Tuesday, April 30, 2013


I was recently reminded of a lengthy interview that the immediate Past Board Chair and her hand-picked CEO gave to ejewishphilanthropy on the cusp of the Washington D.C. GA in November 2009. I offer it to you as an example of the high hopes that all of us had for their success and their absolute and total failure to deliver on a single promise made. 

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.”

And with this GA, the work formally begins.

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Change is in the air at 25 Broadway and across the landscape of The Jewish Federations of North America. In every conversation with senior leadership, you can sense an organization in motion. It’s as if someone yelled “fire” in a crowded theater. The recognition that you not only need to move, but time is not on your side.

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.
Individuals from all of the above are involved in their local federations. They have a unique understanding of their own communities and the different dynamics that exist. They need to have a valued say in agenda.

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.”

Manning and Silverman have together, as a team, set themselves a pretty high bar for the next twelve months. After my two hours of conversation, I wouldn’t hesitate to place a bet on their success."

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.



Jewish Philanthropy News and Views said...

Silverman told me in that meeting, JFNA as an organization “can do a much better job sharing the stories taking place on the ground”.

They must not be doing much of anything because other than the superb work coming from the Washington office, this publication hears ZERO from JFNA on what they're actually accomplishing. Hope all are taking notice.

Jewish Philanthropy News and Views said...

Silverman told me in that meeting, JFNA as an organization “can do a much better job sharing the stories taking place on the ground”.

They must not be doing much of anything because other than the superb work coming from the Washington office, this publication hears ZERO from JFNA on what they're actually accomplishing. Let all take notice.

Anonymous said...

e-jewish philanthropy does a great job. I'm sure they would publish a thoughful piece on the virtures of the federation system if anyone cared to write it. My guess is that there are none at JFNA who know enough about what goes on in the field to take a shot at it.

Anonymous said...

but at least JFNA has jumped on the bandwagon and created a (poorly executed) video for a dumb, six-month old dance craze.


and this is our leading national professional and national young leadership cabinet? Be afraid. Be very afraid.

RWEX said...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"Geez dad, cut it out - your embarrasing me in front of my friends".

"Just trying to be hip baby!" (attempts fist bump)