In preparing to become the next board chair of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Arthur Slepian says he has been doing some “unlearning.”
That’s because he now realizes the post he assumes July 1 will be nothing like what he signed up for back in January.
“When I accepted the role, we had no idea there was a pandemic coming,” Slepian said, “and in about 10 seconds we went from a community mostly doing OK to a community in crisis. And we probably didn’t know until last week that racial justice would be front and center for our community.”
This may be a time of multiple crises, but that should not overshadow the historic nature of Slepian’s appointment. He is the first openly LGBTQ president in the history of the S.F.-based Federation.
As the region celebrates Pride Month in June, Slepian’s appointment is, well, a source of pride.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about me being the first openly LGBT president of the board,” he said. “I don’t want to downplay that, because I see that has been a source of great pride in the Bay Area and around the country. But the deeper significance about my being chosen is the experience and perspective I bring because I’m a gay Jew. I’ve been here 40 years, and I’ve seen a lot of progress.”
Much of that progress has been driven by Slepian himself.
The native of Bensonhurst, New York, has been active in the LGBTQ movement for decades, starting with leadership roles at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a mostly LGBTQ synagogue in San Francisco (he is today a synagogue vice president). He was instrumental in the work of the Federation’s LGBT Alliance, the first such task force of any Jewish Federation in the country. And in 2010 he launched A Wider Bridge, a groundbreaking nonprofit that linked the gay communities of the United States and Israel, for which he served as executive director until 2017.
All that experience should make his transition into his two-year term as board chair a smooth one.
“Arthur is ideally positioned to lead our board at this unprecedented time of challenge and opportunity for our community,” said Danny Grossman, the fifth-year CEO of Federation. “He has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to navigate complicated terrain, not least in founding A Wider Bridge, which is expanding LGBTQ inclusion in and engagement with Israel.”
As for leadership style, Slepian indeed has developed one, but, as he says, “It’ll give away that I’m gay because it’s based on ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Brains, heart and courage. That’s what I look for in leaders, and it’s the standard I hope to live up to.”
In terms of the Federation’s goals for the Bay Area Jewish community, Slepian said job one is to “expand the tent.”
He acknowledged a measure of diversity among the Federation board members in terms of gender, geography and sexual orientation, but he does point out one glaring problem: It’s all-white.
“We need Jews of color as leaders among all boards and staff,” he said. “I am old enough to remember what it felt like to be on the outside of this community looking in, and wondering if I would ever belong. There are still members who are not sure they belong. There are trans Jews, Jews of color, people who still feel they are on the outside looking in. We can’t somehow have these conversations and make decisions without those voices at the table. It was important a month ago, but it is critical today.”
And, oh yeah, that pandemic? It’s still on, and so is the economic hardship it has caused. Slepian applauded the Federation’s pledge of generating $15 million in total relief funding, stemming from donor-advised funds, an emergency fundraising effort and other sources, but he knows this work will go on for a long time.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve done so far in addressing both humanitarian and organizational needs,” he said. “It feels like we’re still at the beginning. This is not like a wildfire that left town and we can assess the damage. We don’t know how long the health emergency will last, the full long-term economic impact, or how deep the recession will be. This is what Federations are built for.”
When he’s not presiding over board meetings, Slepian will be enjoying time at his Glen Park home with his husband and partner of more than 20 years, Gerry Llamado, along with their mini bernedoodle Dexter.
But the work he has devoted his life to is never far from his thoughts.
“When I think about building [the community], this is our moment,” Slepian said. “It goes well beyond raising funds. It’s about convening the best and brightest thought leaders in the community, making decisions with best possible data, and thinking of new ways of making Jewish life more accessible and affordable.”