The Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life has embarked on a search for a new executive director following the sudden departure of Rabbi Leah Cohen from her position at the helm of the organization in June.
In the coming months, a committee chaired by Slifka trustee Evan Farber ’99 will search for a permanent replacement for Cohen, according to Peggy Gries Wager ’82, another trustee, who was appointed to serve as interim executive director through the end of the academic year. The other members of the search committee have not yet been appointed.
Since her arrival this summer, Wager has moved quickly to put her personal stamp on Slifka, establishing fresh programming and hiring a new cleaning company to take care of the building.
Wager took over after Cohen’s departure was announced in a June 19 communitywide email from David Slifka ’01, the president of Slifka’s board of trustees. The email offered no explanation for the sudden change, saying only that Cohen was “no longer with the Slifka Center” and expressing gratitude for her work at Yale.
Cohen did not respond to a request for comment, and Slifka staff and trustees referred questions to Wager, who declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Cohen’s exit.
But according to two students heavily involved in the center’s leadership, Cohen had become a controversial figure at Slifka over the past two years.
A rabbi with a master’s degree in international management, Cohen came to Yale in the summer of 2013, as Slifka struggled to recover from the 2008 financial collapse. She assumed the dual roles of executive director and senior chaplain, becoming the first woman to hold those positions.
During her tenure, Slifka’s finances appear to have stabilized. Between 2013 and 2015, the center’s endowment rose from $20 million to $27.8 million. A decade on from the financial crisis, Slifka has a “healthy balance sheet with no debt,” Wager said.
But last spring, with Cohen’s contract under review, Slifka surveyed students about her leadership, according to the two students, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly about the former executive director.
The response to the survey was likely shaped by concerns about some of Cohen’s hiring decisions, the students said, as well as lingering discontent over the abrupt departure of large numbers of Slifka’s dining hall staff in the summer of 2016.
The dining hall changes were particularly controversial, said one of the students.
“No one knew that it happened until we showed up and everyone was gone,” the student said. “There was sort of an unhealthy environment of a lack of transparency.”
Wager declined to comment on Cohen’s hiring decisions or the staff turnover in 2016. But she said Slifka and Cohen “parted ways on mutually amicable terms.”
“Transitions are often a surprise,” Wager said. “And I think that this was a surprise to many people, but that’s the case with many transitions, so that’s not unusual.”
Not all students at Slifka were disappointed with Cohen, however. Ruth Schapiro ’19 called her a “great rabbi” who was available to advise and comfort students around the clock.
“She was also great at putting new parents at ease about sending their children to college,” Schapiro said. “She was heavily invested in the students, and I will really miss her.”
Wager said that over the coming months she plans to give students a leading role in developing new programming for Slifka. Already, she said, the dining hall is set to stay open from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day for “grab and go” lunch, largely at the request of students.
In addition to Wager, several other new staff members joined Slifka over the summer, including a Reform rabbi, David Wolfman, who will lead High Holiday services. Slifka has also hired new co-directors for the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, as well as a rabbinic intern for the egalitarian prayer group and a social justice Springboard fellow.
“There is much positive energy in the building, which I’m sure will continue to contribute to an inclusive atmosphere, engagement with students who may not be connected yet, and an overall vibrant Jewish life on campus,” said Yale Hillel Student Board president Joe Linfield ’18.
Long before students returned to campus, the leadership transition at Slifka started over the summer, with Wager requesting a thorough scrubbing of the center’s facilities.
“[The building] was messy, filled with clutter and didn’t live up to my cleanliness standards,” Wager said.
The center’s staff spent a day organizing and decluttering the building, and Wager hired a new cleaning company at a lower cost to take over maintenance duties.
But the transition remains a work in progress: After an administrative mix-up, Wager had to personally vacuum the third-floor carpet before a student lunch earlier this week.
“We want to be an organization we can be proud of,” she said, raising her voice to be heard over the whir of the vacuum. “If that means vacuuming, I’m all in.”
Rachel Treisman | firstname.lastname@example.org | @rachel_treisman
David Yaffe-Bellany | email@example.com | @yaffebellany
Correction, Aug. 31: An earlier version of this story stated that Rabbi David Wolfman was hired as a staff member when in fact he was brought on to only lead High Holiday services.