We Want Answers: Naomi Adler, the First Female CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia

"I grew up in a house with a mom who always wanted to be a rabbi before women were allowed to."


Photography by Stefan Radtke

You’re moving here from Westchester County, New York, to take this job. Philly can be frosty to outsiders. Are you worried? Oh no, I’ve already received hundreds of emails, phone calls, letters of welcome.

I guess you don’t need a neighborhood recommendation, then. I think we’re going to end up taking a poll. You can follow up with me in a year and I’ll tell you what happened.

Federation is still the leading Jewish philanthropic organization in the region, but has switched leaders four times since the 1990s. And your predecessor was not exactly beloved by everyone. How do you correct the turnover problem? Well, this is the third time, maybe fourth time, I’ve come into an area where I was a newbie. I’ve learned you need to be listening to all perspectives and be very attuned to building relationships. I think that you become a part of the fabric of the community if you listen and respond to what people need. I can’t comment on Ira Schwartz or the other predecessors. All I can say is that my style is to incorporate the best management practices with really loving what you do.

Given the turmoil in Federation ranks, do you think your selection as the first female CEO was a statement that it’s starting fresh in some way? The fact that I’m a woman was not really a focus. I’m not blind to the fact that I’m blazing a trail in this community. However, it’s not the reason they hired me.

You’re married to a Reform rabbi. You’re also a Reform Jew, I assume? Yeah, I tend to call myself a progressive Jew. I grew up in a very observant progressive household, and my father [Samuel Adler] is a very well-known and learned professor and composer. And I grew up in a house with a mom who always wanted to be a rabbi before women were allowed to.

How do you feel your interactions will go with an Orthodox population here that seems to be wary of Reform Jews — of a watered-down version of observance? I believe people spend way too much time on labels, and that my job as a Federation leader is to assist and sustain Jewish identity and make sure we’re as inclusive as possible. It’s not for me to judge — nor do I expect them to judge me. I expect them to be welcoming. What we do together is what’s important. Not necessarily where I pray.

Federation raises far less cash than its peers in San Francisco and Boston, two areas with comparable Jewish populations. How do you fix that? First of all, there’s a reason why they hired me as a newcomer. So it’s a little too early for me to hypothesize why the amounts are different. I believe the metric of success is in some part the amount of money being brought in. But for the most part, it’s how the money is being used and what kind of impact is being made on the communities.

I noticed some intriguing things as I was rummaging around your LinkedIn page. Thank you!

When you worked as a county prosecutor in upstate New York, one of your cases landed on Court TV. Tell us more, please. I was given a case where there were a couple of nuns who were protesting some actions of one of the governmental agencies, and they had trespassed. And so it kind of fell in my lap to prosecute them. It was a really interesting juxtaposition of church and state, so Court TV loved it.

Did you win the case? No. [laughs] I had two police officers who were Catholic and felt they were going to be punished by a higher being. They did testify, but it was in very short answers. So the cards were stacked against me.

First appeared in the April 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.