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Museum Head Brings Heritage to New Position
Ask David Eisner about the intersection between Jewish teachings and the U.S. Constitution, and he will speak passionately about themes of justice in the Torah, the Mishnah and the Gemara. About the separation of church and state. About the government's responsibilities to its most vulnerable.
He'll relate a Midrash starring Hillel and Shamai, and their conflicting approaches to interpreting God's law on Earth.
Mostly, the new president and chief operating officer of the National Constitution Center will reach back to his years of yeshiva training to pinpoint the many areas where Jewish values and American civil liberties join hands.
"The overlap is huge. Huge," Eisner said as he settled into his still-barren basement office in the sprawling complex that sits on prime real estate just yards from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.
"The concept of inalienable rights stems from the fundamental driver of human rights: the idea that we are created in the image of God. You see that come alive in the Declaration of Independence, and somewhat later in the Constitution," he explained. "We're talking about respect for minorities, government validation of public opinion, validation of the minority viewpoint."
The National Constitution Center tells the story of the nation's founding document via exhibits and interactive displays. It houses the Annenberg Center for Education and Research, designed as a hub for national debates, and offers a "town hall" setting for discussion of constitutional issues.
Last month, after a search spanning much of 2009, the center's Board of Trustees named Eisner its new leader.
They chose a man who for five years led the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency overseeing AmeriCorps, VISTA and other national service programs, where he is widely credited with turning a floundering institution into a successful enterprise.
As the nation's largest grant-maker supporting service and volunteering, the corporation promotes citizen participation in the volunteer sector. It reflects a sensibility -- giving to the community -- Eisner learned early on, both as the oldest child of Orthodox parents and as a yeshiva bucher in Monsey, N.Y.
President George W. Bush appointed Eisner to the job in December 2003. During the ensuing half-decade in Washington, he would apply three simple business philosophies to inject new life into the corporation: focus on restoring trust and credibility, demand accountability and put the customer first -- in this instance, the grantees who organize the grassroots, community-based programs.
"It was by far the best thing I ever did," said Eisner, who resigned as a matter of protocol last year when President Barack Obama was nominated.
Working With Philanthropy
His stint at the corporation followed seven years as a senior executive at AOL Time Warner and America Online, where he established and directed the AOL Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm.
The 48-year-old spent a great deal of his time at the communications giant crafting policies ensuring customers' privacy while also protecting free speech -- "a very tricky area," he added.
Throughout his multifaceted career, which has also included serving as senior vice president of Fleishman-Hilliard International Communications in Washington, Eisner's love of Judaism has remained a constant.
His father, Yehuda Eisner, fled Germany with his own parents in 1939, arriving in New York via Holland and France before eventually settling in Santa Barbara, Calif., where David and his three siblings grew up.
"I was reared with the very deep belief that the American Constitution and the promise of America are deeply aligned with the best aspirations of the Jewish people," he said, recalling his father's flight from Nazism and his subsequent training as a doctor.
Chaya and Yehuda Eisner, who now live in Israel, shipped their son back east for a yeshiva high school education.
Later, David and his growing family would embrace Conservative Judaism, becoming active with Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Md., where daughter Samantha became a Bat Mitzvah last weekend by reading from the Torah portion Vayeshev.
He said that during college, at Stanford University and the University of Haifa, he "became very introspective, focused on philosophy, and moved toward a more spiritual, but less ritualistic, approach to religion," said Eisner.
He and his wife, Lori, will look for a synagogue in the Delaware Valley when she moves up from Bethesda after their four children wrap up the school year.
For now, Eisner has set aside his passion for tennis, chess and golf to be "all kids, all the time."
He coaches at minimum one sports team every year, and is a committed spectator at soccer, baseball and football games, as well as swim meets.
Eisner makes the more than two-hour trip home in his SUV every weekend and at least one weekday evening, toting basic supplies for the apartment that he's renting in Old City, three blocks from work.
In these first weeks on the job, the new CEO has begun carrying out the marching orders he received when he was hired: Expand the institution's national profile, bring more people in and grow the revenue.
In true rabbinic fashion, he started by posing questions: of his leadership team, of course, but also of the 175 full-time and 100 part-time employees, 100 vendors and 150 or so volunteers who keep the museum running. What do you do here? he asks. What do you hope to do here? What advice do you have for me as CEO?
"For me, this job sits at the intersection of the government and the nonprofit sectors -- and it represents the best of all of them," said Eisner.
Goals for the Center
His goal is to expand on the center's function as an educational and cultural institution, finding ways to broaden citizens' engagement with their government and its processes. In essence, said Eisner, he seeks to foster a deeper commitment to civic responsibility -- a sense "that we're in this together."
No details yet; he's still working on the blueprint.
"Come back and see me in 60 to 90 days," he laughed.
Some time in that period, Eisner may receive a call from a neighbor on Independence Mall -- Michael Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History, who plans to reach out to his new colleague.
The men met several years ago, when Rosenzweig was interim president of Hands On Atlanta, a consortium of 400 community agencies and schools, and Eisner was still at the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Now the two are once again in allied fields. Rosenzweig believes that the similarities run more than surface-deep.
"The National Constitution Center celebrates the foundation and freedoms on which this country rests," he said, "and the opportunities afforded by those freedoms are boundless."
Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, served as vice president for national programs and initiatives at the Constitution Center for more than two years, during which time she occasionally spoke with David Eisner -- no relation -- in hopes of partnering with his service organization on various projects.
She spoke positively about his appointment not only because he is a fellow Jew, but because he brings such experience to the job.
"It's a wonderful fit, very exciting," said Eisner, who retains ties with the center as a member of the Advisory Board of the Peter Jennings Project, which began during her tenure there.
"I do think that the nature of the way the country has evolved since the Constitution was written has helped us to be the most successful, creative, powerful Jewish community outside of Israel," she said, "and I think there is a natural bond between those who are interested in civic life and those who care about the future of Jewish life in America."