REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK/THE FUNDERMENTALIST
WASHINGTON (JTA) — “So what’s the big story here? What’s it all about?”
That was the question bouncing around the halls this week at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, the annual conference of the Jewish federation system.
For about two weeks leading up to the GA, held here at the Marriott Wardman Park, there was a clear-cut answer: Obama.
The U.S. president was set to make the conference of more than 3,000 lay and professional leaders of the multibillion-dollar charity system his first appearance at a Jewish event since moving into the White House. Simply, it was the biggest “get” the system could have landed and reinforced efforts to give participants a sense that theirs was still the Jewish community’s most important charitable network.
Then on Saturday night — the eve of the start of the GA — organizers received word from the White House that the president had to cancel to attend a memorial service for the 13 killed in the shooting in Fort Hood, Texas.
The GA had lost its superstar, along with some of the initial buzz surrounding the conference.
Over the course of the three-day parley, however, it became clear that there was still a big story about a fresh new leader — and attendees didn’t have to look beyond the conference halls to find him.
This GA was the first for Jerry Silverman since he took over in September as CEO of Jewish Federations.
A federation outsider, Silverman came to the organization after a much-heralded stint as the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, where he raised the philanthropic profile of Jewish camps, helping to bring in tens of millions of dollars per year. And his influence already was being felt at the GA — at least the excitement about his hiring.
To be sure, local and national federation leaders acknowledge it’s been a rough year, with pledges to local campaigns off by more than $80 million. And many federation insiders now embrace the idea that even before the recession hit, theirs is a system that needs to do a better job of embracing change.
Yet the mood among GA participants seemed upbeat, especially compared to the economy-related gloom-and-doom mood that gripped last year’s gathering. According to the hallway chatter, much of that positive feeling is tied up with Silverman’s arrival.
Silverman’s message to the federations and their partners is clear: The system has its problems, but he and they are all in this together.
“We have many problems to solve, and we won’t agree on any point,” he said during his address at the opening plenary. “But we have shown in the last year of challenge the ability to make real and unprecedented progress.”
Silverman went on to say, “If we work together effectively, there is no limit to what we can accomplish. After all, anything is possible.”
Judging from dozens of conversations with local federation heads, people seem to be listening.
A key to the good will, some said, was Silverman’s decision to spend his first weeks on the job listening. He started off by traveling thoughout the United States on a listening tour of the federations, letting them tell him what they needed from their national office.
It was viewed in many corners as an important step for a central office that has had to wrestle with unclear and conflicting notions of what it was supposed to be and whom it was supposed to be serving.
While such questions have still not been fully resolved, several chief executives at local federations say they have someone in Silverman who they feel is listening to them. All of his predecessors have been former big-city federation executives, some with clear ideas about how to make the organization better.
The tradeoff of coming in with fully formed ideas is that some were left feeling they had no say.
The difference in leadership style, several system insiders said, was palpable and on full display at the GA.
Silverman was a constant presence in the hallways, but probably more important, he was a presence at the bar late at night, when the sessions of the GA were over and the hundreds of folks from local federations let loose a little. And he wasn’t surrounded by his PR advisers.
He was just hanging out, kibitzing.
It will be important to watch whether Silverman and his colleagues at Jewish Federations are able to translate the positive feelings into improved results and concrete accomplishments. But by most accounts, this GA was a very good first step for a new leader with a tough road ahead.