Monday, January 9, 2017


A friend, a a leader in and student of North American Jewish organizations, recently wrote me:

"Unfortunately, as many commentators (sic) on your blog point out, we seem to have crossed the line and JFNA is now a lost cause.

The big question, will anything arise from the ashes."
Many would agree. But before we get to the "ashes," it's important to understand the "lost cause" that JFNA has become.

And we have to begin once again with an examination of Jerry Silverman's role in what has a been permitted to become the normalization of JFNA's irrelevance. 

When Jerry joined JFNA as its CEO and President 7+ years ago, he was, as one Congressman recently described a nominee to head a major government department, "as prepared as a pilot who never went to flight school." He was the paradigm for "the wrong person at the wrong time" for JFNA and he remains exactly that 7+ years later. And it is JFNA that has and continues to suffer at the terrible void that is this expensive and constant mistake. A literal thick fog over a winter dawn has settled over 25 Broadway and appears to be incapable of lifting. JFNA has become like Stonehenge: nobody can explain it and it is ugly.

Under Jerry's CEO-ship (it would be unfair to the concept of "leadership" to call it that), JFNA has found solace in silence on all matters relevant to the federations; it has seen the very silos which JFNA was created to eradicate reinforced and apparently impenetrable -- JFNA-Israel, JFNA-Washington, FRD; what was an historic responsibility to the communal professionals eradicated or delegated away; a Budget ignored as if it didn't exist; support for initiatives doomed from the outset yet perpetuated in the waste of millions -- #ishTribeFests, the Global Planning Table fiascos; "secret" consultant contracts. Friends, this list of failures just goes on and on and on. Add to these, the failed or inadequate fund raising efforts; the demand letters to, e.g., the Prime Minister or WZO leaders, unanswered and forgotten; the abject failure of the Federation/National Agencies Alliance; and JFNA's dipping into the National Agencies funding pool to the tune of $400,000 for its own, not the Agencies, budget needs with another $900,000 money grab scheduled for next year and for years thereafter.

And, there has been neither responsibility nor accountability.

Best I can guess, the federations have paid Silverman close to or more than $5,000,000 -- that's five million dollars -- over seven years without once seriously asking: "has there been any return on this investment?" And the answer if asked is so self-evident as to render the question rhetorical. As pundit Peggy Noonan described someone recently in words that truly capture our CEO: "[T]here's a clueless quality about him. It's not that he doesn't get advice; it's that he can't hear advice, can't process it or turn it into action." Or, as Orwell observed of others: "(he tries) to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." It is clear that with Jerry "doesn't get it" has taken on new meaning. He could not manage so Michael Siegal brought on board Mark Gurvis as COO, relegating Silverman to the role of public face of JFNA -- and just how has that worked out? -- while continuing to pay Jerry as if he were fully performing 100% of the roles of a CEO. Got that? Paid 100% for doing 50% of the job and not even doing that 50% well-paid at all..

But we also deserve better from the JFNA lay leadership. It certainly appears that the leadership of JFNA operate in a cocoon of their own making -- they apparently believe in all sincerity that all is well, that the federations are happy and proud of their membership and are getting value from it ("look, they pay their Dues, don't they?"), that the GAs of recent times have been increasingly impactful even as Lay registration languish at well below 1,000.

Here's what the great philanthropist and activist and leader Morton Mandel observed of the senior professional ranks:
"Those people...have to be the best in terms of intellectual firepower, values, passion, work ethic and experience. These kinds of employees are the A players. C players generally quit or are fired, while B players hang on—they're not so bad that you have justification for firing them, but 'they can't help you win the pennant. They cheat you from achieving all you could, thus preventing an organization from soaring to greater heights."
Chevre, JFNA is being cheated from achieving all that it could by the choices it has made and which it perpetuates. And the only reasons that can be ascribed to this perpetuation appear to be: (1) "he's a nice guy" and (2) laziness. To the JFNA lay leadership I have only one observation of my own: "I'm sorry, but leadership, real leadership, isn't just showing up, it's standing up." As Frank Bruni recently wrote, and I see embodied within JFNA: "Behold leadership at its most gelatinous." As Charles Bronfman opined: "A Board that swallows anything it is no Board at all."

Is it even possible to contemplate after these years of waste and silence that the JFNA Board will suddenly "rise up;" will stop sitting there like potted plants and actually demand accountability and a return on investment from its umbrella organization and that organization's leadership? Where will the demands for change come from, if not from them? From the Large City Executives? Ha. Their preoccupation is with just being "left alone" by JFNA and the JFNA CEO's acknowledged subservience to them.

Yet, while I still believe that federations have an incredible role to play, chapters to write in Modern Jewish history, watching federations doing nothing about an their organization while it wastes millions of our donors' dollars one is forced to conclude that our system, our Movement, reached its pinnacle, its zenith in the expression of Jewish Peoplehood embodied in our Operation Exodus. And that it has gone downhill from there to the subterranean state in which it finds itself today. Note to the Board Chair: "When you find yourself in a deep hole, stop digging."

Friends, we find JFNA 2017 in an endless loop of ineptitude. Sadly, over these past 7+ years mediocrity at JFNA is now baked in. And its failures are mirrored in its Chief Executive Officer and President; for Jerry Silverman is the embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It is this writer's view that as nice a guy I am assured that Jerry is JFNA will never emerge from the Stygian gloom into which he has led us until he is gone.

Whatever happened to the Jewish organizational exceptionalism with which we grew up?



Anonymous said...

Who at JFNA, whether it's Silverman or Sandler, or another, can and will tell us what JFNA does for $53 million each year? These leaders seem to be beyond both embarrassment and accountability

Anonymous said...

Yes, a sad state it is as you have described.
Worse, and this is an indictment of the JFNA Leadership of the last 7+ years, when you walk through the corridors of 25 Broadway, you notice 2 things: 1) Most people walk around with their head down because there is absolutely no sense of community and purpose and, 2) There is no warmth there.
Don't get me wrong, the professional staff is doing their best and they are a community of committed colleagues, but I have to believe that they are all just holding on, and those whose age allows them to look for other employment, are actively doing so.
But again it goes back to the JFNA Lay Leadership. I'm curious how many times any have visited 25 Broadway, unannounced, to observe the $31 million (in dues) organization that they supposedly steward.
Very sad indeed......and worse, 12 months from now, we could write the same obit.

Anonymous said...

What's the saying? Countries get the governments they deserve? Well, so do Jewish organizations. Perhaps we deserve no better than the likes of Silverman, Sandler and their sycophantic leadership.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but there is nothing new here.
Shouldn't we be moving on and finding a strategy and plan to do something about it?