Liss shared, “Scott is notably responsible for instilling a collaborative and forward-thinking approach to partnership with Federation’s agencies and other Jewish organizations, leading to groundbreaking programs such as JHELP, the Youth Mental Health Initiative (We Need to Talk) and the Community-Wide Security Program. More than any single program or statistic, however, his legacy will be defined by the spirit of trust, collaboration and camaraderie that permeates Jewish Detroit.”

“Judaism is a team sport.”

Scott Kaufman

“The job has never been about me,” says Scott. “Judaism is a team sport. And I couldn’t ask for a more talented, passionate and Menschlichkeit team of volunteers, funders, lay leaders, clergy and communal professionals than Team Jewish Detroit.”

In conversation with Scott Kaufman: At the crossroads

On taking a “breather”

With Alan Dershowitz in 2017

myJewishDetroit: What’s this about your “gap year?”

Scott: The idea of a gap year is a bit of a joke with my friends and certainly not intended as a full year off. But the concept of a break is to take some time for renewal, to reset my focus and energy on systemic issues and change in our community, and on projects that will make an impact locally, nationally and globally.

In many ways, my job has made me a good sprinter. I could go on running day-to-day from meeting to meeting, project to project, but 10 years “in the running” feels like a good amount of time. I’ve loved the job and struggled with this decision. But I know I’ve reached a point in my career where I want to spend more time thinking about the bigger picture and setting a healthy pace for the journey ahead.

On Jewish Detroit: The success of the brand and its potential

myJDet: Recruiting talent to Detroit used to be a hard sell. Now it’s easy. What has put Jewish Detroit on the map during the past 10 years?

I’m proud to say that Detroit is attracting and retaining its talent today and that the Jewish community is incredibly dynamic, hard-working and creative. Our strong philanthropic support and partnerships with our service agencies, our team of emerging young leaders and a top-talent professional staff — all working with a collaborative spirit — are huge assets that Federation’s next CEO will inherit to hit the ground running.

Speaking at Pound for Pound Men’s Group, one of Federation’s many Community Engagement programs that were started under Scott’s tenure.

mJDet: What’s on your plate?

I see my role as a mix between project leader, consultant and coach doing what I’ve been doing for Federation all along — building community. I now hope to do that on a larger platform, which also will continue to elevate our Detroit community. In January, I start my term as Chairperson of the Board of Leading Edge, a dynamic continental organization focused on elevating talent and culture in the Jewish not for profit ecosystem.

Here in Detroit, I’ll continue to focus on JLIFE — a Federation initiative we’ve been working on for some time. The JLIFE platform is the answer to the question: What would Amazon build if they were in the business of making it easy to engage in Jewish activities and experiences? JLIFE is really an exciting blend of technology start-up and community building.

For decades, Jewish communities have relied primarily on incentives (free stuff) to drive Jewish engagement. What we propose is that JLIFE take “The Easy Button” approach — a seamless online experience that has underpinned the success of Amazon, iTunes, Uber and Open Table — and apply it to Jewish communal life.

JLIFE makes it simple for individuals to discover and connect with meaningful engagement opportunities and, likewise, it will empower Jewish organizations to better reach and engage their audiences. I believe that even relatively small shifts in behavior on the individual level can have a dramatic cumulative effect on the vibrancy and cohesion of a community.

My role, as I see it, is to get JLIFE across the finish line. To date, the Detroit Federation is moving ahead to fund, build and launch the platform, working with the Montreal Federation, several prominent national and international foundations and organizations, as well as some incredible technology partners. This is a big undertaking. And the timing is critical. I don’t want to wake up one day and see that Eventbrite or Facebook owns all the Jewish community’s data and it’s not been optimized by us and for us, made right here in Detroit.

Scott at the NEXTGen Detroit 2019 Annual Meeting at the Ford Piquette Plant.

On teamwork

myJDet: Scott, you’ve been credited with cultivating the spirit of collaboration among the agencies and organizations in our community. What are your insights on this?

First of all, there are so many people that deserve credit for this and so many people that deserve the credit and thanks for all the accomplishments that I get to take credit for. I couldn’t begin to list them all here or to share credit in the way it deserves to be shared.

Still, I think that spirit of collaboration we’ve created in Detroit takes all the players in the game – not just working as individuals, but as a team. And I think we’re at our best when we apply the energies of great individuals to the idea of working as a team “by design.” And what I mean “by design” is the way you build any relationship in life — through prioritizing that relationship by spending quality time together, mixing business with fun, and building an atmosphere of trust and respect.

I’ve thought a lot about why I’ve been able to lead in the role of CEO and I credit many of my instincts in management to my father and the outstanding way he treated his employees at his resort in the Florida Keys. There’s a case study written about his methodology — a book by Elias Levy, entitled Emotional Equity: Seven Principles to Building Trust and Achieving Success in Business. Levy defines emotional equity as the philosophy of investing in people first, so that, in turn, your people will invest in your customers. (The book is a quick read on a plane, but I was surprised to find how deeply it touched me.)

Basically, like my dad, I’m naturally wired to listen, to watch carefully and read people accurately. I’ve invested a lot of time into building relationships, meeting people for coffee, taking long walks, turning acquaintances to friends, spending Friday nights at Shabbos dinners — be it with rabbis, agency leaders or the colleagues and professionals who consistently have been with me year after year. If your people know you care deeply about them as individuals — not just in the transactional sense that they are employees or donors — if you build those relationships on their trust, putting mission before your brand, you will develop the credibility to tell people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear. And you will develop a community of partners, who can take on almost any challenge together.

With Ron Dermer, Israeli Ambassador to the United States

On the power of volunteerism

myJDet: What brought you to Federation? And when did community work become a calling?

It’s a long story (and my favorite story, so many already have heard it), but here’s the gist:

In 1990, after the fall of Berlin Wall, I decided to spend a month backpacking through Eastern Europe before joining a national mission to Israel. Serving as my own “tour guide,” I visited many of the Jewish sites on my own (because there was no Jewish tourist infrastructure at the time).

In Krakow one evening, I found the one bar open in the town square and met up with a few young backpackers. They invited me to join them the following day for a tour of the salt mines — a big attraction there. I told them that it was my last day in the area, and I was planning to visit Auschwitz. None of them were Jewish, but a young Australian woman asked, “Auschwitz? I’ve heard the name, but tell me about it again?” I decided then and there to invite them to come with me.

“Judaism is a team sport.” — Scott Kaufman

And so, the next morning, the five of us set off together and soon found ourselves walking through the deserted, sacred grounds of Auschwitz. There was a small museum there, but unlike the throngs of tourists you’ll find visiting Auschwitz today — we were virtually alone. I was deeply conscious of being the guide for the group — the voice of our history.

The following day, I flew to Tel Aviv to join 500 young adults on a National Young Leadership Mission — my first Federation mission to Israel. One morning during the Mission, at 2 a.m., 20 of us from the Detroit delegation took a bus to the airport to meet Jews emigrating to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

Standing on the tarmac at 3 in the morning, watching these exhausted, overwhelmed people arrive, seeing their faces, the clothes they wore, the leather bags they carried — it struck me how similar they looked to the images I had just seen in the museum photos of arrivals at Auschwitz. But what a difference: Here we were — standing in Israel, a country that didn’t exist 45 years earlier. Here we were — an American Jewish community raising hundreds of millions of dollars to organize and lobby for the release of Soviet Jews to Israel.

At that moment, it struck me like a bolt of lightning — that those people are our people. I had been a learner — remembering history — and now here I stood, watching our history still unfolding. And I asked myself — what can I do? I knew I needed to find something I could contribute.

Fast forward: over the next ten years, I became the recruiter for Federation’s young adult mission program. I was the guy who wrote business plans, helped with the marketing, secured funding to subsidize trips and recruited more people on our young adult missions from 1998- 2001 than (I think) any other community in America. What I started as a volunteer became my obsession . . . and then a calling.

Over 500 people attended A Simcha for Scott to wish him well.

One form of service led to another — I became President of Federation’s Young Adult Division (now NEXTGen Detroit), then served as Campaign Chair of Tamarack Camps, and took on a bunch of stuff in the community. I was starting my own business, but my creative energies eventually veered back to community work. My dad used to tease me, telling me I was one of the world’s “poorest full-time philanthropists,” flying across the country to meetings at my own expense.

It never occurred to me to ask for a job at Federation, let alone to become CEO. But there was a job in New York that I heard about that was a long shot for me. So, I came to Bob Aronson to ask his advice, and his response was why New York? And I said, “Because there’s nothing for me to do here.” Bob then found plenty of stuff for me to do, starting with the Israel@60 celebration and the Federation Miracle Mission.

Scott addresses guests at a 25th Anniversary Celebration of Federation’s Partnership Region in Israel.

In 2009, when the CEO spot opened and I was fortunate enough to be entrusted with it, I didn’t know if I had the grooming and experience needed, but I dove in with all my heart, touched the stove a few times and tried, and still try, to keep moving forward every day.

On transitions and on to Next Big Things

myJDet: What’s next for you?

While much of my dance card is being filled with projects around engagement and field building within the Jewish communal ecosystem, I am also committed to increasing my frequency of ski days from a “weak” (5 days per year) to some quality time on the slopes. And will there be more time for dating? Yes. (national tour to be announced 😊 ) And yes, there will be fewer late night meals, grabbing random groceries before closing time at Plum Market. On the flip side, I hope to significantly decrease the number of meetings I attend per year, now averaging nearly 1,000!