Wednesday, September 8, 2010


One year ago today, I opened a Post (HOPE RISES) with the words: "[T]oday is the first day of the rest of Jerry Silverman's professional life." This Post is not only to wish him a Happy Anniversary but to catalogue the many pluses and few minuses of a first year -- one I predicted in which "Jerry will need all the strengths he demonstrated to the Search Committee...and more." I admit to some prescience.

Jerrry hit the ground running. He didn't merely presume to understand our federation system. He embarked on a "listening tour" that continues and that has now taken him to 61(+) federations around North America. He listened and he learned. (It continues to fascinate and vex that the Board Chair who gleaned her knowledge from growing up in Detroit, leading her home federation, Greensboro, and from leading the JFNA Small Cities group, hadn't done likewise. She must believe in learning by osmosis or, more likely, that there is nothing left to learn.) His sales and marketing experience obviously informs so much of what he does and what he would have JFNA do. He has emphasized the need to "build the brand" that is JFNA -- it remains an open question as to what is really to be found inside the box he has rebranded. Today, the brand is devoid of real substance.

There have been lows -- like #ish and Heroes and undeserved attacks on the leaders of JAFI and the Joint -- and highs -- his leadership in articulating North American Jewry's message on the Conversion Bill, his participation on Missions and at Regional Meetings and JFNA events (participation that eluded all of his predecessors). Silverman is a leader filled with boundless energy and optimism -- something desperately needed during these tough times for the federation owners. But, Year Two will demand, and the federations desperately need, substance, meat on the bones, and the application of what he has learned to the times federations face. Cheerleading is not enough.

In his speeches and in private meetings, Jerry's message has been one of boundless enthusiasm and good will. As a lover of a good aphorism, I can appreciate Jerry saying that "we must leverage together the power of the collective..." even when, in candor, while I know it sounds great, I don't know what it means when there is no evidence of JFNA even attempting, beyond disaster relief, to "harness the collective" or anything else. Often the salesman's jargon eludes me as well. As I wrote above, there is a real need for substance and substantive action. For. while Jerry has had a good year, JFNA hasn't, unless one believes that 1937 was a good year for the Hindenburg.

Jerry has been totally and publicly supportive of his lay leadership no matter the circumstances. One can clearly see in his conduct that there are those federation CEOs to whom Jerry is always deferential, others, to hom less important (Dues ya' know) for whom he has developed a distance and others who, in practice, are ignored. That is not a positive. His support for his lay leadership is commendable -- yet, hopefully, in private he has urged them to keep their eyes on the prize rather than divert the organization for their own purposes so often irrelevant to JFNA's goals. He has been supportive, as well, of the professional staff and has made some, albeit very few, important hires -- perhaps there will be more to come in his second year as he reorganizes and cleans house in an effort to focus JFNA on what it must be doing to lead our system in continenetal North America and in Israel.

Now, Jerry must turn his attention toward gaining that vital focus for the organization he leads. 57 pages of Budget narrative of the literally100's of programs JFNA "plans" evidence an organization that continues to lack any focus whatsoever. Driving the organization through exercises in "branding" and marketing, emergency relief (done by others) and the superb efforts in Washington does not a valued organization make. There appears to be a natural tendency to fall back on a group of advisers from Camp plus a small cadre of knowledgeable federation CEOs (whose own focus is on bringing their communities out of the economic crisis from which we are still looking up). There has been too much reliance on "FOJs" and consultants who themselves have little knowledge of or care for the federations' core values and principles offset by Jerry's continuing travels to our communities, his commitment to learn and understand.

In Year One, Silverman has proved to be a dynamic and energetic professional. Now come even greater challenges -- focus the organization on what it should do best, staff up to meet that focus with the best and brightest, build a new cadre of lay leaders who themselves understand how to build consensus and focus on the big picture. Jerry likes to quote Leslie Wexner (whom, Jerry tells audiences, he has "met with five times"): "what got us here, won't get us there." That simple axiom can be interpreted in so many ways, can't it? Right now we have a brand without content -- a toothpaste tube, if you will, without toothpaste. Let's hope that trying to get the toothpaste into the tube won't prove impossible.

So, Jerry, you're not in Camp any more and, certainly, not at Dockers.

Kal ha'kavod, Jerry. Good luck in Year Two.

And a l'shana tovah u'metukah to each of you and your families.


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