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Q&A: Jerry Silverman

The president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America to speak in Stamford.

By Cindy Mindell

Jerry Silverman

As head of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), representing 155 Federations and more than 300 smaller “Network” communities across the U.S. and Canada, Jerry Silverman manages the respective cultures, structures, challenges, and priorities of each Federation with one overriding concept: Jewish community.
Silverman, who joined JFNA in 2009, is the keynote speaker at the first annual Jewish Family Service Saul Cohen Lecture, entitled “Election 2012: Will It Bring the Jewish Community Together?” on Nov. 8 in Stamford.
He spoke with the Ledger about how JFNA works to strengthen the Jewish people.

Q: How is it that a Jewish Federation exec is giving the keynote at a Jewish Family Service event?
A: The honoree, Saul Cohen, is someone I’ve known for years, and I have always looked to him for sage advice. I was asked by Saul if I would speak and I felt compelled to do so because of my relationship with him and what I know he stands for. The fact that he’s being honored by JFS – one of JFNA’s core principles and missions is being committed to those in need in North America and the world and most, if not all, Jewish Federations support Jewish Family Service agencies.

Q: How are JFNA’s two relatively new initiatives progressing?
A: The Global Planning Table [GPT] was approved less than one year ago. We’re looking at what is required of the Jewish world: what does history require us to do now to really make a difference in the Jewish world? How do we demonstrate the unique role of JFNA? The GPT committee has been working at a great pace and members are active in various subgroups in four definitive areas, whose initial outcomes will be shared by the end of the year.
The Israel Action Network has been operational for a year and a half, and has been focusing on the boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] movement. The IAN was incredibly instrumental in turning the tide on the recent Presbyterian Church U.S.A. decision not to divest from companies that assist the Israeli military, and that was such a close vote. I give the IAN and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs a lot of credit for the work they did. IAN has been involved in most of the key BDS issues that have been challenging to Israel’s legitimacy and has moved into a proactive, educative, working intimately with communities and collaborating with other organizations to ensure that the positioning and language that come out of these things have minimal effect on Israel. A year ago, the committee was proactive when the Palestinians tried to declare unilateral statehood at the UN, and was active behind the scenes in helping our communities become educated in that issue. The IAN made a big different in a short time. A member of the IAN is working on a committee of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office that is focused on the delegitimization efforts worldwide.

Q: How has the Jewish Federation umbrella organization evolved to its current configuration?
A: Historically, there were three different, separate organizations – the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds [a national coordinating agency which assisted national and regional Jewish agencies in the U.S. and Canada in fund-raising, community organization, health and welfare planning, public relations, etc.], sort of a “trade organization;” United Israel Appeal, the arm responsible for governance, oversight, fundraising for capital projects, and some Israel-related activity; and UJA/Federation, dedicated to supporting and strengthening the State of Israel.
In the mid-‘90s, the powers that be felt that from, a vision point of view, the way to be more productive and effective was to merge into one entity, United Jewish Communities, which became effective in 1999. In 2008, prior to my arrival, market research was done on the name and what people thought it stood for and whether it was representative of a Federation system where 90 percent of the members had “Federation” in their names. We learned that, when people are asked about the word, “Federation,” their first response was that it was “trustworthy” and “sends a strong message.” Being the national organization of Jewish Federations, it only made sense that our name reflect the national brand name. There was a recommendation, based on data and research, to change our name to Jewish Federations of North America, with a new font, logo, color, etc., and 102 Federations have now shifted either their name or logo or font so that it aligns with the national brand.

Q: JFNA was also recently in the news because of the merger of two New Jersey Jewish Federations, the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, in July. Is this as the general direction of individual Federations?
A: It’s not necessarily where all Federations are headed. This merger is about the community, the changing demography, and the shifting of geography that’s taking place. Even where you have Federations that are healthy – for example, the community in central New Jersey is strong, but looking down the road at the changing landscape, they opened up discussions to think about being even stronger by merging with MetroWest. They spent two years doing some strategic thinking and decided that both communities could create a broader vision together. They created the merger in a win-win way. We’re seeing that as a model where there’s readiness in communities both to celebrate their respective uniqueness and to do work together. We’re seeing that with more and more Federations and we are ready to support them. Another example is where communities are challenged. In Florida, the Federations of Tampa, Orlando, and Pinellas came up with a collaborative model to work together and integrate some of the functions, but they still hold on to the uniqueness in each community. We think it’s the natural progression. But communities have to be ready, both from looking at data and opportunity and at the local culture, and also be emotionally ready. When we see those stars aligning, we are very encouraging and work closely with the communities to enable them to go through the right type of process, to think through all the critical areas, and to do so in a professional and appropriate way.

Q: Locally, there has been talk that nine Jewish Federations are too many for Connecticut. Leadership from six of these Federations are in discussions about ways to collaborate and consolidate resources and services. What do you think about this process?
A. The communities have to be ready. I spent 25 years in the private sector and the only mergers that were successful were those where the two organizations were really ready to merge and think through a bigger, broader vision. We try not to push an agenda on a community because we’re not intimate with the community, its culture, politics, etc. I do believe that there are collaboration and consolidation opportunities among Jewish Federations in Connecticut.

For more information on the Jewish Family Service First Annual Saul Cohen Lecture on Thursday, Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m., call (203) 921-4161 or visit www.ctjfs.org.

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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