The Jewish Federation of New Mexico descended into dysfunction over the past 15 months with staff departures, board member resignations, lawsuits and complaints of volatility lodged against its executive director.
Now, the organization’s executive director, Rob Lennick, says he is moving on — an impending change that some say gives the Albuquerque-based federation a chance to begin anew. Whether that will happen, however, is far from clear because the problems, many say, run deep.
Documents from three lawsuits and two investigations, and interviews with people involved show some staffers have complained Lennick was intimidating and, at times, hostile. And some accuse the organization’s executive committee of withholding information about his conduct from the full board while extending his contract.
Lennick’s alleged actions and the executive committee’s alleged protection of him are at the core of the conflict.
Leaders and former board members of the federation acknowledge it’s a time of duress. The president of the board, David Blacher of Albuquerque, recently sent an email to some involved, referring to the bylaws’ section on “dissolution.”
But Blacher recently said he in no way meant to suggest the organization dissolve.
“I shared only with my board of directors that they should be aware of that element of the bylaws,” Blacher said. “And there’s no indication that the board should be dissolved, that the federation should be dissolved.”
Steven Ovitsky of Santa Fe, a former board member, said there is a cure for the organization’s ills.
“There needs to be a complete turnover of the executive committee,” Ovitsky said.
His concerns about the board’s executive committee were echoed by Linda Goff of Santa Fe and Scott Melton of Albuquerque, who quit the board in protest of information they said was being withheld from them.
Goff said Lennick’s impending departure is the first step in improving the situation, but “there has to be a clean sweep” of the five-member executive committee as well.
Lennick said he and his wife plan to leave “in the foreseeable future” but a date hasn’t been set.
A joint statement by Lennick and Blacher last week said he “will provide proper 30-day written notice of his formal resignation as per his contract.” Until his departure, Lennick “will continue to work with our staff and board to advance our mission, campaign and provide support for the transition process.” Lennick declined to say where he is going.
“It’s been a truly wonderful and challenging experience,” he said in an interview. “The people I’ve had a chance to work with are wonderful. And I’m proud of what we did.”
The Jewish Federation of New Mexico has been around for 74 years and strives to be an umbrella organization for other Jewish groups and for the promotion of Jewish culture.
Among its programs are a reading initiative for children, a care program for senior citizens, a lecture series that recently brought in writer Thomas Friedman, and donations to Jewish groups.
The federation seven years ago estimated the Jewish population in New Mexico at 24,000, with the majority in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The federation itself relies on donations, and Blacher said there is no formal membership system.
The three lawsuits — two filed by former full-time staff members and another by four current members of the board — detail a perceived decline into disarray at the federation. A story on the turmoil, written by Jewish affairs reporter Asaf Shalev, was published this year by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and some other outlets.
Lennick, a rabbi, was hired as executive director in mid-2019. The federation “essentially operated smoothly” under his leadership at first, according to a lawsuit filed by Sara Koplik, a longtime employee who was laid off.
But as Lennick’s tenure progressed, some staff members alleged in complaints to the federation’s human resources officer that Lennick was at times harassing and hostile. And in early 2021, the organization brought in a mediator, Philip Crump of Santa Fe, to look into the matter.
Crump produced a brief report that described a personality of contrasts.
Lennick could show “great skill, creativity and an underlying caring nature,” the report said. But some staff members, Crump wrote, found him “aggressive or abusive, inconsistent and disrespectful” and sometimes “screaming” and “raging.”
A second, more extensive investigation was commissioned by the federation later that year and centered on Koplik’s complaints. That investigation, overseen by the Jackson Lewis law firm in Albuquerque, found that neither her complaints “nor the actual actions and behaviors by Mr. Lennick rise to the level of illegal workplace harassment or discrimination.”
However, the report obtained by The New Mexican also recommended Lennick receive an improvement plan “that focuses on developing his leadership skills and includes management training and an executive coach.”
And it described as “unfortunate” and in “poor judgment as a manager” a message to Koplik sent by Lennick late one night in December 2020 in which he told her to stop “crossing out of your lane. … I SEE IT OFTEN. Seriously, if you think you would do a better job as CEO please go make that case to the board. I welcome that. … GO FOR IT.”
In an email last week, Lennick wrote he is “always open to coaching and advice. I seek counsel in my work all the time and benefit greatly by the insights and wisdom of others. One thing every experienced executive and rabbi learns is the essential importance of constant learning and expanding of one’s knowledge and skill.”
Koplik’s complaints weren’t the only ones received. One woman’s resignation letter to leadership last year said Lennick “has created a toxic working environment the likes of which I have never encountered in over 20 years of professional service.”
Numerous complaints also have been made about how the federation’s executive committee has conducted business.
About the time Crump was brought in, Lennick asked the organization’s executive committee for a five-year contract extension and a $30,000 loan to renovate a house he and his wife intended to buy.
Koplik’s lawsuit says the human relations director, Deborah Albrycht of Tijeras, became aware of this request and informed board President Sabra Minkus of the staff complaints regarding Lennick’s behavior.
Minkus encouraged Albrycht to stay mum about the complaints, according to the lawsuit. Minkus and the executive committee then approved the contract extension and loan, which would be forgiven over the course of five years.
The committee then recommended the full board give final approval to the contract extension and loan, and the board complied. Some board members say they had no idea at the time that staffers had described Lennick as abusive.
“The big issue is that we were asked to do this, to make the extension and accommodation, when the man was under investigation,” Melton said. “Why there was no transparency, why that information had not been shared with us … I saw that as a huge breach of trust.”
Shortly thereafter, employees, including Albrycht, and some board leaders like Deborah Boldt of Santa Fe began to leave. Melton, Goff and Ovitsky said they were stunned by the departures, made inquiries and learned about the complaints against Lennick. They soon resigned, too. About half of the 21-member board quit.
For his part, Lennick described “hard days” and “some lessons learned,” during his tenure, and said working through the pandemic from home and by Zoom meetings was a primary challenge. He said that “many of our staff have grown and progressed … and others have moved on.”
He declined to talk specifically about staff complaints but added, “When these issues came to light, I was terribly upset, terribly surprised.”
Lennick said he invited staffers to sit behind closed doors with him and work out ways to move on together, but some didn’t want to.
“I approached everyone with kindness, with generosity, with contrition,” he said.
Minkus of Albuquerque declined to be interviewed but did say she didn’t believe there was a danger of the federation folding.
Other members of the executive committee, including Mimi Efroymson and Jon Bell, both of Albuquerque, also declined to be interviewed, though Efroymson referred to the situation as “a big mess.”
Blacher, who wasn’t on the executive committee at that time but now is, said he wants to bring people together.
“We’re working our butts off to do the right thing, as we are instructed in Jewish law and custom,” he said.
Blacher said when donors come to him with questions, “They all walk away with a smile on their face.” The federation is financially strong, he said, and recently raised thousands of dollars for Ukrainian relief.
Blacher called those who filed lawsuits and others who have spoken out as purveyors of “evil speech,” or gossip, and said their “issues are not legitimate.”
Jeffrey Paul, an Albuquerque resident who recently was nominated to the federation’s governance committee, said he is a longtime supporter of the organization and finds it to be “a critical agency in the Jewish community.”
However, he said, he was disturbed by the annual meeting in December, conducted by Zoom, in which he believed debate was stifled. Just about everyone was muted, Paul said.
A video of part of the December meeting indicates the slate of board members and executive committee members was about to be approved.
Board member Nancy Terr raised her hand. “Before we have a vote, can we talk at all?” she asked.
She referred to the numerous resignations of board members in 2021 and said, “The board has not complied with the bylaws.” Then Minkus said Terr was out of order, and someone muted Terr.
Another board member, Esther Novat, held up a sign that read, “Let us speak.” The vote was taken and the meeting went on.
Blacher said a couple of weeks ago it’s important to maintain control over meetings because they have been marred by “verbally abusive” comments and “vituperative speech.” Terr, Novat, Betty Harvie and Jorgie Winsberg, all of Albuquerque, are the current board members who have sued the executive committee.
The staff working on an initiative the federation heralded in the past, the Sephardic Heritage Program, was whittled. The federation’s website says the program concluded at the beginning of this year. The project helped Jewish people with Spanish lineage organize documents and prepare to apply for citizenship in Spain.
The program was offered by Spain several years ago as a way to make reparations for persecution of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, which began in the 1400s.
Blacher said the program experienced problems in Spain and Portugal, and those countries “shut it down forever.” Albuquerque residents Koplik and Jordi Gendra, a rabbi, headed up the Sephardic Heritage Program in New Mexico. Gendra and Koplik left the organization and have filed separate lawsuits against Lennick and the executive committee.
Koplik and Gendra seek punitive damages and attorneys’ fees, among other things, while the lawsuit by the four board members asks the executive committee and board be reconstituted.
Former board member Goff said rebuilding must begin. “Certainly the first step is the fact that Rob is leaving,” she said.
Steven Ovitsky said he knows personnel issues are delicate. But a board shouldn’t reward an executive director with a contract extension and a loan, he said, without knowing an investigation of his behavior is being conducted.
The defendants contend in Koplik’s lawsuit their actions “were just, fair, privileged, with good cause, without malice, and for lawful, legitimate and nondiscriminatory business reasons.” The defendants “acted in good faith at all times material” to the lawsuit.
Lennick said he wasn’t permitted to talk about the lawsuits, “but I trust the system will produce the right results.”
He said he has mixed feelings about leaving the state but he and his wife have a “bucket-list” opportunity. Lennick said he knew the Jewish community and federation would fare well, that he loves New Mexico and that he hadn’t anticipated leaving.
He said: “I’m not a quitter.”