Eli Skora helped usher the Jewish Federation St. Paul into the 21st Century and a year from now, Skora will retire after 16-and-a-half years as the executive director of that agency. Skora had a hearty laugh at the question of “why now?”
“It’s pretty obvious: I’m 67 years old,” he said. “I’m retiring. I’m going to devote my time to my kids, my grandkids, and enjoying life. I’m not going to wait until I die to retire.”
When Skora steps down June 30, 2017, he will end a career that spans nearly 40 years with four different Federations; he previously was in New Orleans, Waterbury, Conn., and Fort Wayne, Ind.
Federation board president Steve Brand had mixed feelings about Skora’s retirement.
“Eli has been a valuable service to the community for his 16 years,” he said. “Retirement will be good for him but sad for us. We’re glad he’s staying in the community and we’ll look forward to him being with us the next year.”
Born in Cuba in 1950, Skora moved to Connecticut at the beginning of the Cuban revolution. He was resettled by Jewish agencies to Jewish foster homes until his family joined him six years later.
As someone who isn’t from the Twin Cities, he often gets the question about why Minneapolis and St. Paul operate two Federations instead of one. And he’s pretty much over them.
“Everybody asks these questions, especially those of you who are outside the area,” he said. The two communities are very different. From the very beginning. They function differently. Each community has its personality. Here, you have going back to the beginning of Minneapolis and St. Paul, two very different communities. That’s the history here and that’s what we have to work with.
“It’s not my creation. I don’t think it’s going to change.”
Despite his frustration with the Minneapolis-St. Paul questions – ones he’s gotten since before he took the job in St. Paul – Skora kept coming back to comparisons between the two.
“St. Paul’s not so small,” he said. “Minneapolis is still a small town too. They think they’re New York,” he said. “That’s OK. When I was in New Orleans, it’s not such a small city but they think they’re a small town.”
Skora said one of the things he was proudest of was the St. Paul Federation’s campaign remaining strong despite the massive recession in 2008.
“We lost 100-to-200,000 (dollars) worth of funding. It was based on strategic decisions at the time that I think paid off,” Skora said. “We have maintained our strong community here, tightly knit and caring.”
With successes comes challenges as well; however, Skora said that continuing to be relevant in the community is not one of them.
“We’re very relevant in St. Paul because we are smaller. We all know each other, we need each other. We remain closely knit together here and we work closely,” he said. “In bigger communities, you have many more people. So you sort of become a little more isolated and more distant. We have five or six key institutions. In Minneapolis, you can have 20 or 30. It’s harder to work together when you have so many institutions. The nature of what we do becomes easier in a community our size.”
Skora did say the biggest challenge was demographics in terms of age and location.
“The Jewish community is somewhat shrinking everywhere. That’s the problem I think. It’s shrinking here and in Minneapolis,” he said. “The new generation is much more digital, much more transient. They’ve grown up differently because of technology.”
Skoras said that when people are in their 20s or 30s, they are trying to establish themselves with a family or job. After that is when he wants to get them to Israel or get them exposed to the larger Jewish world.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “And the economy is a real problem. Younger Jews aren’t entrepreneurs like their parents. They are doctors, lawyers, professionals. That’s OK, but it’s not as much wealth created. All these things have to be taken into account as we navigate the economy and how things progress.
“We have to adapt. Those who don’t are going to die. I’m staying here so I’ll be watching.”
As the St. Paul Federation begins its search, with Susan Minsberg, the immediate past-president leading the committee, Skora plans to have a very limited role.
“They want me to have some input but I’m going to keep my distance,” he said. “That’s not my role. Maybe I’ll do background research. I can find out who’s good and who isn’t. I’m not going to be interfering. This is a lay role.”
One part of the job search that Skora wasn’t shy about sharing were the traits he feels you need to have to be successful in the position.
“The understanding of the theories behind inclusiveness, knowing how to deal with people, knowing how to supervise, knowing how to empower your employees: You’ve gotta have all these things,” he said. “Nobody can walk into this and do this job. Almost everyone who has been brought into Federation from another field, totally divorced from this, has failed.
“Now, I’m not saying you have to be a Federation director to be successful. You’ve got to have the right personality. You have to know how to deal with people, motivate people. You have to have some vision after you’ve been here for a while, not right off the top. It’s very difficult. These are not easy jobs. Not easy at all. You can run into some difficult personalities.”
Editor’s note: The interview with Eli Skora took place prior to the Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s announcement of Stu Silberman leaving the agency.