Ken Zimmerman, a local lawyer and civil rights activist, will lead the U.S. Programs division of George Soros’s influential philanthropy, Open Society Foundations, beginning this month.
As president of U.S. Programs, Zimmerman, of Montclair, will oversee an operation that has given away over $100 million annually over the past few years to promote “democratic governance, rule of law, the rights of minorities, and civil and political liberties,” according to OSF president Christopher Stone.
“It’s a remarkable opportunity,” said Zimmerman in an interview with NJJN. “This is an opportunity to build on a good portion of things I’ve done throughout my career on a scale and with the resources to try and make a difference at a more significant level.”
Zimmerman explained that the foundation is committed to forming an “open society,” in which everyone can participate. “The foundation, which last year gave away in excess of $100 million, focuses heavily on areas to ensure that especially marginalized communities can fully participate,” he said.
Particularly interesting to Zimmerman are civil rights initiatives, including those that aim for the inclusion of immigrants and African-American males, and those that address the disproportionate incarceration of minorities.
Zimmerman said the foundation focuses on “groups that have been historically excluded [by] trying to determine the most effective ways to enable them to participate.” It also gives attention to “policies or areas in which what we know to be the best policy may not actually be followed,” he said, “areas like criminal justice reform and the like.”
Zimmerman said his Jewish roots “unquestionably” inform his thinking; “my Jewish education and Jewish culture have always informed how I look at the world,” he said. “Whether it’s tikun olam, whether it’s a belief that argument and intellectual discourse are important values to be recognized, all of those have fed into my belief of how one can make a difference” in improving society.
Zimmerman said the trips he took to Israel at the end of high school and in his early adulthood proved to be influential Jewish experiences. After graduating from Yale University in 1982 and before attending Harvard Law School, he spent eight months in the Jewish Agency For Israel’s Sherut La’am volunteer social service program in Israel, teaching English in Migdal HaEmek near Nazareth.
“Part of what I found at that time at least was the set of issues around how Sephardi Jews were being treated, how Ethiopian Jews were being treated,” he said. Both communities, he said, had “lots of struggles.” Serving through Sherut La’am, he said, gave him the opportunity “to look at diversity in a very different way than I was used to, but in a cultural environment in which some of the issues about how values get translated into practice were very much alive.”
Criticism has been leveled at Soros by some pro-Israel groups, who have objected especially to his financial support (anonymous, in its early stages) for J Street and who charge that its left-leaning policies regarding Israel dilute the pro-Israel message in Washington. Zimmerman declined to comment specifically on Soros’s support for J Street.
“I’ve got enormous respect for him,” he said of Soros. “I think his fearlessness in taking on issues that many people are afraid of talking about [is] one of the many reasons I am excited about taking this job.” He said he is excited to be “working for somebody who I believe has a really strong vision around equality, justice, and fairness.”
Zimmerman previously worked as the litigation partner in charge of the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest, the pro bono arm of Lowenstein Sandler PC, the Roseland-based law firm. He served on President Barack Obama’s transition team preparing strategy for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and was chief counsel to former Gov. Jon Corzine from 2006 to 2008. He was also a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice in the Civil Rights Division.
Zimmerman was the founding executive director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a Newark-based advocacy and research organization founded by Alan V. Lowenstein, who served as president to a forerunner of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Zimmerman said his most satisfying career accomplishments include his work with Corzine on abolishing the death penalty in New Jersey, creating programs with the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice to help African-American and Latino young people achieve long-term meaningful employment, and bringing a case against FEMA following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area.
He added that building and developing institutions such as the NJISJ and Lowenstein Center were particularly meaningful to him.
“I think, though, more than the specifics, it’s the creation of entities or institutions that hopefully have staying power,” he said. “Those are really very meaningful, to feel like it’s not just a one-time hit, but it’s something you’re building that will outlast you.
“They say, ‘Politics is the art of the possible.’ Philanthropy offers the opportunity to expand what’s possible,” he said. “So for me, the opportunity to broaden the net and help take steps to realize the potential that this country can be in terms of equality, fairness, and justice is really remarkable.”