NEW YORK (JTA) — The umbrella organization of the North American Jewish federation system has hired Jerry Silverman, a key player in raising tens of millions of dollars for Jewish summer camps, as its next president and CEO.
Silverman was tapped to take the reins at the United Jewish Communities, which serves as the North American arm of a federation system that raises and distributes about $3 billion annually from its general campaigns, endowments and special fund-raising drives.
Since 2004 he has served as the executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, overseeing the growth of the organization’s budget from slightly more than $1 million per year to more than $22 million.
A former high-level executive at Levi Strauss and Co. and the Stride Rite Corp., Silverman will succeed Howard Rieger on Sept. 30, a month after Rieger’s term as chief executive ends.
At UJC, Silverman faces a series of challenges, starting with a shrinking budget and increasing questions about the need for a national system.
“I am going into this really clearly with my eyes open,” he said. “I will be doing an inordinate amount of listening as we really look to put our agenda together going forward.”
Federation campaigns across the country have been down or stagnating in recent years, a problem that has been exacerbated by the recession. In the past week, UJC officials said they project a 13 percent decrease in the systemwide campaign this year, and the country’s biggest federation, the UJA-Federation of New York, said its campaign in 2008-09 was off by more than 11 percent. UJA-Federation typically brings in some $150 million annually.
The local federations and their umbrella have been in a constant struggle over the dues that individual federations pay to the UJC. In March, the federations mandated that the UJC reduce its budget from $37 million this year to $30.3, resulting in scores of layoffs.
Federations have long felt tension between having to satisfy their own philanthropic needs at home in their local communities and their obligation as members of the UJC system to dedicate large portions of their annual campaigns to the system’s overseas partners, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
“All those federations are shareholders, and we have to ensure that for every dollar these shareholders invest in UJC, there is a true added value,” Silverman said.
But, he said, the strength of the system is that it is a collective.
“During uncommon times and during challenging situations, it really gives us the opportunity to look at how we are doing things currently today and to look at the future and where we want outcomes to be, and position us to be in a much stronger place in the future,” Silverman said. “We have to really look closer together to do things differently, and really look at what are the great practices we have going already and to make sure we are sharing them.”
While some within the system had been pushing for an executive at a big-city federation to take the job — like the UJC’s first three chief executives — Silverman said he is fine with being an outsider and thinks it will serve him well.
“I haven’t worked in the federation system, but I truly believe that no matter whether I am an outsider or insider, in any move I had made career-wise it is all about developing a very clear vision and having a top-notch, results-oriented organization that is extremely open to listening and to trying to constantly exceed expectations so that their services are in demand,” he said. “If we do that as an organization, then the question about me being an insider or an outsider becomes moot.”
Silverman said he was first approached about the job in November at the annual UJC General Assembly in Jerusalem, and that he became serious about his candidacy in March. He did not accept, however, until he had conducted intense due diligence with those inside and outside the system.
Local federations and the UJC were made aware of his hiring Monday afternoon.
“Jerry has proven himself to be a visionary and results-oriented leader who put Jewish camping on the communal map,” the head of the search committee and the incoming chair of the UJC, Kathy Manning, told the UJC staff in an internal communication Monday. “His personal qualities, his engagement with the Jewish world and his extensive success in the business world make Jerry uniquely poised to help bring UJC and the Jewish Federations of North America to the next level.”
Silverman, who helped popularize the Dockers brand while at Levi’s, comes to an organization that has spent millions on market research in an attempt to re-brand itself, recently leading to the UJC’s decision to rename itself UJC/Jewish Federations of North America at some point next winter.
“His understanding of the importance of the next generation and multiple audiences is really fortuitous for the organization,” said Joe Kanfer, the UJC’s current chairman, and the CEO of GOJO Industries, which makes Purell hand sanitizer. “He clearly understands the importance of communications and branding.”
The president of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Skip Vichness, praised Silverman.
“I think that we have been very fortunate to have Jerry for the five years that we did,” Vichness said. “He has done an amazing job. I wish the UJC well and I think they made a terrific selection.”
Vichness was the head of the search committee that hired Silverman five years ago away from the business world.
“Jerry has an amazing combination of entrepreneurial spirit and a Jewish neshama [soul]. That combination, for me, was very attractive," Vichness said. "He brought the best of what he learned in the for-profit world, but he also had a passion for Judaism and was passionate about camping.”
Vichness, who said the Foundation for Jewish Camp did not try to block Silverman’s move to the UJC, praised Silverman’s talents as a fund-raiser.
“Jerry Silverman is capable of translating his passion programmatically to funders who see his vision and who are willing to se his vision, and his vision is our vision and he gave life to that vision the way the head of an organization should,” he said. “I hope he can do the same for UJC.”