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Jerry at the JFN

There’s something about Jerry: Though he hates the description, Jerry Silverman seems to be a rock star no matter where he goes these days in the Jewish philanthropic world — and it was no different at the Jewish Funders Network conference.

Silverman is no stranger to the conference, having attended in years past as the executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a privately funded grant-making organization. Lay leaders of the federation system who also give away significant money outside the system are always in attendance.

This go-round, however, he wore a different hat as the new president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization of the North American federation system. Having the professional head of the federation system on hand appears to have been a conference first — JFN President Mark Charendoff said he could not recall another instance in which the head of Jewish Federations or any of its predecessors had attended, or even been invited.

Simply, the JFN is for the private world of philanthropy — the foundations and the individual donors who fund outside the federation system. For the public philanthropy world, the federation system has its own conference — the annual and much larger General Assembly. And frankly, the private Jewish philanthropy world and the federation system have not always seen eye to eye, and the JFN has sometimes provided the forum for major funders to openly buck the Jewish federation system. 

But this JFN conference actually had a fairly significant contingent of federation professionals, from Silverman to the outgoing head of the federation in Washington, Misha Galperin, to Jay Sanderson, the chief of the Jewish federation in Los Angeles, to Shalom Elcott, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Orange County in Southern California. The Toronto Jewish federation was represented, too. Silverman anticipates an even larger contingent next year when the JFN conference is held in Philadelphia. 

In short, there seems to be a thawing in the relationship between public and private.

Silverman, who sat down with me for a few minutes, says that what we are seeing is the fruits of two to three years of renewed dialogue between the foundation world and the federation system about how the two can work together better. Now a group of major private donors and the heads of some 40 federations – along with the JFNA and the JFN — are convening four times a year to talk about their common goals.

“It’s excited dialogue," Silverman said. "We are learning from each other and talking about where each of us is going. We’re getting a clarity of the evolution of each group, seeing how we can work together in more of a collaborative relationship. It’s the beginning of something special.”

It’s not clear if the groups are talking about straight partnerships or about who has what responsibilities. But, Silverman said, “We believe there is a real opportunity and upside in this relationship.”

Silverman downplayed his role in bringing the two groups together, as the previous regime under lay leader Joe Kanfer and top professional Howard Rieger laid the groundwork for today’s conversation.

Clearly, however, the JFN is comfortable with Silverman.

“He is being modest,” JFN President Mark Charendoff told me. “Jerry listens. I think it is nice. It is good that there is a greater willingness to come together. He also comes out of our world. They know him."

Charendoff added, "That he is here is seen by the people here as a statement.”