Jay Sanderson now heads an organization that he once regularly slammed. As longtime chief executive of the Jewish Television Network, he was a prominent community member who, among other things, frequently criticized the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as ineffectual, top heavy, out of touch and overstuffed. Beware of what you criticize, for it can become your own; seven months ago, Sanderson, 53, was named president of the prominent Jewish social service agency with an annual budget of nearly $50 million. He came there by a circuitous route. Born in Boston, Sanderson grew up in a housing project 20 miles north of town where he dreamed of writing Hollywood scripts. In fact, he eventually made it to Los Angeles for a brief script-consulting career, but Sanderson also had a passion for service. So after spending his early career dabbling in movies and working for non-profits, he became head of the fledgling Jewish Television Network in 1989. In his roughly 20 years there, he built the production company into a major force in the Jewish community and public television, producing two major series for PBS: “The Jewish Americans” in 2008 and “Worse Than War,” a documentary on modern genocide airing earlier this year. The Business Journal caught up with him in his upper-floor office at federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard.
Question: How the heck did you end up here?
Answer: Funny you should ask. I was like the biggest critic of the federation. I really felt that it was a very big institution that didn’t understand the needs of this very diverse community, and had said so privately and publicly. Then the CEO announced that he was leaving and I literally had an epiphany while driving down Mulholland Drive. I pulled over and the epiphany was this: If you’re really concerned about something and there’s an opportunity to do something about it, you should.
So you initiated the contact?
No, the search firm actually called me asking if I had any suggestions. I don’t think anybody thought I would want to do this because I had once said it was an impossible job. So when they asked me the question I said, “Yeah, I have a good idea – me.” I think there was a good 30 seconds of silence on the other end of the line.
You were once a board member, correct?
Yes, about 15 years ago the then-chair of the federation thought that, because I was such a critic, I would do less damage inside the building than out. When I came on the board, though, there were about 140 people on it and I felt like I couldn’t do much. My term was two years, but I probably stopped coming to meetings after about six months.
Does your interest in the organization stem from being brought up in a devoutly Jewish household?
I think I’ve experienced every aspect of Jewish life. My grandparents were Orthodox, but my dad died when I was 5, and the most important male figure in my life was an Orthodox rabbi who ran a local synagogue and befriended me. I think my Judaism informs my life and every decision I make. Even though I may not be living as religious a life as I have in the past, I’m deeply spiritual and, obviously, given the job that I have, the Jewish community is a very high priority.
How often do you attend services?
Not as often as I used to. I belong to an alternative congregation in Brentwood called Nashuva led by a dynamic young rabbi named Naomi Levi. I used to go to synagogues a lot more because two friends and I had a fun hobby – making up an annual list of the 50 most influential rabbis, which Newsweek printed every year. So whenever I’d travel anyplace I’d go into synagogues to hear the rabbis because how else could you decide who was best? I don’t do that anymore because in my new job every rabbi’s my friend. I can’t afford to alienate rabbis.
Did you ever experience anti-Semitism?
I grew up in an area that was half-French Canadian and half-Irish Catholic. There were small Jewish communities in some of the neighboring towns, so I would ride my bike to where my Jewish friends were. But I lived in a very tough, non-Jewish neighborhood. I got beaten up more than once. Once two kids dug a hole and buried me in it. I was there for a while until somebody heard me screaming and let me out.
How did that affect you?
Almost every experience I had strengthened my identity. I was looked on as different through most of my youth, and when you’re seen as different it can go one of two ways. Either you want to blend in and escape your identity, or you embrace your identity. I clearly embraced my identity, and that’s why it makes some sense that I’m president of the Jewish federation today.
What does being Jewish mean to you?
I would say I live a completely Jewish life based on Jewish ethics and Jewish teachings. It’s how I live my life morally and ethically, how I treat other people, how I value my family and friends. I have a moral compass that really directs me in the way I make decisions. I pray daily, but not always in a synagogue.
Where did your passion for film come from?
Living in the projects without a father, I had a reasonably rough childhood and often would escape through television and movies. I used to go to double features. Back in those days you could see two movies for 50 cents. Sometimes my mother would drop me off and sometimes she’d go in with me. In the early years I loved the Marx Brothers and “Singing in the Rain.” Later, after film school, I became a big fan of Francis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci and Martin Scorsese. I loved “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy.”
You majored in film in Syracuse. Did you put it to use?
Right out of college I became the head of promotions for a movie theater chain in New England. I was also writing a lot and had sold a few things. After I’d been working there about six months, I got recruited to come to Hollywood as a script consultant for 20th Century Fox. So I jumped into my completely rusted-out 1967 Chevy Malibu and started driving across the country. I finally got to L.A. and worked on one film – “A Change of Seasons” with Bo Derek and Anthony Hopkins.
The non-profit world is a long way from Bo Derek.
I’ve been professionally schizophrenic all my life. I’ve always been one of those people who wanted to save the world; on the other hand, I’m a deeply creative person who wanted to write the next great movie. So my entire life I’ve gone back and forth between the Hollywood creative part of me, and the save-the-world community part. While still in film school, I was a national leader for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and was instrumental in creating a program in which high school and college students did dance marathons to raise almost $8 million a year. Honestly, you’d almost have to be on an acid trip to understand my resume.
That’s funny. How did you break into the non-profit world professionally?
Because I’d been very successful in raising money for MS, I talked my way into a job I was completely unqualified for: head of development at a place called the Center for the Partially Sighted where I again raised lots of money. That job led to a series of other bigger and bigger jobs as people started identifying me as someone who could come into a non-profit setting and turn it around.
And the Jewish Television Network?
I had come to what I would call a career crisis, where my two worlds were really at odds. I’d poured my heart and soul into these non-profit organizations but felt that I had turned my back on my real dream, which was to make it in Hollywood. Then I was given the opportunity to take a fledgling organization – the Jewish Television Network – and make it my own. Basically, the board of directors said, “We’ll guarantee your salary for two years and you can do almost anything you want.” I thought to myself at the time that it was the perfect opportunity to make my resume make sense, to take a television production company with a mission and bring it to Hollywood. I think I was enormously successful.
The two big projects we did for PBS – a six-hour miniseries called “The Jewish Americans” and “Worse Than War,” the biggest genocide film ever done for television – were highly rated and very successful. So I was able to live my dream of mixing vision with creativity.
How does the Jewish Federation reflect your dream?
In 2010, successful non-profits must operate like successful businesses. There has to be a set of standards and expectations, a financial model that makes it viable and important for donors – the equivalent of our stockholders – to contribute to what we’re doing. The old model of big nonprofits was that they were umbrellas supporting beneficiary agencies. But our role going forward is not to help organizations, but people. It’s a different paradigm.
Paradigm is not very specific. Give us an example?
There was a woman who lost her job and was about to be evicted from her apartment. She was also on the heart transplant list and, if you don’t have an address, they kick you off. We gave her $1,800 to keep her in her apartment. We also connected her with Jewish Family Services, which helped with her immediate needs like food. She got her transplant, and then we connected her with Jewish Vocational Services, which trained her for another job. So we changed this woman’s life with a small amount of money and by leveraging the relationships we have in the community.
Is that what you do on a typical day?
I generally wake up around 5:30 a.m. and work out for an hour on the elliptical at home. Then I have breakfast meetings pretty much every day. I try to see a couple of donors daily and, in rebuilding this business, am often hiring people or working with new employees. I usually work until 7:30 or 8 p.m. and then, more often than not, get on the computer at home. I have lots of meetings on Sundays. And I’m one of those people who used to text and drive, but stopped doing so after stern warnings from some of my friends. So now I keep the BlackBerry in the back seat, but I do have Bluetooth and always have someone to talk to at 6 a.m.
Doesn’t sound like your schedule leaves much time for fun.
My personal passions are food, travel and competitive sports. I’m a reasonably accomplished chef, love eating out, cooking and entertaining. I’m someone who walks into a supermarket and envisions what he wants to make. I actually read cookbooks and food magazines for fun. When I got this job, my kids’ biggest worry was that the quality of dinner would go down.
So what’s your favorite dish?
I’m pretty well versed in most cuisines. It’s all a question of what the ingredients and spices are and, most often, I probably lean toward the spices, proteins and vegetables found in Italian cuisine. I make lasagna and chicken catchatori, but it’s more of a fusion of different cuisines depending on who’s at my house. I love making whole wheat pizza with porcini mushrooms and white truffle oil.
Are you still into movies and television?
Film and television are not just hobbies, but passions. The greatest thing about having a DVR is that I can watch TV every morning on the elliptical. There are shows I watch religiously; my favorite is “Top Chef,” the cooking competition. My fantasy is to get on that show. I also love “Mad Men” and “Entourage.” My daughter and I have a guilty pleasure; watching really bad movies that no one else would want to see.
Care to embarrass yourself?
Mainly I’m talking about romantic sappy kinds of movies. “Valentine’s Day” was pretty bad. I haven’t been going as much lately, because my daughter’s been in Israel for six weeks and I promised her I’d save the bad movies until she gets back.
Any idea what your next job will be?
After this federation becomes the most incredible in America – a model for other federations – I’d like to move to a small community and open a restaurant. The food will be whatever is seasonable and fresh at the moment, so investors please take note.
ORGANIZATIon: Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles
BORN: Boston; 1957
EDUCATION: B.A., film, Syracuse University
CAREER TURNING POINTS: Creating the Jewish Television Network in 1989. Taking current position earlier this year.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Jeff Sagansky, former head of CBS
Entertainment; Richard Sandler, chairman of the federation’s board; his mom.
PERSONAL: Lives in Encino with his wife, Laura, a psychoanalyst, and their two children, a 17-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son.
ACTIVITIES: Traveling, cooking, playing basketball, running.
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