Sunday, July 12, 2009


The Jewish Week, whose Editor has keen insights into our federation system, challenged the federations to take charge of their future and seize the day much earlier this year. The federations chose not to do so. Now, The Jewish Week seized on Jerry Silverman's appointment in a brilliant and hopeful editorial which I reprint below, followed by a few comments of my own:

"It’s no secret that the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization of the North American Jewish federation system, has been viewed as a sinking ship for some time now, plagued by a shrinking budget, low morale after large-scale staff reductions and a persistent concern among many professionals and lay leaders in the community that a decade after its creation, the organization still lacks a clearly defined mission.So Jerry Silverman, named this week to succeed Howard Rieger as top executive of UJC on Sept. 30, was prepared for friends asking him why he would want to become captain of The Titanic. His response was that he believes the community deserves and is capable of supporting a strong national entity, adding that he was “humbled” by and “passionate” about the opportunity to lead.

His choice of those two words, from an interview on Tuesday with The Jewish Week, is a hopeful sign because UJC will need a leader who has both the willingness to listen and learn from others and an enthusiasm to inspire colleagues and lay leaders. Silverman has the credentials.

He was a high-level executive at Levi Strauss and Co. and the Stride Rite Corp. before leaving private industry in 2004 to head the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He made the move, he said, because of his deep love of the Jewish people and his gratitude for how Jewish camping had transformed his children. In the last five years, he helped raise tens of millions of dollars for Jewish summer camps, taking the foundation to new levels of growth.

There are plenty of skeptics who feel that UJC cannot be saved, buffeted by increasing demands for services from local Jewish federations around the country at a time when funds are increasingly difficult to raise. Some say that only a federation exec could handle the job. (Silverman’s three predecessors were formerly federation executives.) But even outspoken critics of the system assert that a national organization like UJC, which now raises and distributes about $3 billion a year from federation campaigns and other efforts, is critically important, though they disagree about what its primary goals should be.

For now, Silverman says he plans to do a great deal of listening and consulting with federation leaders across North America as well as his new colleagues at UJC, learning how best the system can “deliver significant value to its shareholders,” the federations. “We have to be nimble and proactive,” he said.A self-described “people person” who is widely admired for being a mensch as well as a successful professional, Silverman is the first to acknowledge that he faces a daunting challenge. But he has the support of many, including us, who are rooting for him to help strengthen a vitally needed national body at a critical moment in our history. "

© 2000 - 2009 The Jewish Week, Inc. All rights reserved.


I have learned from personal experiences over the years of the current lay and professional leadership, as many of you have as well, that they neither listen nor, if they read, comprehend. Jerry can start strong only if this leadership does not presume to demand that he follow the "negative momentum" that they have perpetuated and see as "good." An example -- UJC lay leaders, I am told by some professionals who have seen them in action, have been scurrying around 25 Broadway, pulling aside a very small number of Senior professionals...a very small number...telling them that their jobs are safe and urging them to stay through the transition. Sounds innocent, even noble. It's not.

None of these leaders appear to have learned through their own meagre resumes in Jewish federation leadership that the lay-professional partnership demands that the senior professional leader be responsible for creating his or her staff without interference by lay leadership. No matter your good intentions, your current actions don't help Jerry, they hurt him; they suggest to those you have solicited, that you have their backs; your actions undermine, they don't build.

I remember a time I was installed as Chair of a small effective national organization doing critical work for our federations. I asked to meet with the staff for the first time. I told them of my pride in them and the organization. I also told them that I and the Board are lay leaders. Professional decisions will be made by our CEO who will have my and the Board's total support. I said to them that if any of them disagreed with a professional management decision, they should take their concerns directly to the CEO, not to me and not to their friends on the Board. The latter would be looked upon with the greatest disfavor. Then I closed with some form of Knute Rockne's Gipper speech.

My fear is that KanferRieger (believing their own bull) will attempt to impose the current state of affairs upon an unsuspecting and unaware CEO. My hope is that Jerry will use the opening stanza of the symphony he will write to begin to find his own way using Federation CEO's from around the country and from every City-size as his guides -- for each and every one of them -- including those who have publicly expressed continuing support -- knows the disaster that UJC has become.
As to UJC's current lay leadership -- I ask these leaders to follow Howard's unintended example: disappear for a while. Give Jerry a chance.



paul jeser said...

I'm not sure that the UJC can be saved - not because of the current situation in which it finds itself, but because the Federation world - as we knew it - can not be 'saved.'

As I've written to you in the past, right or wrong, good or bad, the fact that there are now hundreds of Jewish community/Israel based organizations seriously competing for funds is very different from the 'good ole days.'

As long as the Federation is seen as a competitor - which is how most of the Federations are now perceived - they will never return to the days when they were the major and most important community organization.

That is not to say that there should not be a Federation - but there needs to be one with a completely different structure - a structure that will need more of a CJF national umbrella than a UJC one.

paul jeser

paul jeser said...

I am one that believes the UJC can not be saved. Not because of its current situation, but because the Federation world - as we knew it - will be so different in the future that a UJC will not be needed.

In the 'good ole days' the Federations were the major fundraising and leadership organizations in the community. With the growth of significant fundraising operations by hundreds of communal and Israel based organizations, for good or for bad, right or wrong, the Federations (in most cities) no longer play that role. It is perceived as just another fundraising organization. It must change its role for it to survive. And, it must!

The new role, as I envision it, will need more of a CJF type of national umbrella support organization than a UJC type.

paul jeser