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
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.”
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.”
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.”