Jerry Silverman: We have to be one Jewish community

Jewish Federations of North America chief calls for creative outreach to Orthodox, unaffiliated to heal fractured US Jewry.

Jerry Silverman 370 (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Jerry Silverman 370
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
In order to meet the acute challenges facing an increasingly fractured Jewish landscape, organized communal institutions are finding ways to evolve and adapt, Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, said on Wednesday.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post at the President’s Conference in the capital’s International Convention Center, the chief executive of the umbrella body representing the largest Jewish communities in the Diaspora explained that new and creative steps must be taken to combat the balkanization of an increasingly culturally and religiously fractured community.
Discussing the lack of formative experiences that could bind contemporary Jewish youth with Israel and religious expression, Silverman said that “we are dealing with a generation that did not grow up with the founding of the state, did not grow up with the miracles of ’67 and ’73, that didn’t even grow up with the incredible operations of Exodus and Solomon or Moses.”
According to Silverman, young Jews “don’t have the sense of history of the state,” resulting in “real challenges in how we are connecting young people today and young adults to Israel and to the State of Israel. How we overcome those challenges is really critical in creating the concept of connection.”
Despite his assessment that the experiences that gave previous generations of Jews common causes can no longer provide the same impetus for communal involvement, Silverman said that he remains a “cautious optimist.” Jewish federations have an “opportunity to be social innovation hubs within their community,” he said.
While the traditional institutions of communal affiliation are still important, he argued, there are new forms of engagement and “new inventive organizations and places to enter the tent that just aren’t as well known.”
Silverman cited initiatives such as Moishe House – a self-described “pluralistic international organization” that operates, in a manner reminiscent of Chabad’s network of outreach centers, 58 houses worldwide – as a key to creating new opportunities for Jewish expression in the future.
Moishe Houses are “growing like crazy. Federations are supporting Moishe Houses all over,” he said.
“You have these young people who are setting up these households and they are inviting others to come [and participate in their] programming with them peer-to-peer.”
Those involved in such projects as Moishe House “are engaging people” and “creating new communities” all over North America,” he said.
Silverman described the opportunity before the Jewish community to take traditional institutions such as synagogues and Jewish Community Centers and integrate them with newer organizational constructs to create “entry points” that could encourage young unaffiliated Jews to connect with their heritage.
According to Prof. Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at the City University of New York who studies the Jewish community, the fastest-growing groups within American Jewry are Russian speakers, the ultra- Orthodox and the unaffiliated.
Heilman describes the Jewish identification of many unaffiliated Jews in the US as a “symbolic ethnicity” that does not necessarily imply a primarily Jewish cultural orientation.
Silverman acknowledged this changing reality, noting that the “UJA-Federation of New York has created a Moishe House specifically for the Russian community,” as well as leadership programs for young members of this growing sector.
The federations system, he said, is involved in developing “specific outreach culturally” so that “there can be significant engagement with various people of various ethnicities” and denominations.
While the federations are not separated from the Orthodox community, they do maintain parallel communal organizations.
As such, in order to maintain a unified Jewish community in the future, Silverman said, the federations have to build “a bridge to the Orthodox community.”
One of the issues facing American Orthodoxy is the rising cost of tuition for religious day schools. “One of the biggest issues they said they faced was the issue of the [fiscal] sustainability” in the educational sphere, he explained. Such an issue, he argued, is best dealt with at the “communal table.”
“We’re beginning to see connections and outreach to the Orthodox community” in cities such as Cleveland, Baltimore and New York, where “you are seeing wonderful outreach and connections being built.
“Those bridges have to be built for us to be successful because we need to be one Jewish community.”