An exclusive interview with Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America umbrella.
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DENVER—For three days, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) 2011 General Assembly functioned as the center of the Jewish world. In the middle of that center was Jerry Silverman, now for two years the president and chief executive officer of an umbrella that raises $3 billion annually.
Silverman’s time at JFNA so far has been action-packed, as he has witnessed the unfolding of the organization’s name change, the launch of the Israel Action Network to combat the delegitimization of Israel, and a recession that won’t seem to go away.
JointMedia News Service sat down with Silverman Monday morning at the GA, for a varied discussion with one of the most powerful individuals in the Jewish world.
How does the GA feel for you as JFNA’s CEO, as opposed to times you attended in other roles? Does the ‘Original Jewish Social Network’ theme still ring true?
“It’s very different from a point of view of coming as a non-Federation person to the Federation, because you have different agenda at the GA, versus taking on a leadership role within the Federation.
“Obviously from a content, programmatic point of view we really thought through the concept of what does ‘The Original Social Network’ mean, since this is the 80th anniversary of the GA. Talking to a gentleman this morning, this is his 45th GA in a row, and to hear him discuss how the concept of the social network—whether you have the technological tools you have today, versus what was accomplished early on—[I realized] it’s still about people and it’s still about connections.
How is the Jewish Federation system dealing with the ongoing recession, and do you see things turning around on local and national levels?
“Given the economic downturn in [2008 and 2009], we did see a decline in [giving to our annual fundraising] campaign, and at the same time Federations really focused their energy and attention on how they could really make a difference in their community and be productive given the situation.
“In Detroit they created mortgage assistance when the economy just absolute crashed, for the automobile industry. Communities across North America—Chicago, West Coast—just stepped up, really focusing their resources. We’re now beginning to feel a bounce back, we’re feeling a stabilization, and we’re actually seeing some positive increases in [the annual] campaign, and I think that in those two years of decline—you never want to waste a good crisis, Rahm Emanuel said—the Federations really did some great thinking during that time, and I think actually have enhanced their productivity model in helping our community globally.”
From name changes to United Jewish Communities (UJC) 1999, to JFNA in 2009, how do you feel re-branding efforts are going for Federation?
“When the merger [between the Council of Jewish Federations, United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal] took place in 1999, there wasn’t a significant amount of study as to what the name should be. They came up with, at the time, UJC. In 2009, there was a branding study done, and what was really clear about the branding study was there was almost no recognition of UJC because it didn’t tie to the fact that 90 percent of the communities used the name Federation, and Federation wasn’t in our name.
“And so, we did a significant amount of research and realized that if we really want to create a brand that creates awareness, that creates significance, we needed to shift our name to have the word Federation, and develop Jewish Federations of North America. Almost 90 communities have adopted the name and the logo, and more are in the queue right now to do that. After a year and half of the change, we’re seeing awareness growing to the branding and to Federations, and the biggest jump is actually coming in the young adult area, in the 18-34 category, so we’re extremely elated and optimistic about the progress that we’re making, because we have a goal of being preeminent, and having preeminent recognition in the nonprofit world.”
How do you feel the Israel Action Network—approved at last year’s GA in New Orleans—has fared on combating the delegitimization of Israel?
“We’re extremely optimistic about the Israel Action Network and its capability. We’ve seen, on a daily basis, where communities are facing some type of boycott, some type of divestment issue, some type of sanction issue.
“During the UN and UDI pronouncements by the Palestinian Authority, [the network] did a really significant job, almost on a daily basis, educating our community with talking points, providing examples op-eds that they could bring to the papers, working and encouraging communities to meet with varying countries’ consulates. So they’re really now in the thick of things, both from a communication standpoint, from an intervention standpoint, in crisis, and an education standpoint, and they really now are hitting their stride.
“In meeting with the Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) in October, and sharing this initiative with him, he suggested that this is maybe one of the most important initiatives he’s heard about in North America.”
How can Federation help Jewish newspapers survive?
“It’s a subject that I feel is extremely important, I think both from a sense of the media, whether it’s Federation media, independent media, online media, that it’s so important to have an informed Jewish community. So, it’s something that is bubbling up right now in the Federations from both a challenge and an opportunity standpoint, and I’m hopeful in the next year that we would really begin studying the issue and asking ourselves the tough questions. How can we ensure that we have high-quality media that inform the entirety of the Jewish community, [media that is] viable and vibrant for the next 10 years?”
What are Federation’s main challenges and goals for the upcoming year?
“I would look at three things that we’re really driving towards, and that is really creating a stronger connection and relationship with our donor base, and to grow out resources so that we can really deliver our mission in bigger and better ways. Number two is engaging young adults in Jewish life. And three is how we develop talent in the Federation world and in the Jewish communal world, because it’s talent that’s going to take us to the new heights.”
Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.