Read it and weep.
"[part 1 of a conversation with Jerry Silverman and Kathy Manning]
This afternoon, in Washington, D.C., The Jewish Federations of North America (formerly UJC) will open their annual General Assembly (GA). The world has seen significant change since the organization adjourned in Jerusalem one year ago: both Israel and the U.S. have elected new leaders; while the financial meltdown was underway we did not yet know of the damage inflicted on the Jewish world by Madoff’s sins; and in Israel, daily barrages from the Gaza Strip had not yet caused the latest war to erupt.
Much has also changed at The Jewish Federations since last November: as a result of further budget cuts, the organization again cut the professional staff and to reduce expenses relocated their offices to lower Manhattan. Partly due to limited resources, the organization initiated “user-generated” program ideas for this GA; a branding initiative led to a name change; and most significantly new leadership – both lay and professional – sits at the top.
On the eve of this event, eJewish Philanthropy sat with both Jerry Silverman, the Federation’s newly appointed CEO, and Kathy Manning, who will be installed as the new board chair during the GA, for an extensive and free-wheeling discussion on their vision for The Jewish Federations.
The conversation was refreshing and enlightening – and for the first time in a long time, we began to hear leadership speaking not only of the future, but how to take The Jewish Federations forward.
In explaining the need to deliver both content and results, Silverman, who spent much of his professional career in the apparel industry, focused on how to “get aisle” – in other words, those prime locations in a retail store with the highest visibility, craved by every vendor. He continued, for both “content and product drive sustainability.” We have a “remarkable content story on how federations have led through these common times” that is not out there. He went on to further discuss the past year, citing examples where the leadership of the various federations was primarily focused on doing – supporting their own communities. Through numerous initiatives, local communities have met many challenges; across the board, volunteers have stepped up in making – and enacting- decisions. But, that JFNA as an organization “can do a much better job sharing the stories taking place on the ground”.
Zeroing in on what is likely to be a core theme as The Jewish Federations look ahead, we discussed the concept of community. Most important, that it is not geographic and how critical it is “to drive the issues of the Jewish future”. As we look to Israel, Silverman spoke of the “strength of an umbilical cord [that] has not diminished – but challenges have come up.” I heard from both leaders on the work of partnership communities and the need for them to continue to grow; on building missions, a prime vehicle for connecting to communities on the ground. And what I am sure is music to the ears of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), a ringing endorsement by Kathy Manning, “an extraordinary organization that has done extraordinary things for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
Coming back to the concept of collective, Silverman indicates the question is
“how to enhance… how to drive momentum as a collective… how it gets unpacked is the challenging work we have to do together.”
As this GA opens, many challenges exist. While it appears the U.S. is emerging from the recent recession, the road upwards will have many pitfalls and the journey will not happen overnight. But just like with the economy, JFNA appears to be positioning itself to not only move forward, but to occupy the mantle of the pre-eminent Jewish organization on the North American landscape.
One of those challenges is creating a team of lay leaders that can face the future, threats and all, that can assist JFNA’s professional staff in moving forward. In our conversation, Kathy Manning – current chair of the executive and about to be installed board chair – lays out a three point plan for enhancing lay leadership:
- great people are already involved on the local level – we need to develop ways to involve them nationally in a productive way;
- there are a wealth of seasoned leaders around our communal world waiting to be asked to return and share their knowledge; and
- most important there are younger people waiting to be involved.
And, a conversation on the future of The Jewish Federations is not possible without a serious discussion on the needs of young Jews and the relevance of the Jewish federation world to them. This is, perhaps, the biggest single challenge to be faced over the next several years. Not only by the federation system, but by most other organizations on our global communal landscape.
Silverman points out there are “robust and vital programs going on in communities across the country” singling out both Gesher City (Boston) and the Council of Young Jewish Presidents (New York) as examples. He considers these, and others, compelling programs, creating positive movement. But he also believes “there is significantly more opportunity. We need to begin a joint dialogue of learning; we need to invite into the tent and co-learn with each other.”
I’ve heard this before; it was a constant theme at the Nashville GA in 2007 that pretty much has rung hollow the past two years. But today, it sounds different. The words are spoken with a passion that comes only from understanding. Not solely from obligation. Perhaps, in Silverman’s case, it is his recent experience as head of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, where he was continually exposed to our future leaders and has a clear understanding of what The Jewish Federations must accomplish to keep this younger demographic in their tent.
In closing, I asked Silverman to imagine the time is a year later – the eve of the 2010 GA in Orlando. He is preparing his plenary presentation and needs to sum up the past twelve months. This is what he said:
“The Jewish Federations of North America have made significant strides in earning the respect and trust of the various federations and our key partners through our actions and the results we delivered.”
Yes, if we return to those plans and dreams and evaluate JFNA's lay and professional leaders based on actual accomplishment (after deleting the jargon and cliches), what have you got? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. ZERO. ZIP. GORNISHT. NA DA. We also learned that CEO Jerry and past Chair Kathy were pathetic when it came to predicting the future -- a strange circumstance for those who totally reject the past.
Well, this Board Chair is past only in the sense that she no longer holds the gavel (or the microphone) but, so long as she hangs on to the leadership of the decision-making body of the Global Planning Table, she continues to threaten the future of the organization. And there is a parallel concern -- if you go to the current Chairs with an issue, a concern, way too often they immediately turn to the CEO for an answer which they in turn repeat to you as if the answer were true. This is dangerous stuff because the answer is too often just made up out of whole cloth.
This is playing with fire.