Finance, rabbinics and practical experience fuel L.A. Jewish community foundation’s new top exec
March 17, 2023
By Esther D. Kustanowitz for eJewishPhilanthropy
Even in laid-back Los Angeles, the full-size surfboard propped upright in Rabbi Aaron Lerner’s (YCT ’13) office stands out — the board nods to the CEO’s enjoyment of surfing, and — displaying logos of some of the L.A. institutions that have shaped him — charts where he’s been professionally. Lerner, most recently the executive director of UCLA’s Hillel, assumed the role of president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation Los Angeles in January. He succeeds Marvin Schotland, whose tenure lasted 33 years.
Lerner’s eclectic professional history includes 10 years in real-estate finance, originating debt and equity funding for commercial transactions ranging from $15 million to $50 million. During 2008’s financial crisis he went to rabbinical school at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an open Orthodox seminary in New York, and was ordained in 2013.
“I’m a rabbi who can read a spreadsheet,” Lerner quipped in an interview with eJewishPhilanthropy. “It’s a nice overlapping skill set because I care deeply about the community from a pastoral and rabbinic kind of perspective [and] have a business head for being able to work through the many details that it takes to go from caring to actually implementing and doing.”
Leading the foundation means considering the future viability and potential for Jewish L.A. over the next half-century, and about what assets are needed to ensure that future.
The city’s Jewish community endowment is $1.6 billion, which Lerner says is not enough for a city of L.A.’s size, suggesting that an endowment of $5 billion-$6 billion would be able to support the community through crisis and cover some of the expensive services in the community, such as Jewish summer camp, Jewish education from early childhood through adulthood and caring for the elderly. “We have to make sure, right now, as we’re going through the biggest intergenerational transfer of wealth ever, that people are actually investing in the city and its Jewish infrastructure for the next 50 years, and they’re going to do that at the foundation,” he said.
The new CEO is also listening to and learning from the approximately 30 staff members, the 1,400 families who have invested charitable assets in the foundation, approximately 500-600 local nonprofits per year and the community professionals making things run.