Jerry Silverman has been "on the job" as CEO and President of The Jewish Federations of North America for a little more than 100 days. Probably not enough time for a fair assessment, but when has that held us back? Just as Kathy Manning had hoped, in her role as Nominating Committee Chair, Jerry is clearly more than the right choice -- he is the right person for the this job at this critical time.
Much like President Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Jerry was placed at the top of the list of The Forward 50 back in November more on potential, hope and the promise of change from the disaster that preceded him than on accomplishment. But, in Silverman's case he has already accomplished two things: first, he has swept through the hallways of 25 Broadway like the breath of fresh air that he is -- where before him was secrecy and vendetta, today there is a greater openness and a sincere examination of ideas. Because Silverman came to JFNA without a lifelong understanding of the federations, he has embraced all -- the backslappers and critical commentators alike. He has mastered the difficult art of observing the obvious with an acute sense of discovery on his tours to federations and in his meetings with leaders around the country. Jerry has been to so many places in such a short time that some nights he must awaken with the fear that he doesn't know in which airport hotel he is spending the night. Certainly he is getting a lot of advice both from inside JFNA and without but I have come to learn that Jerry Silverman is his own man -- he will sort through the advice he has been given and will lead us down the paths he has chosen.
When Kathy Manning announced her "goals" in a speech at the GA, at the top of her list was retaining Silverman. Exemplary goal, great choice. Kathy holds her cards closely; she spends a great time in study of the issues, and in preparation. She asks great questions, as is her style, but questions arise as to whether she truly listens to or has any interest in the answers. As lawyers who practice in the legislative or regulatory domain know, reading legislation without a knowledge of the legislative history sometimes results in unrealistic interpretations. Where this will lead us, who knows. For Manning, it has only been just about two months as Board Chair -- too soon to make judgments. Substance must trump form for The Jewish Federations of North America to succeed let alone thrive.
The January JFNA meeting in Dallas will stress Silverman's "five areas of focus." The "power of the collective, positioning for the future, FRD, Israel & Overseas and Talent." If Manning and Silverman can lead the federations in these five areas, JFNA will have established a certain raison d'etre. As we know, however, identifying areas of "focus" absent strong steps toward implementation are just "words." Thus when a "sample initiative" to implement the power of the collective sets forth a goal to "re-energize, excite and engage the Jewish community around collective action (overseas and domestic) to address critical needs of the Jewish people. Develop a system and culture based more on collaboration than compliance," all one can say is "tell me more" or "tell me something I don't already know." Are these areas of focus more about JFNA than the federations and, if so, what is their relevance to the Dues-payers (or non-payers)?
And, so it goes. It is refreshing indeed that core principles will be discussed and, perhaps, even debated.We will surely learn more as the weeks pass until the January meetings. Perhaps, Silverman's power point will be distributed well enough ahead of the meetings that they can be digested by the Board and, even, the federations themselves. Now is the time for our national organization's leaders to take bold steps. The engagement of Jerry Silverman was just such a step...but if that engagement is not followed by others, JFNA will fade from memory as a massive financial drain on our individual federations.
As I have suggested, the Jewish Feds of NA need to build confidence in the institution with small victories. A long journey does "begin with small steps." We are all waiting to see what those steps, small and large, will be under our new leaders. Jerry is still in his first miracle phase. I, for one, can't wait much longer to witness the loaves, the fishes and the multitudes.