Bumpy journey for Yiddish center

Layoffs, shift in educational mission draw questions

Founder Aaron Lansky said changes at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst had been planned for four years. Founder Aaron Lansky said changes at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst had been planned for four years. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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AMHERST — Conducting a tour of the National Yiddish Book Center, Aaron Lanksy, the center’s founder and president, had much to show off: a new wing that opened last year; an exhibit of Maurice Sendak’s work; a recording studio where visitors’ reflections on growing up Jewish are taped and archived; a new executive director; and an ongoing initiative to digitize thousands of Yiddish-language texts.

But there were less salutary signs, too.

The center was nearly devoid of walk-in visitors and its bookstore shuttered, albeit temporarily. Events listings for the coming weeks were virtually nonexistent. Membership has fallen from 25,000 to 15,000 in recent years. The dismissal of four staff members in December reflected tough economic times. And there are growing rumblings from critics who question Lansky’s managerial skills and institutional vision.

While the future of the 30-year-old nonprofit may not be in imminent jeopardy, these are anxious times for the center, which has collected and archived more than 1 million endangered Yiddish-language texts and garnered worldwide admiration for its cultural rescue mission.

A shift in focus to educational programs and to an emphasis on Jewish cultural studies in general (not just Yiddish studies) has not sat well with many who’ve worked with or supported the center over the decades. The recent layoffs, they say, raise more troubling questions about what the center aspires to be in its fourth decade.

“It’s not really upheaval and certainly hasn’t felt that way here, despite some vituperation around the edges,’’ Lansky said in an interview at the center, which occupies one corner of the Hampshire College campus but is not formally affiliated with the college. “It’s restructuring in a way so we can spend more money on educational programs, a change that’s been in the works for four years and has finally come to fruition.’’

As upsetting as it was to lay off longtime employees, he added, “That happens in the real world when there’s a change in focus. None of these people did anything wrong. Our overhead was too high. They got laid off because the world changes and we have different needs.’’

He pointed to three new job openings the center hopes to fill soon, including a full-time professor of Yiddish studies and communications director to oversee the center’s quarterly magazine, Pakn Treger. Two more vacancies resulting from voluntary retirements have left a full-time staff of 15, down from a recent high of 22. In addition, five academic fellows fluent in Yiddish are on hand to help design and implement new programs.

However, interviews with several former employees, most of whom would not agree to be quoted by name, paint a less rosy picture of the center’s vitality and future prospects.

Criticisms of Lanksy include charges that in physically expanding the center and retooling its functions, he’s feeding his own ego more than fulfilling its cultural preservation mission; that keeping the center in Amherst makes it relatively inaccessible to scholars and to the general public; that Lanksy and other top administrators are overpaid, given the center’s budget; and that the center’s primary purpose, to rescue and preserve thousands of Yiddish texts, is being ignored or at least diluted.

Yiddish, a language with Ashkenazi Jewish roots widely used by East European Jews prior to World War II, lost millions of its native speakers in the Holocaust. The past decade has brought a marked renewal in Yiddish studies, however, sparked by academic programs centered in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere around the globe.

Robert Adler Peckerar, an assistant professor of Jewish Languages and Literature at the University of Colorado, who served as the center’s director of education from 2004 to 2006, is among Lanksy’s most vocal critics.

“Aaron was initially interested in Yiddish culture, but he’s less interested now and more in other areas of Jewish involvement,’’ Peckerar said, “even though [preservation of Yiddish culture] is still the main motivation for fund-raising.’’

While acknowledging Lanksy’s work ethic and charisma — no one seems to fault Lanksy on either count — Peckerar, who left the center to complete his PhD, doubts this recent repositioning is a positive development.

“It has more to do with Lansky’s ideas of Jewish community overall and his relation to it but little to do with Yiddish,’’ Peckerar said. “There’s a lot that can be done about a culture and language that were murdered. But Lansky sees himself as having some greater role for the Jewish people. I don’t.’’

Writing last month in the Yiddish edition of the Jewish Daily Forward, a Jewish-American newspaper published in New York, associate editor Itzik Gottesman praised Lansky as a great figure in Yiddish cultural history. Yet he, too, questioned whether Lansky and the center were wise to embrace Jewish cultural studies in a more general sense.

Digitizing books provides a valuable resource, Gottesman wrote. In the meantime, however, the center is providing fewer of the concerts and lectures that once made it a vibrant community resource for central Massachusetts.

Is there an element of jealousy that Lansky arouses? “Absolutely,’’ Gottesman said by phone. “I’m active in many Yiddish organizations that have nothing. We’re all trying to promote Yiddish culture, and whatever he [Lanksy] is doing is smart. The question is, to what end?’’

Lansky was a 23-year-old graduate student at McGill University when he founded the center, in 1980. For years he concentrated on retrieving Yiddish-language books in danger of being discarded or destroyed. The rescued books — some by well-known authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem, others by lesser known but historically important Yiddish writers — are now stored either at the center, in a Chicopee warehouse, or at some 500 libraries around the world.

Lansky courted controversy from the outset, however, and was dismissed by many Jewish organizations who doubted his objectives and refused to support them financially. “Big Jewish organizations just didn’t get it,’’ he recalled. “Culture wasn’t on the agenda. It was Israel and social services and religion, that’s it.’’

At 55, Lansky remains youthful looking and energetic, putting in 10- and 12-hour workdays when not on the road giving lectures or raising funds. His resume may not include a PhD in Jewish studies, but it does boast a MacArthur Foundation “genius’’ grant and authorship of a well-received memoir, “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books,’’ published in 2004.

The center had several homes in Central Massachusetts prior to settling in its current location. The land was purchased from the college, Lansky’s alma mater, and a $7 million complex opened in 1997. Like many nonprofits, financially the center has seen both robust and lean years in recent times.

Fund-raising has been primarily built on grassroots support, Lansky said. Members pay $36 yearly and donate $50 more on average to fund programs and build endowment, which now totals $15.5 million. But supporters have also included film director Steven Spielberg, whose foundation gave $500,000 to the digitization program (he and Lansky have never met), and television writer-producer Mickey Ross (“All in the Family’’), who died in 2009 and left the center endowment bequests valued at $5.5 million.

On paper, the center appears healthy. Its 2010 financial statements list total assets of $33.8 million, up from $29.5 million in 2009. While revenue from memberships fell $200,000, to $1 million, gifts and other contributions climbed from $2.6 million to $7.1 million. Of the center’s $3.5 million operating budget, says Lanksy, about one-third comes from direct mail membership solicitations, a pool that is shrinking as people born early in the 20th century pass away.

According to Lanksy, balanced budgets have been the norm, last year’s $100,000 shortfall being an unwelcome exception. Deep-pocketed donors remained committed, he said, but midlevel benefactors have been squeezed by a bad economy. “As nonprofits go, we’re in very good shape, because we’re very conservative. But we have to be exceedingly attentive.’’

Charity Navigator, a leading independent evaluator of nonprofits, gives the center strikingly low marks, though. Based on its 2009 financials, it gets only 1 star, out of 4, based on categories like organizational efficiency (program, administrative, and fund-raising expenses) and organizational capacity (revenue and expenses growth). Lanksy’s annual salary of $194,929 contributes to Charity Navigator’s assessment that the administrative payroll is out of whack with revenues. The center’s overall score of 29.65 compares unfavorably with, for example, the Boston Athenaeum’s, which earned a 57.15 score for the same period.

As far as the repurposed mission goes, Jonathan Brent, executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, is among those who applaud Lansky’s efforts to forge ahead with new programs, online and otherwise. Brent acknowledges the two institutions are friendly rivals, often competing for the same materials and collections, but says that while unfamiliar with the center’s new programs specifically, he views its work as “very valuable, both necessary and needed.’’

For his part, Lansky rejects the notion that the center’s growth and refocus are either ill-timed or inappropriate.

“I’ve worked hard not to make [the center] about me,’’ Lansky said. “I hope I can foster change, though. A lot of what I do now is make the intellectual case for what we do here, and I’m more passionate about that than ever.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at