Greater MetroWest’s ‘mayor’ looks back
Max Kleinman ushered federation through times of crisis and triumph
After nearly 20 years as its senior executive, Max Kleinman has added the word “emeritus” to his title of CEO/executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
But because his commitment to the Jewish community is virtually woven into his DNA, his ties within and outside the Greater MetroWest community will remain strong and varied.
With Dov Ben-Shimon’s appointment as his successor as of Sept. 2, Kleinman will advise on the transition before beginning a four-day-a-week senior consultancy at the Jewish Federations of North America.
“As I turn 65, it is time for me to do other things,” he told NJ Jewish News in an interview on Sept. 11. “This has been a very rewarding job, but also a very hard job. You always have to be on. My job was not just being the chief executive of a large organization, not just being the chief fund-raiser, not just dealing with issues of allocations, governance, and what-have-you.
“The items that came across my desk were generally those nobody else could solve.”
Kleinman’s job as local problem-solver began in 1983, his first of two tenures at what was then the Jewish Community Federation of Metropolitan NJ, which was located in East Orange. Originally created as an umbrella philanthropy of Newark’s Jewish community, it was the largest of the state federations raising money for Israel, local Jewish agencies, and Jews in need abroad.
“It was a move up to a much larger federation” — he had been serving as associate director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta — “but equally important for us, it was a move back home. Our family lived in the New York area, and I wanted my kids to know their grandparents and aunts and uncles,” he said.
But after serving as associate director for five years, “I left again because I felt that it was time for me to run my own shop.” He became executive director of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, and then returned to MetroWest in 1995 as chief executive.
Looking back on the past 19-and-a-half years, Kleinman told NJJN, “I feel very good about all the things we have accomplished during my tenure. We have a terrific staff and great lay leadership. When you have those ingredients you are able to accomplish great things.”
In a sense, the highlights of his tenure have also been some tough moments in history.
He noted that the interview was taking place on the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.
“We have been responsive to crises and emergencies,” Kleinman said. “We raised a substantial amount of special funds for 9/11 victims’ families in our own community, and when we realized that Hoboken and Jersey City had much greater needs because many of their residents worked at the World Trade Center, we provided funds for their families.
“We raised a great deal of money after Hurricane Sandy. We took care of the needs of the Jewish community and we provided a lot of assistance to Union Beach,” one of the shore communities most severely damaged by the superstorm.
“We were chief fund-raisers for the Lester Senior Housing Community,” a complex with separate sections for assisted and independent living on the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany, which is also home to the federation. “We have been a leader in Jewish day schools and Jewish camping grants as well as Birthright Israel and PJ Library. We have developed an infrastructure that lays the groundwork for developing Jewish identity for the next generation,” said Kleinman.
The Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ grew substantially, from $50 million when Kleinman arrived in 1995, to its current endowment of $400 million.
But Kleinman said he is especially proud of the increasingly close relationship with people and communities in Israel. The federation has partnership-city relationships with Arad/Tamar, Gush Etzion, Horfesh, Kibbutz Erez, Ofakim/Merchavim, Ra’anana, and Rishon Letzion.
“We have raised over $20 million in special campaigns for Israeli communities over the years,” he added.
Kleinman also helped lay and professional leaders on both sides broker the 2012 merger of the MetroWest federation and what was then the Jewish Federation of Central NJ, which covered most of Union County. The resulting Greater MetroWest NJ federation came to encompass Essex, Morris, Sussex, and Union counties and parts of Somerset and Warren counties.
“I am very proud of the merger,” Kleinman. “It was a very laborious process, as it should be, but it was the right thing for both communities to do. We are very pleased with the results.”
In building an annual campaign in excess of $21 million, Kleinman was called on to be a politician, a social worker, a consummate shmoozer, and a policy guru. “I was the mayor of Greater MetroWest,” he said. “I went to weddings, funerals, brises, and dedications. I also represented the federation nationally and internationally. The hours were extremely taxing.”
Born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Holocaust survivors from Poland, Kleinman grew up in the heavily Jewish Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx.
His father, Eli, was president of Young Israel of Pelham Parkway, one of the largest synagogues in the Bronx, for 19 years.
Kleinman attended the now-defunct Yeshiva Rabeinu Chaim Ozer and Yeshiva University High School before majoring in history at City College. While he continued his studies there for a master’s degree, he was assistant director of the Hillel on campus and an advocate for founding a Jewish studies department.
It was the height of the ’60s on an intensely politically active campus. Kleinman joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth movement of the Social Democrats, a group on the moderate Left “that was very pro-Israel,” he said.
During a summer job as a counselor at a Jewish camp, Kleinman met his wife, Gail. Together they shepherded high school students on a trip across America.
Later, as a teaching assistant at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Kleinman focused on early American and modern European Jewish history. “But there were no teaching jobs, and I knew I had to change the focus of my career,” he said.
He received a scholarship from the Council of Jewish Federations, the predecessor to the Jewish Federations of North America, and returned to school for a master’s degree at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work in New York. It led to a three-year stint at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, where he began learning the skills he has used throughout his career — planning, allocations, soliciting government grants, and cultivating Jewish donors.
He helped procure funds for a low-income senior housing project that was named for Golda Meir, who was raised in Milwaukee before making aliya and later becoming Israel’s prime minister.
Combining his wife’s skills as a psychotherapist with his own as a social worker, the Kleinmans teamed up to do a study of the mental health needs of Holocaust survivors and their children.
Because both of his parents were survivors of Nazi labor camps, for him the work was highly personal.
His Polish-born father was 14 years old when World War II began in 1939. His mother, Miriam, was 12. “They survived through guile and luck and because they were good workers.” They met in a displaced persons’ camp after the war, then moved to New York, he said.
The Kleinmans moved from Milwaukee when Max secured the position of associate director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. “I was the number two guy at the federation, working on fund-raising, planning, allocations, young leadership, and community relations,” he said.
While there, he helped arrange an exhibit at Emory University of Judaica salvaged from the Jewish community of Danzig, Poland.
When novelist and survivor Elie Wiesel, who came to speak at the exhibition, was asked what advice he had for children of survivors, “he said, ‘Make babies,’ and the next day my son was born.”
The Kleinmans have a daughter, Beth Fleischer of Montclair, and a son, Howard Kleinman of Audubon. They have two grandchildren.
Teaching and travel
His “retirement” sounds like anything but. For the first time, Kleinman will commute from his home in Livingston to New York on a regular basis to serve as a consultant for JFNA.
He will teach a seminar on nonprofit management at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and expects to do a lot of volunteer work at the federation.
He considers writing, theater, and concert-going his favorite leisure activities. “I love music, particularly classical, jazz, folk, and good Broadway shows,” he said.
Aside from visiting Israel, the Kleinmans have Australia, New Zealand, the Galapagos Islands, and Machu Picchu on their travel plans.
Leaning back as he sat behind a desk in a temporary office at NJJN, he reflected on his upcoming departure.
“It is time to do other things and let a younger person take over,” he said.