Were one to have been anointed JFNA's CEO -- one without basic knowledge of the federation system, of collective responsibility, of the great hstory that had led UJA, CJF and UIA into the merger that created the organization you have been selected to lead -- under those circumstances perhaps the first thing to do would have been to declare war on memory. The most threatening things to one who knew, who knows, almost nothing are memory and those who possess it.
Oh, the deconstruction of institutional memory at JFNA did not begin with Jerry Silverman or the lay Chairs who selected him or perpetuated his engagement. No, that destruction began in the first days of the new organization when the first Board Chair unilaterally determined from a few negative comments at a poorly attended open meeting in D.C. that the name United Jewish Appeal, literally the most valuable brand in philanthropy, was to be wiped from the face of what would ultimately be Jewish Federations of North America. This was quickly followed with the dismissal of one of the system's most cherished lay leaders from his post as Chair of Israel-Overseas -- dismissed by the new Chair of the Executive, his closest friend and ally in national and overseas Jewish communal life. Why? Because that Board Chair and the Chair of the Executive could do so. And because these men viewed memory as their enemy.
And, so began the erasure of institutional memory. A succession of insecure lay officers, unrestrained by common sense or wise professional counsel, destroyed that memory so vital to building the new upon the best of the old. Only during the brief period of Steve Hoffman's service as CEO and President, was there a brief hiatus to the onslaught against memory. When Hoffman retired back to Cleveland, if the elimination of those with memory had theretofore been a trickle, it would now become a flood.
Post-Hoffman, the Chairs of the Center for Jewish Philanthropy (a wonderful leader from New York UJA-Federation), Planned Giving and Endowment and the National Campaign Chair, all leaders of great integrity, all resigned -- some, in their resignation, were attacked by the JFNA Board Chair. Brilliant professionals -- Vicki Agron, Gail Hyman, Gail Reiss and so many more -- left JFNA in the face of what can only be described as constructive terminations, leaving voids that have yet to be well-filled over a decade later.
Only at the United Israel Appeal was memory "allowed" to survive. Yitzchak Shavit, z'l, and, then, Danny Allen, professional leaders who embodied "memory" and protected it and a succession of lay Chairs, likewise even as JFNA's Chairs demanded personal loyalty to them as opposed to loyalty to the institution and its values. But, there too, the war against memory continues.
And, then arrived Jerry Silverman who, unburdened with any institutional memory whatsoever viewed all those, lay and professional, who still possessed even a modicum of it with suspicion, viewing them as some form of potential "Fifth Column" to be eradicated along with the memory they brought to their roles. And with Silverman's arrival JFNA morphed from acts of stupidity into the idiocracy that we confront today.
Understand that on the cusp of this wayward choice I received a call from a great friend and revered lay leader who served on the Search Committee. She told me that she and other members of the Search Committee Executive (!?) were calling past leaders to ask our thoughts about the Committee recommending that a COO be hired simultaneous with the new CEO. (The world of JFNA inside baseball knew that a total outsider was being nominated as CEO.) I said "no, I believe that the CEO needs to make that hire...and quickly." After his hiring Jerry visited with a lay group in Chicago. Knowing the voids on his resume, I suggested to him that he hire a COO with federation experience; he demurred: "I want to wrap my arms around this job first." It was almost three years later that Board Chair Michael Siegal, noting that Silverman had failed to create a "bench," forced Mark Gurvis, an experienced federation professional, on the CEO as his new COO and relieved Jerry of his management responsibilities.
That action by Siegal came too late for JFNA. In early 2010 Jerry, with no plan, abruptly terminated three Senior V-P's -- Rob Hyman, Eric Levine and Barry Swartz, each a respected professional, each performing important work and each with significant federation experience. Jerry was eliminating payroll and eliminating institutional memory at the same time. He would not replace Levine, the professional leader of FRD, or Swartz, the respected leader of community consulting for 7 years. In a JTA story on the firings, www.jta.org/2010/.../inside-the-top-level-layoffs-at-jewish-federations-of-north-ameri it was clear that the writer's source, though unnamed, was Jerry Silverman himself, in what would become his typical response, patting himself on his back for doing his worst.
And, the worst would continue through today -- no Consulting Services arm, replaced by a group of part-time consultants, not a single department led by anyone with federation experience (although a Research arm was very recently populated by a former federation planning professional who will work from her Philadelphia home base). And, thanks to a single demand by the immediate past Board Chair, a COO with federation experience whose impact on the organization has yet to be seen. Memory has been obliterated.
Institutional memory has been obliterated intentionally and wilfully or negligently, it matters not. And JFNA has not substituted a single success on which to build memories of its own...not one. Its leaders appear to not have a clue how to build programmatic or operational excellence; its tagline Touching More Jewish Lives Than Any Other Organization in the World may have been true under CJF and UJA -- but it is a cruel mockery when applied to JFNA.
Friends, we are led by those who have chosen to walk away, to forget our history, our movement, our cause. But for us "...the cause endures and the dreams we have will never die."
I will let you, dear readers, judge whether JFNA has been well-served by these decisions.