Q&A with UJC’s Jerry Silverman


NEW YORK (JTA) — Jerry Silverman, who took over the helm of the UJC/Jewish Federations of North America about a month ago, sat down with JTA this week to talk about his task of helping the federation system begin to evolve. (For the full interview, visit the Fundermentalist blog, at blogs.jta.org/philanthropy.)

Fundermentalist: How are the federation’s campaigns doing, and how are the smaller federations doing? That is where the real concern was last November as we entered into this recession?

Silverman: The smaller federations are being challenged as the larger ones are, where their campaigns and I won’t say this across the board because you hear bright spots out there where campaigns are actually running flat or a little ahead… There is new thinking and programming. There is new work being done trying to figure out how we stabilize given that we are in an uncommon time and an uncommon period. There is even new creativity going into the way funds are being raised. We are going to major investors and major donors to the federation saying, “If you can give double your pledge this year so we can still drive the services.”

Fundermentalist: What is the UJC’s role right now?

Silverman: I believe our role is to add as much value in every way we can to the Jewish federations of North America.

Fundermentalist: How do you connect to the young people who reached out to you in an Op-Ed last week, saying they feel alienated by the system?

Silverman: Some of those portals may already be there. We’re not digging deep enough to know that they are already there, and we just need to make them wider and understand where they are. And in some cases we need to create new ones. It means a  whole new dialogue, a whole new way of connecting and in some cases it means a grass-roots, more organic approach to connecting.

Fundermentalist: That is a way that I think a lot of people wish that the system worked, but a way that it never really has, even going back to the very beginning of the system.

Silverman: It doesn’t mean that it can’t. These types of things are evolutions, not closed societies or in any way locked in a box.

As we listen very intently to federations, and as we talk to more and more lay leadership and talk to JDC [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] and JAFI [Jewish Agency for Israel], there are some things that we are really starting to get clarity on that we are going to focus on as an organization.

Fundermentalist: What is your focus right now?

Silverman: My belief is that UJC first and foremost has to earn respect and earn trust through the actions that we take. Across the system we have to earn it. And that is going to be our mantra. We will earn it through our actions and not through our speech.

I believe that if and when we start to deliver action, we have the opportunity — “we” meaning the federation system — of being the pre-eminent nonprofit organization.

Fundermentalist: The infrastructure is there.

Silverman: The infrastructure is there. We should be a light unto the nations. We are steeped in great values. We are steeped in the beauty of Torah, and that as a vision can carry us, specifically the five areas we are really beginning to hone in on. We believe in the concept of positioning and really thinking about the future in terms of positioning.

Are we positioned? Are we using the right language, the right conversation, the right dialogue? Is our tent wide enough? In 10, 15, 20 years from now, are we handing this to a generation that will want to engage and own this and say, ‘Wow. This generation gave us a diamond?’Fundermentalist: So let’s talk tachlis. You’ve been on the job for a month. You have been doing your research for a few months. Answer those questions.

We are now unpacking it all to say here is what we are going to do about it.

Fundermentalist: It sounds like the answer is, ‘We are not in a position to do that yet.

Silverman: You have to look at the federation system, and everybody is at a different readiness and everyone is at different places.

It’s like from my apparel days. You wouldn’t sell shorts to Minneapolis in December or January. But you sure would sell a lot of shorts in Florida. The federation system — everybody has their own tradition and their own culture — not every federation is in the same place. As the federation system, we need to be able to look at and work in collaboration with the federations to enable them to think about and support their thinking in looking at the federation of the future.Fundermentalist: How many of these federations are ready to move forward?

Silverman: After four weeks, I can’t give you the answer to that. I am not intimate enough. I am saying that I believe the federations both before the economic challenges and it was enhanced by the economic challenges the readiness to move forward is exciting. It is exciting.

Fundermentalist: How would you describe the UJC’s relationship with its overseas partners?

Silverman: We, the federation system, and I think in conjunction with the JDC and JAFI need to have a clarity of mission on our overseas and Israel agenda. We then need to define what the partnership is with the JDC and JAFI and ORT. And then we need to execute and focus on outcomes in bringing the mission to life.

Fundermentalist: So what if  you had to describe the relationship that exists now?

Silverman: It is one that is very contentious, and it has struggled. But I am also inspired because we had a meeting last week with our lay leadership and JDC and JAFI’s top lay leadership and professionals where we proactively invited them to discuss some challenges of this year. We are saying if the campaigns are down and the core allocations are down, what can we do all together?

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