JFNA leadership has declared war, with the totally unearned sense of their own inerrancy, on any and all criticism and on the critics who level it. We all understand that in any war, truth is the first casualty. I learned that truth early on when I published the fact that the then Board Chair had attempted to eradicate the term Zionism from a Global Planning Table Committee paper as "too controversial." The dogs of War were unleashed upon me immediately by, among others, the Board Chair, her claque and Grinning' Jerry -- first, outright denials from those who knew that what I had written was true; then an "even if she said it, it was at a minor GPT Subcommittee;" then my "informants" (yes, there were more than one) were intimidated with threats; and I was further threatened with even more ostracization than I was already suffering. Months later, this Board Chair apologized to all those she had offended -- other, of course, than I. I realized then, if I hadn't before, that truth at 25 Broadway, was dead or, at best, placed in a blind trust no one can find. (Dan Brown, in his reporting on the demise of the Global Planning Table for his article in ejp, learned the same thing, if he did not know it already.*)
And with truth dead, so is the organization. JFNA today is nothing more than a third class trade association that under its current CEO is capable only of promoting itself (and doing a poor job of even that) at the expense -- $30+ million per year -- of the federation owners. Everywhere there is a sad and knowing acceptance of constant failure. Much of the blame for the current condition can be placed at the feet of CEO/President Smilin' Jerry and the tiny claque that protects him. Let us examine....
Jerry. Hired as an amateur entering a world of professionals, Jerry has proved that one cannot be an autodidact when it comes to Jewish federation professional leadership; in particular if you so evidently lack the tools. Jerry is, as my friends in Texas might observe, "all hat and no cattle." JFNA has been so diminished by its current professional leader, with the always silent or clapping, willing acquiescence of a succession of lay leaders, as to be unrecognizable from that which its founders believed it could be...and that should be as unacceptable to you as it is to me. This lack of competence is a prison from which we can't seem to escape.
In all of my lay leadership positions over time I believed that the CEO should have the unfettered ability, constrained only by Budget, to hire the best and brightest...with knowledge that the most senior professional leader would be judged at least in part by his/her staff's success. If one examines Silverman's staff, one sees that two of the most senior positions -- COO and Marketing/Communications -- were positions filled at the demand of the then Lay Board Chair; that every other senior position is filled with holdovers -- some successful as in Washington; some not so much or not at all, as in JFNA-Israel. Instead of creating a strong staff cadre, Silverman has hired a bunch of consultants, paying G-d knows what, doing G-d knows what, and leaving gaping voids -- we have all heard of FRD but recognize that JFNA does none -- with no one home. If I were Richard Sandler, one of the first things I would do would be to demand the list of consultants with a description of what they have done/are ostensibly doing and shine a bright light down that rabbit hole.
Extending this CEO's contract was as risible and ridiculous an act of irresponsibility as one could imagine -- and we didn't have to imagine it. As the columnist Bret Stephens would have written about Jerry Silverman if he knew him: "...his weaknesses apparent to everyone but himself." It is hard to believe that at this point in time everyone isn't fed up with CEO Jerry's logorrheic spewing of cliche and inanities. Most recently, in a General Assembly Plenary speech, CEO Smilin' Jerry exhorted federations as follows: "We need to stop drawing red lines on who's in and who's out, and do more to welcome and encourage Jews across all spectrums to join us in our core mission. And we need to mean it." In a single sentence Silverman proved how terribly uninformed he is, how insulting it is to suggest that federations are not inclusive -- he, the President/CEO of the Federations' own organization -- how little he knows of what federations are, what federations do, what federations are all about. That's what you get for $800,000 a year, my friends...that's all you get. After 5+ years, Smilin' Jerry still doesn't get it...and, quite clearly, he never will.
And, who is to be blamed...
Leadership. At 25 Broadway these last 5+ years are the years of delusion; and our leaders are the delusionists-in-chief. JFNA has been allowed to become the theater of the absurd. The Board Agenda for the GA was a good example of the futility -- not one matter of substance under discussion led by the then ostensible leaders of our system. Thomas Boswell, the brilliant sportswriter in The Washington Post, writing of a negligent, see nothing now fired baseball manager: "If he had been at Ford's Theater in 1865, he'd have loved the play. Did something go wrong? Nope, didn't see a thing. Nobody said anything either." Boswell could have been writing of JFNA leadership had he known them. The JFNA Board has embraced being talked to, lectured to, applauding and returning home.
Friends, sometimes facts force us to confront the reality we really don't wish to believe. But within JFNA there is a leadership group that has chosen to stick its collective head in the sand and deny the facts of JFNA's status, the sclerotic self it has become. We have allowed JFNA governance to become the perfect silent match for a mediocrity that has become the norm. The mega-philanthropist Ron Perelman resigned after one year as Chair of the Board of New York's non-profit Carnegie Hall citing "a troubling lack of transparency and openness" on the part of the Hall's CEO coupled with apparent disinterest in "getting involved" on the part of his Board of Directors. According to the Wall Street Journal, Perelman cited the lack of transparency as violative of the "...standards of the New York State Revitalization Act, which mandates that board members take an active oversight role over staff actions..." Is anyone at JFNA paying attention? Are they even interested in doing so?
To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill: Our leaders behave as if they are "sheep in sheep's clothing." Friends, there seems to be a prevalent understanding that if a great organization fails to meet its goals, fails to understand its purposes, it ceases to be a great organization; so to this current leadership the answer is let's have an organization with no goals and no purpose. Thus our leaders reckon, we cannot fail. And they are so wrong. Because while they have been doing nothing, the greatness has disappeared.
We are on a JFNA suicide watch; its bankruptcy is obvious, its death nears.
* Here is how Dan Brown described the Global Planning Table:
"You remember the Global Planning Table? Passed in the closing hours of the 2011 Denver GA, with zero public discussion, this federation attempt to build another hierarchical monstrosity was doomed from day one."
** In the original of this Post I attributed certain conclusions to Richard Sandler that were speculative on my part. I have deleted those references....and I apologize.