By Jamie Anfenson-Comeau and David Holzel
Back around the turn of the millennium, Gil Preuss was an academic, teaching courses on “organizational behavior and human resource practices in nonprofits” at Case Western Reserve University. He published papers like “High Performance Work Systems and Organizational Outcomes: The Mediating Role of Information Quality.”
And although he had the degrees for this sort of thing (master’s in organizational behavior from Cornell; Ph.D. from MIT’s Sloan School of Management), he wasn’t sure if he could see his future in it.
“I used to sigh. I’d sit and work and sigh,” Preuss says. “My wife said that that completely disappeared when I started work for federation.”
In 2017, Preuss and his wife, Terri Brown Preuss, and their four children came to Washington, joined Adas Israel Congregation and Gil Preuss moved into the CEO’s office of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington in Rockville.
In four years, despite the stresses caused by an unexpected pandemic and the everyday stresses from his staff (known in the federation world as “professionals”) and donors (or “volunteers”) for whom The Federation is the central address for the Washington-area Jewish community, a sigh has not been heard to pass his lips.
It may not be accurate to say that Preuss, 57, is the Jewish community. But it would be wrong to say that he isn’t.
“Community has always been central to my identity,” he says. “And I wanted to work at a place where I would have impact. Even the aggravating moments are a lot of fun. And when we argue, it’s about things that matter. And I’m good with that.”
“Gil has taken the most aggressive approach to making our Washington Jewish community better in every way,” says Gary Berman, a member of Federation’s executive committee and past president of its board of directors.
Under Preuss, The Federation has subtly shifted its emphasis. A February 2018 demographic study of the community helped point the way. The study contained a bombshell: The Greater Washington Jewish community had a population of 300,000, and Northern Virginia had become the largest geographic segment of the community.
“I mean,” Preuss said at the time, “120,000 Jews in Northern Virginia. That is more than most metropolitan [Jewish] communities in this country.”
That year, Preuss led The Federation in developing a strategic plan that was approved by the board of directors in October 2018. It laid out priorities in expanding outreach to Northern Virginia, engaging young adults within the Jewish community and increasing Jewish learning opportunities.
“We launched two task forces, one focusing on Northern Virginia and one on engaging young adults,” Preuss says. “We raised significant incremental money in those two areas, and we have funded many new organizations and programs in both of those two areas,” Preuss says.
Organizations funded by The Federation include Gather DC, for Jews in their 20s and 30s. Federation dollars funded Gather DC’s expansion into Northern Virginia; a variety of initiatives within synagogues, including programs targeting families with children and outreach programs; and busing for Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax.
“He came into our community through the strategic plan and met all of these groups,” Berman says. “He looked at Federation and how we were doing things … and aggressively attacked what we were doing to make it much more strategic and to address our actual needs, instead of funding the same organizations at the same amounts year after year,” Berman says.
Evolution of a federation CEO
“I spent most of my life during high school in Rockville,” says Preuss. He attended Woodward High School, hung out at what’s now the Bender JCC, a short walk from today’s Federation building, and belonged to Young Judaea in Silver Spring.
“The idea of Downtown Bethesda didn’t exist. Gaithersburg was just being built up.”
That earlier Montgomery County was already Preuss’ third stop in life. He was born in New York City, and when he was 3 the family made aliyah. His father’s work brought the family to Rockville in 1979.
That Israeli influence was apparent in the family’s orientation. Were they involved with a synagogue? “No, never,” Preuss says. “When I was growing up, my family was never a federation family. And mostly I was involved with Zionist youth groups.”
In high school he took up and then dropped the idea of going into the foreign service. At the University of Michigan he studied political science.
So how did he evolve into a federation CEO? “Well, first of all, I was always involved in the Jewish community,” he says.
And the right jobs kept opening up for him. First a consulting job at the Cleveland Jewish Federation where he looked at “how to build a strong, healthy Jewish community.” Then an offer from Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s Jewish federation, to run a new day school initiative. He later served for seven years as executive vice president. Then came Washington.
In Preuss’ fourth year at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In the space of one frantic week, the country — and the Jewish community with it — shut its doors and walked away from almost all in-person contact.
“When COVID hit, we began focusing a lot more on emergency response in the community. Emergency support for agencies that were potentially going to fail and emergency support for families who had lost jobs and needed cash assistance,” Preuss says, adding that The Federation distributed more $4 million in emergency response funding.
“That elevated our focus on the question, how do we support local organizations to becoming more resilient?” he says. “It’s not every day that a global pandemic happens, but other things do happen — recessions — and the more resilient our local organizations can be, the stronger our Jewish community is going to be in meeting the needs of the people who live here.”
Community ‘is the core of who I am’
Berman says that when the pandemic started, Preuss “immediately changed gears. He went into high gear to help all of these agencies that were in trouble. As a result of Federation’s efforts, the agencies received over $25 million in PPP funding.”
“Even more important than raising the money was holding the hands of the various organizations that we serve, helping provide technical assistance for reaching out to the government for financial assistance,” says Samuel Kaplan, who became president of the board of directors in June. “He got them working with each other. In cases where there were potentially existential shortfalls of resources, Federation came to the help of those organizations, and we didn’t lose any services. A lot of that was due to Gil.”
The Federation has been operating remotely. Yolanda Savage-Narva, a member of the board of directors, says that even during the height of the pandemic, Preuss kept the safety and health of his staff in mind.
“Of course, the work goes on, and there are things an organization has to do, but everything that Gil did was really focused on the health and wellbeing of his team, and that’s a really important thing for a leader to be focused on,” Savage-Narva says.
“He is also just a gem of a human being,” adds Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, of Adas Israel.
Preuss says his life is charmed, not him. “I get to work every single day on things that I deeply care about, with people who are phenomenal, both the other professionals and lay leaders — some of the nicest, smartest, most charitable people I’ve ever met — and to have an impact. The issues are great, the people are great. I feel that we can make changes on issues that are most important to us.”
His lay partner, Kaplan, says the agency has a lot of work ahead of it.
“We have to increase the size of the leadership pool. We have 300,000 Jews in this community, and we need more leaders, we need more active Jews to build the community, and I think that’s where Gil’s focusing a lot of his attention.”
Preuss’ attention is focused on The Federation and Jewish community. All threads of conversation eventually lead there. The community — at first it was Israel, later the federation system — “is the core of who I am.”
“When we do our work well, the ability to bring people together, to bring organizations together, to think through ideas and to have an impact — I don’t think there’s any other place that can have more of an impact on Jewish life writ large. I love it.”