Der Füror

One bad Hitler analogy turned the Maricopa County YWCA into a war zone

Without any word from the YWCA board, Rabbi Kravitz assumed they'd reneged. He kept expecting the phone to ring, waiting to be told that he was no longer giving the invocation at the March gala.

The phone never rang. And so the rabbi began to wonder if maybe the gala was just the opportunity he'd been waiting for: a chance to get his point across, in a place where the YWCA would be forced to listen.

In some circles, ignoring comparisons to Hitler will always come back to bite you eventually.
Mark Poutenis
In some circles, ignoring comparisons to Hitler will always come back to bite you eventually.
Barbara Lewkowitz wanted her local board to condemn the report -- or even just discuss it.
courtesy of Barbara Lewkowitz
Barbara Lewkowitz wanted her local board to condemn the report -- or even just discuss it.

In the months leading up to the Tribute to Women luncheon, the mood at the YWCA of Maricopa County turned ugly.

Since Lewkowitz's departure, business had come to a standstill. The YWCA didn't update its Web site, complete an annual report, or send out a newsletter.

And it still didn't have an executive director.

Herb Paine had warned in his organizational assessment in December that the agency's financial position was precarious. The Maricopa County YWCA was running at a $37,000 deficit for the fiscal year, and revenue was stagnant, according to a copy of Paine's report obtained by New Times.

The agency, he wrote, had "no margin for error."

After Paine quit, the board appointed the agency's longtime director of community relations, Vicky Drake, as the new interim executive director. That didn't last long, either. One weekend soon after Drake's promotion, board members called the executive staffers and told them to stay home Monday -- all except Drake. That morning, she was fired, barred from even collecting the personal things in her office. A police officer escorted her out the door.

Even staff members who support the board say Drake's biggest crime was supporting Lewkowitz. "She bought right into what Barbara was telling her," says Joan Brainard, the YWCA's senior services director. "She was insubordinate."

(Robinson declined to discuss the termination.)

The next morning, remaining staffers arrived to find the locks had been changed. The board held a meeting to announce it was the beginning of a new era. Until a new director could be hired, the board, led by Connie Robinson, would run the agency itself.

After the meeting, Robinson made it clear just what the new era meant. She told Sandra Wagner, the YWCA's grant coordinator, that she was being put on paid leave. There was no reason given. Again, a police officer escorted her out the door.

Four months later, Wagner learned she'd been fired.

The board, too, shrank. The board had long been plagued by infighting, and it got even worse in Lewkowitz's absence, says board member Teresa Santiago.

"You had bitchy e-mails going back and forth, and parts of board meetings that were spent having to explain, 'Okay, we need to treat people with respect.' And these were 50-year-old women!" she says. "The board just got smaller and smaller."

A total of six board members, including Santiago, would quit in the months following Lewkowitz's resignation. Many cite the acidic climate on the board and Drake's abrupt termination.

But instead of wondering if they had a problem, the remaining board members became increasingly defensive. After Gya Watson e-mailed her resignation, no one e-mailed back to thank her for her service -- but two board members did write to defend themselves and criticize her for not attending enough meetings. Another ex-board member says Robinson called her personally to berate her for privately questioning Robinson's leadership.

Even people who considered Lewkowitz's resignation none of their business were wondering what was wrong with the board. Susan Edwards, a former Tribute to Women honoree, says she decided to boycott this year's luncheon after hearing about the fired employees.

"You just do not hire a policeman and fire everyone without giving them a reason," she says. "Especially an organization that represents itself as empowering women."

In March, things got even nastier. One day before the Tribute to Women luncheon, a process server showed up at Barbara Lewkowitz's front door.

Connie Robinson had gone to the Central Phoenix Justice Court and gotten the judge to issue a temporary injunction, barring Lewkowitz from going to the YWCA offices, contacting people there, attending the Tribute luncheon, or using "defamation to dissuade others from attending."

Lewkowitz says she hadn't planned to attend. She also hadn't tried to dissuade others.

"Why would I do that?" she asks.

She later learned that Herb Paine and Steve Carr, the agency's former public relations consultant, had gotten the same court order. Both men say they never said anything bad about the YWCA -- to do so, they say, would be unprofessional. And Carr's father was extremely ill; the last thing on his mind was going to his former client's luncheon, much less mounting a campaign against the event.

They couldn't imagine why they'd been singled out for legal action.

Really, the three had only two things in common: They had resigned from the YWCA, and they were Jewish.

On the day of the Tribute to Women luncheon, Rabbi Robert Kravitz arrived at the Arizona Biltmore Resort, unsure of whether he was still supposed to give the invocation.

When he saw his name in the program, he figured he was on. And so, when his moment came, he walked up to the podium and offered his prayer, before 1,000 people.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets