Friday, March 28, 2014


             "There's No Success Like Failure; and Failure's No Success at All"
                                        Bob Dylan

Enough "insiders" have hinted to me that Jerry Silverman has been (or soon will be) given a contract extension that I have to believe it's true. The reasons are no doubt far more complex than "there's no one out there other than Jerry who would take this job;" but that's the sole reason that has been articulated. This extension if true is the ultimate abdication of lay leadership responsibility; for certainly this Board Chair knows that this decision is not in the best interests of JFNA, not in the best interests of the federations and not in the best interests of the Jewish People. As our friend Daniel Gordis recently wrote (in a far more sobering context): "Masks and pretense were for Purim, but Purim is behind us." I, like you, want a CEO who is filled with Big Ideas and the management skills necessary to the office -- instead we have...

As you regular readers know full well, it was not difficult to predict almost 5 years ago that Jerry Silverman would struggle mightily in the role of JFNA CEO. And to say that he has struggled would be a gross understatement. Clearly, he relishes the paths down which he has taken the organization but, rather than putting an end to the professional debacle he inherited, CEO Jerry has merely continued the downward spiral unabated. Rather than a paradigm for all of the positives that one hired from outside the federation professional ranks might (emphasis on "might") bring to the this most critical role, Silverman has evidenced all that can go wrong when the person hired as the lead professional in an organization of such complexity has neither any familiarity with that complexity nor, apparently, the ability to comprehend it.

I was reminded of the values experience can bring several weeks ago by a piece on 60 Minutes Sports on Larry Brown, a proven winner as basketball coach supreme, who returned to coaching at age 73 as the Head Basketball Coach at Southern Methodist University where he resurrected a moribund college program to the level of a Top 25 team. One of his SMU players attested: "...he has been there before. I understand now that if I just listen to him, great things will happen." When Larry Brown arrived at SMU, the cupboard wasn't bare but close, SMU had been on an epic run of losing seasons...and within two years an experienced professional and a proven winner did what almost everyone thought impossible. Rooting for JFNA's success at this point isn't like rooting for SMU; it's far more like being a fan of the Chicago Cubs. It's the clash of reality vs. hopelessness. JFNA has proved over the past 8+ years to be beyond hope without new professional leadership. Year-by-year I have watched as the future of JFNA, the promise of JFNA has receded from us until there is neither future nor promise, only the failure of the present. Friends, what has emerged is a dystopian version of CJF or UJA, take your pick. It sure isn't what any of us who voted for the merger ever intended.

The current CEO was/is no Larry Brown. From interviews with many who served on the JFNA Search Committee back then, Silverman was hired because (a) he gave "a spectacular interview;" (b) the Search Committee Chair (and Chair of the Executive at the time) demanded the hire as Jerry was an "outside the box" candidate and she wanted to "break the stranglehold" that the LCE held on the position; (c) the cadre of federation executives (I think we all know who they are) offered no alternatives; and (d) there was no experienced candidate with whom to compare Silverman. Jerry's credentials -- a successful term as CEO of a small national agency, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and a successful sales and marketing executive at Dockers. Even today I am not familiar with Jerry's educational background. All in all, these experiences that the Search Committee believed were sufficient to rationalize hiring Jerry have proved to be a flimsy foundation for someone being paid close to $700,000 a year to lead our complex organization with almost no return on an investment in him of about $3,000,000 after 4+ years. And, now, without any real hope that things will be better, without any hope that he will be better, he is granted an extension.

I don't know about you but the rationale that "no one else would take this job" just doesn't fly. Who was asked? The usual group of "best and brightest" -- Nasatir, Hoffman, the retiring Ruskay, Jay Sanderson, Jacob Solomon, Mark Terrell (some or all of whom may believe that they are already "running" JFNA without any need for accountability inasmuch as their fingerprints rarely appear)? And, among the Large Intermediate and Intermediate City CEOs are many women and men, brilliant professional leaders, schooled in all that federations of every City-size need from their Continental organization -- none considered? What about an interim CEO who has proven leadership credentials who might, for a two year period, step in on an interim basis and attempt to right the sinking ship? A Darrell Friedman, a Bob Aronson, Bobby Pearlman or a Mel Bloom? And, what about the professional leader of another organization who has demonstrated that he is at the top of his game -- Russell Robinson, David Fisher, Jeffrey Solomon? And, surely, there are women and men in addition to these. Yes, I know that these leaders may have no interest and that all may have the fatal flaw of being their own person. of not being totally beholden to or subject to the control of the LCE, but do we want an organization in which we can take pride? Or do we want a continuation of the failure that JFNA is today?

What the Co-Chairs have done is to create some greater professional depth -- the hiring of Matt Gurvis and Renee Rothstein was done at their demand, certainly not at Silverman's initiative. Yet, as many who Comment on these Posts have observed, these two fine and exciting professionals are now mismanaged by the mismanager in chief. We are all aware of the mantra we hear in every quadrennial -- "...are you better off today than you were four years ago?" If you frame that question in the context of our national organization, the question suggests its own answer: "JFNA is in a worse place by far today than it was four-plus years ago." In fact,  JFNA is in such a terrible place -- there is a Stygian gloom over 25 Broadway.

 Isn't extending Jerry's contract a statement that we're happy with the status quo? And, why would that be? When the best (only??) reason to renew the CEO's contract is that "we can't find anyone else to take the job," doesn't that tell you all you need to know about the organization in which we have invested about $650,000,000 to date?  What is required today is a professional leadership capable of "unleashing the greatness" that is within the federation system. If all we are about is the "brand" without reference to either the values or the core principles that the "brand" must be about, we will continue to fail and fail and fails.

While I say with you that we can do better; that we can be better, our leaders have determined to take the easy way out and reward failure.  Yes, in the face of constant failure and embarrassment, our leaders have decided to reward CEO Jerry with a new contract. Shame on them; and shame on us.



Anonymous said...

Well said Richard.

Anonymous said...

there is no national campaign.....there is no meaningful national brand........there is no sense of collective agenda.......simply put, jfna speaks for no one but itself.......a very expensive and meaningless does have a role but let's stop pretending that it's a grand one!

Anonymous said...


Your analogy to the Cubs is deeply flawed, but I'll forgive you as you are a Sox fan.

When Theo Epstein began his tenure with the Cubs, the organization was in total disarray. The facilities were poor. The personnel cupboard was literally bare as their minor league talent in the farm system were ranked among the worst in baseball.

Today, there is light at the end of the tunnel. At the minor league and spring training level, new facilities sparkle. The farm system is now ranked among the top 3 or 5 in all of baseball. Much money has been spent on international signings which will provide an additional pipeline of talent.

Just you watch--the Cubs will be contenders for the better part of the next decade, and likely beyond. Theo has done the necessary yard work to make this happen.

Can't really say the same thing about JFNA, can we?

RWEX said...

Touché. I should have known that a negative Cub analogy would stoke the flames of Cub fans everywhere. And I agree, the Cubs will rise far ahead of JFNA under this so-called "leadership"

Anonymous said...

Got to be the worst job in the Jewish world, if not the whole world of 501(c)(3)'s. Unless and until new volunteer leadership is in place with the clout ($) and sechel to make drastic changes, it's hard to imagine that a top-notch professional worth his/her salt would touch JFNA with a ten foot pole. A shame indeed.

paul jeser said...

I respectfully disagree woith the last anonymous. I'd bet a case of slivovitz that there are many current Fed Execs, who are committed to the Fed system, who would take the position. The key is not just the lay leadership, but getting the support of the LCEs.

Anonymous said...

The LCE's are part of the problem. They need to go before real change can happen. A slow revolution will transform the system or the whole enterprise will collapse over time. Too much power is held by too few people who are unaccountable to anyone.

Anonymous said...

Unless and until there is full throated and boots on the ground consensus on JFNA's mission, nothing matters. Is it a fundraising operation? Is it an overseas allocations aggregator? Is it, in and of itself, a catalyst for policies and initiatives? Is it a trade association?
The only job worse than a federation ceo, where many of these same mission questions linger, is jfna ceo.
Decide the mission and commit to it. Provide strategic direction and outcomes to the ceo. Then get out of the way and let the ceo lead. Evaluate the results (benchmarking along the way). Adjust and repeat. That's how organizations are run. Well, except for JFNA and most federations. Is there any wonder the "system" is lost? While boards dither on strategic direction there are many opinions about designing invitations. None of the business folks who sit on our boards run their businesses this way. I don't know about the Cubs, seem hopelessly hapless to me. But we all know something about the Yankees. When Steinbrenner got out of his own way, the team flourished. Then he could be the big shot in the clubhouse hoisting trophies. Aipac and JNF have made great progress because they have decisive, focused and disciplined missions. They built their professional and lay structures, processes, and program and fundraising plans in alignment.

Anonymous said...

UJA and CJF should never have been merged. UJA's mission was about highlighting Israel/world Jewish needs and raising cash. CJF's was about helping to strengthen local and American Jewish life. Together,JFNA seems to be about neither. Pension shortfalls and an exec hobbled by an affair with major leader's daughter were not sufficient reason to have shotgunned these two very vital but very different institutions.

RWEX said...

To Anonymous (the most recent) -- while I now (and for at least 7 years) agree that the merger was a terrible mistake, it was about neither of the matters you have cited. It was all about the demand of the Large City Execuives for control of the totality of the continental system. They got what they wanted and look what we got!!!

Anonymous said...


Give it up already. Your faith in Siegal and Feinberg doing something to implement real change at the professional level was totally misplaced -- neither has the courage of their "convictions" if they even have any. Siegal is clearly and totally at Steven Hoffman's beck and call -- and Hoffman believes a little too much in his self-perceived "brilliance" (it's what happens when one has been in office too long).

Anonymous said...

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The time has come to unwind the merger. Simply unwind. Return to UJA and CJF.

We desperately need the strengths that both wonderful organizations brought to the Jewish people.

The urge to merge brought "deal momentum". We need the "adult" courage to simply state that it did not work out the way we thought and this is the only way to maximize our effectivity.

On the way, I might seek to merge some other organizations into UJA (like JNF USA).

Somewhere along the way we lost our humility. We are operating these organizations as trustees with other peoples Tzedaka dollars. Our mandate is not just to save money, but to be effective with the money that has been entrusted to us.

We are failing that trust.

It is time to fix the situation.

Anonymous said...

Richard, I am amazed at your continuing optimism -- that somehow a change in professional leadership might actually have a positive impact upon JFNA. While it is clear that Silverman must go, even Moshe Rabeinu couldn't save this mess from the combination of woefully weak lay leadership and an all-knowing group of Large City Execs.

Anonymous said...

Richard, I am amazed at your continuing optimism -- that somehow a change in professional leadership might actually have a positive impact upon JFNA. While it is clear that Silverman must go, even Moshe Rabeinu couldn't save this mess from the combination of woefully weak lay leadership and an all-knowing group of Large City Execs.

Anonymous said...

Blame can be spread among many -- those who selected the current CEO and those who perpetuate his service by.
taking no action to remove him stand at the top of the list. My understanding is that a group of lay persons, led by the immediate past Board Chair, have indicated that they will resign if the Board Chair removes the CEO, and Siegal is afraid to take her anything. The mess is much worse than you have speculated.