The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s outgoing CEO Scott Kaufman is leaving a stronger, more connected community.

Photos courtesy of John Hardwick

When Scott Kaufman became president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit 10 years ago, he faced a discouraging environment. The recession had been especially harsh to Michigan, resulting in many closed business, foreclosed homes and population loss as some residents, including members of the Jewish community, sought job opportunities in other regions.

A colleague at another city’s federation told Kaufman his assignment was “sun setting” Detroit’s aging and shrinking Jewish community. While Kaufman viewed his initial role partly as keeping up community morale, he kept his eye on the future as well.

“An emergency fund was in place from donors. We were helping people to navigate the system and keep them in their homes,” Kaufman recalls.

“I had two ideas at the beginning — how to stop the out-migration of young adults. I made the attraction and retention of young people a top priority. We had to rebuild the future because in 2009 young people were saying, ‘I know everyone. There is nothing for me to do here.’”

NextGen, Federation’s new program for young Jewish adults, began in 2012 and Kaufman compares its growth to Detroit’s revitalization.

“It was about engagement. We converted some participants to donors and leaders. They saw the need to donate and their first donation was to a Detroit project, which was unusual,” he says

Kaufman was also interested in building endowments. “We needed to help older funders think of their legacy, so we created the Centennial Fund. The fund has $240 million in assets, some of it in directed funds, from 120 donors. “The two ideas — NextGen and the Centennial Fund — kind of mesh,” he says.

He quickly points out, “I didn’t do them alone. This is a team sport.” He says he sees himself as a community builder who has helped develop more positive energy, providing the opportunity to raise more money.

During his tenure, Federation’s total endowments and other assets increased from $450 million to $700 million—the highest in its history. Per capita giving was within the top three of all Jewish communities and the overall donor base increased.

Community building meant changing Federation’s “command and control” management model to “convener and collaborator.” There are challenges with change, and it was important not to go too fast, he explains.

Federation President Beverly Liss and Women’s Philanthropy President Sue Kaufman with Scott Kaufman.

Collaboration and Vision

He has also focused on getting Jewish social service agencies to work better together and to put “mission before brand.”

“We needed to be customer-centric versus organization centric,” Kaufman says. JHelp — the newly coordinated access point for all kinds of agency assistance to individuals — is an example. “There’s no magic, but it made it easier.”

Perry Ohren, CEO of Jewish Family Service, says Kaufman “was very helpful and visionary in getting the various organizations to see how they could do better, to look forward in a sustainable way. He is very passionate about human services in the Jewish community.”

Both professional colleagues and lay leaders compliment his ability to develop and lead a great team.

“There are things that wouldn’t have happened without him,” says Federation President Beverly Liss, citing growth in NextGen and the Centennial Fund. “He has built a team of professional and lay leaders and looks at them as partners. That’s how he motivated them.”

Kari Alterman, senior program officer for Jewish Life at the William Davidson Foundation, says Kaufman was “able to get everybody on the same bus and drive it.” She met him while staffing a 1998 singles mission that included Kaufman. “Scott stood out as someone who has a deep passion for community, a commitment to Israel, and for connections and relationships that build community,” Alterman says. “He chose to look at the community as a place of abundance, not scarcity. He sees things before anyone else. He understood the generational shift.”

Jay Sanderson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, became a Federation executive at the same time as Kaufman and has worked extensively with him, especially on the engagement of young people.

“The Detroit Jewish Federation was very traditional and, while we shouldn’t turn our back on the past, it needed to look to the future. NEXTGen is a platform we’ve brought to the national organization. What he has done is quite powerful. He has a tremendous amount of passion and creativity.”

Kaufman continues to be energetic and enthused about Detroit’s Jewish community. “I could have kept doing this, but I didn’t want to get burned out. We’re in a really good place and I wanted to do new things,” Kaufman says.

His new projects will include serving as board chair of the national Leading Edge organization beginning Jan. 1, 2020. Leading Edge is a multifaceted leadership development program for senior Jewish professionals who work in Jewish communal agencies. He explains it was created in 2014 because there was “no boot camps for CEOs in the field.” Leading Edge offers a year-long program that provides “onboarding” for Jewish CEOs.

His other focus will be JLife — a comprehensive digital concept to facilitate engagement in Jewish life. The program will provide links and event listings tailored to individual profiles and enable participants to share information and maintain a personal online calendar of Jewish-related activities. It is being developed as a partnership with the Montreal Jewish Federation and several foundations.

One other passion — skiing — also will get more attention from Kaufman as he leaves his position at the end of this month.

All are invited to celebrate Scott Kaufman’s commitment and contributions to the community from 7-9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek. There will be music, a dessert reception and mazel tovs. Register online at

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