Sunday, May 10, 2015


On the April 18 weekend it was reported that an actual deck chair from the Titanic was auctioned off for $120,000. Rumors that that historic antique now resides in Jerry Silverman's office are no doubt untrue. Many of you have called me or written me off-line sharing your concerns with the sorry state of our Continental organization today often expressing real doubts about the present and future of our once-strong system; and many of you have written anonymous Comments to my Posts, sharing the same sense that I have -- that we are not being led and that we are approaching, if we are not already there, the end of a meaningful, purpose-led Continental organization. We are literally up s___'s creek without a paddle. I just finished reading Anita Shapira's brilliant biography of David Ben Gurion -- the saga of the right man at the right time, like so many other remarkable men and women in Jewish history. Of course, no one writes about the wrong man for our times -- I will.

Friends, Jerry Silverman, or, more correctly, the Office of the JFNA CEO, is the proverbial canary in the system's coal mine -- if we can't fix THIS, then we can't fix anything. And, to date, the so-called "leaders" of JFNA -- through laziness, smugness, arrogance, you name it -- don't think anything is wrong while the coal mine is about to totally explode. As the Brits would say, "this is an unforgivable cock-up" of epic dimensions. Our "leaders" seem to think that living in the bubble in which they reside is living in bliss when it's really living in ignorance. And it is clearly "[T]he unexpected virtue of ignorance" echoed in "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" -- an ignorance grounded in denial -- that tells all you need to know about JFNA 2015. 

In the recent Israeli elections, the Zionist Union's commercials had a simple theme, somewhat imagined, in their opposition to the reelection of the Prime Minister -- Nine Years of Nothing -- a theme applicable to JFNA under Silverman -- Five and One-Half Years of Nothing...and Counting. There may have been the illusory promises of a brighter future and some kind of "change leadership" to some when Jerry  was hired but, truth be told, these were nothing more than promises unkept by the wrong man at the wrong time for the wrong organization. Think about it -- name me one example...just one...of a successful new program initiated (yeah, you may call it an "Initiative") under Silverman's leadership and carried through to a positive finish. To me there is ample evidence today as there was 5+ years ago that Jerry, who loves sports with a passion, can't hit a major league fastball let alone a minor league curve.

Silverman staked the organization's "survival" as he put it directly and publicly upon the success of the Global Planning Table (he frequently stated, starting in 2014 that "if the GPT fails, it will be the end of JFNA"). Yet, though there were multiple reasons for the Global Planning Table to fail of its own accord, it was Silverman himself who led the woeful GPT to the dustbin of history when he, personally and through his hire, former Large City Executive, Max Kleinman, couldn't come close to raising the threshold tens of millions necessary to kickstart one or both of the pathetic "Strategic Initiatives" themselves. Things have gone so offtrack with the GPT that its Committee Chair had to postpone a scheduled May 11 meeting (which would have been the first meeting in months) while "JFNA’s senior leadership is assessing how to best address the GPT Committee’s mandates" (whatever that means). No future meeting date has been set. In addition, the proposed JFNA Budget contemplates the elimination of two GPT staff positions emasculating the contemplated professional effort. In other words, after five years and who even knows how many millions wasted, the GPT is dead while Jerry Silverman survives. It did not have to be this way.

Yes, yes, certainly to the entrenched and immovable leadership at JFNA, or, worse, at the GPT, I am a revenant and a scold. So be it. I, with so many of you, identified what would become the Global Planning Table from the beginning as a terrible mistake, ill thought through and, ultimately, shoved down the throats of the federations as if it were some magic formula for change. It never was. And any thinking person who looked at the Rube Goldberg structure that emerged from made as instructed consultants and the fertile mind of Kathy Manning would have/should have seen it for what it was -- a multi-million dollar mistake, pure and simple that just got worse as it went forward, ever onward. Worse, even worse, was that while the GPT was failing, its leaders, with the acquiescence of JFNA's CEO who proved to be its greatest misinformed cheerleader, arrogated to themselves allocations decisions (the "split"), fund raising and more and more. 

And, add to the failure of the GPT (which is in all respects the failure of JFNA) we have the excrescence that is JFNA-Israel staffed to the hilt and beyond…doing what, accomplishing what exactly? And the JFNA Budget has evolved from a serious document that laid out the organization's direction for the coming fiscal year to a work of fiction. It is, as an incisive critic once wrote: "mumbo without the jumbo." If one looks into every nook and cranny at JFNA, friends, one finds nothing more than an incredibly expensive trade association -- an organization that has completely lost its way.

Under this regime, we have substituted "opening a new Mailbox" for fund raising. Just opened one in response to the horrific tragedy of the Nepal earthquake; opened one to assist French Jewry after terrorist attacks; opened another and another and another. Those in JFNA leadership seem to truly believe that once a Mailbox is opened, once a "Fund" is created, their job is done. This is among the saddest manifestations of the abandonment of sacred responsibilities that I can think of; add to "the Mailboxes," the "letters" requesting support for, e.g., the Jewish communities of the Ukraine, or any other critical need and you have summed up the futility of this version of a Continental Jewish organization. The JFNA tagline ought to be -- "JFNA -- Always Failing to Meet our Responsibilities on Your Behalf." So very sad.

If you brought in, e.g., McKinsey and Company to examine JFNA today -- not a bad idea, actually -- that consultant would find an organization in absolute need of total reorganization* -- of its laity and, most certainly, of its Office of the President and CEO. They would find an organization sclerotic or worse -- apparently comatose.  Perhaps the best analogy to the present of JFNA may be found in the words of a Russian dissident, Vladimir Ryzhkov, commenting on Putin’s contemplated actions to get Russia back on track: “The country needs surgery, and he proposed therapy.” For JFNA perhaps he would have said: “This organization needs surgery and its leaders proposed…nothing.” Nothing at all. How many years will it take to clean up the mess the current leadership "team" is leaving behind? Five? Ten?

And, there's the rub. We all know by now that Silverman's contract extension was based not on any fair examination of the record of futility of his first contract "term," one absent any measurable accomplishment or even hope for any in the future, but on the Board Chair's unconscionable and unsupportable decision that replacing him would so engage Michael Siegal that he and the organization would accomplish nothing before Siegal's term itself ended next year. Well, no surprise -- nothing is being accomplished and Silverman is and will still be with us. What an outcome!! And, while Michael Siegal sadly dissembles, even he must know he has led an organization of such promise through the mediocrity he inherited right on down to irrelevancy…total irrelevancy. Irrelevant to and within the federations; irrelevant to its historic partners; irrelevant in Israel. Calling the JFNA of today a "mediocrity" is an insult to the very definition of "mediocrity."

We have reached a low point that not even the worst cynic -- I guess that could be me -- could have predicted at the time that that terrible, inexplicable hiring choice was made 5+ years ago. Recognizing that Jerry Silverman was destined, by his lack of understanding of federation or the core values upon which federations were constructed, or that he lacked all comprehension of the lingua franca of Jewish communal work, was not some form of bias or precognition on my part -- it was nothing more than a frank appraisal of reality. I am saddened that all of what has occurred over the past 5+ years was so damn predictable. Jerry may be a nice guy (I don't however remember that being on the criteria for the job search); but, based on the last 5+ years (and each and every one of them) he is and has been and will forever be the wrong man for the wrong job for the wrong time.

On these pages I have suggested why and how a continental Jewish polity -- lay and professional federation leaders -- might come together with the best of thought leaders to reform the Jewish Federations of North America. But there must be first an acknowledgment that JFNA will not emerge from any reconstruction on a pathway that even offers the promise of a better tomorrow unless it is totally reborn under a new professional leader -- I have offered many names of who might be up to the task were he or she interested. Just think back to a time when we were led (nationally at the time) by the Phil Bernsteins, the Herb Friedmans, the Stanley Horowitzes, the Marty Kraars, the Brian Luries, the Irving Bernsteins and look at us today -- in a Continental organization with a yawning void at its head. What needs to happen is that the federations must insist that JFNA effectively be placed in a conservatorship with a top professional -- one who understands federation and the system -- named as Conservator to lead a real reformation of the organization on an interim basis. These steps would, in turn, lead to new leadership and a recommitment to organizational purpose.

In the alternative, perhaps it is time to admit the obvious -- that JFNA has diminished itself into nothing more than a trade association of and for the federations: today, instead of FRD, there are Mailboxes and one failure following another;today, instead of programmatic successes, there are a string of failed "initiatives," one failure following another; and, now, there is FedWorld!! JFNA itself might confess to the trade association status but fears that reality would result in an appropriate reduction in Budget...and reduced compensation to the over-compensated. Let JAFI/JDC should they be able to work together at last reconstruct a "UJA" from the ashes of the JFNA disaster -- together they could not raise less from the federation system than is allocated today -- and probably a whole lot more.

When there is finally change for the better at JFNA, no doubt there will be a heavenly choir singing. And we will all hear it and sing along. Until then...pray with me.


* What else can one say about an organization that, e.g., increases the compensation of those whose successes after years of employment could fit in a thimble beyond comprehension and add titles such as: Director General, Israel Office and Senior Vice President, Israel and Overseas for the same person.


Anonymous said...

"Where we are today"? Nowhere. With a lay leadership that is always content to look the other way while believing they are staring straight ahead and a chief professional who doesn't even know where to look, the place is nowhere at all. I have been involved in Jewish organizations for a long time and I have never seen anything as bad as this.

paul jeser said...

Suggestion - reread...

From Predictability to Chaos?
How Jewish Leaders Reinvented Their National Communal System
(Center for Jewish Community Studies, 2005, 165pp.)
Gerald B. Bubis & Steven Windmueller

It is still available....

Anonymous said...


paul jeser said...

Just posted by Steve Windmueller:

Some Reflections on the State of the Jewish Federation System

Anonymous said...

Forget for the moment, as the leaders of JFNA you do forever, that the federations own JFNA, the organization operates, if that's the right word, to the beat of its own drum without regard to anything the federations need from a national organization. It has been evident for years now that JFNA is the Robin Hood of Jewish organizations as it takes from the rich, actually it takes from everyone, and spends it on whatever it wants, with no controls, no evaluations and no monitoring.

Anonymous said...

Richard, If you are expecting anything to change after all that we have experienced with JFNA over at least the last decade, you are mistaken--things are only going to get worse under this combination of inept professional leadership and no lay leadership. I'm sorry but the shelf life of JFNA is over, they just don't know it.