Editor's Notes: Connecting American Jewry

Jerry Silverman to steer next week’s GA.

Jerry Silverman 370 (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Jerry Silverman 370
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Jerry Silverman’s passion for Judaism and Jewish communal life in the Diaspora coupled with his love of Israel are potent and patent. Silverman, in the last year of his five-year term as CEO and president of the Jewish Federations of North America, admits to being somewhat emotional about JFNA’s 65th General Assembly in Jerusalem next week.
Sipping coffee at a Jerusalem hotel on Tuesday, he speaks with the clear voice of authority he has honed as a leader in the North American Jewish community and a corporate executive for a quarter of a century.
“I’m probably more excited about this GA than all four others I’ve attended combined, mostly because it’s in Israel,” he says. “For me, there’s a different feel in having it in Jerusalem. There’s an unbelievable feeling of connection, which is a primary reason why the Federations decided that every five years, we hold the GA in Israel. I’m excited and even a little bit emotional about it.”
The GA, billed as “the signature event of North American Jewry,” convenes on November 10-12, bringing together more than 3,000 delegates from over 90 communities across the US, Canada, Europe and Israel to provide “a marketplace of dialogue and debate.” They will hear from some 140 speakers, headed by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The gathering concludes next Tuesday with a mass march from the Jerusalem City Hall to the Western Wall. “This underscores the centrality of Jerusalem and reflects JFNA’s view that there is a place for all Jews at the Kotel,” Silverman says.
Looking ahead to the GA’s substantive agenda, he pauses briefly before saying: “I’m always cautious, but I’m so optimistic about this GA, especially at the level of leadership, creating debate about the issues and challenges facing us, and about our futures, the future of Israel and its relationship with the Diaspora, and the future of North American Jewry, especially in light of the latest results of the Pew survey about a month ago.”
The Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” found that an increasing number, especially among the younger generation, are disconnected from Jewish life.
“The main issue is really connection to Judaism,” says Silverman. “When you have numbers that talk about millennials at 32 percent who are Jews but don’t connect to Judaism and the fact that 71% of the non-Orthodox are marrying outside the religion... this is really serious. It may not be a shock to anyone, but I think it’s a wake-up call that says, ‘You can’t watch this happen. You have to do something about it!’” Still, Silverman is upbeat. “I’m a practical optimist,” he says. “To me, the Pew report is a gift. It’s a gift of information that we can look at and say, ‘We knew about this and what we’re doing is fine.’ Or we can say, ‘What can we learn from it, what can we do better, and what can we do together?’ “The call to action for me is that we as a Jewish community need to think together to come up with and concretize actions that we can take to change the trajectory of what this report says when we look at the numbers 10 years from now. So I always believe the glass is half full, but I also always believe that we have to make something happen to make the glass half full.”
Asked what Israel can do to help, he says: “Israel is a key component. I believe that there is a deep connection, because part of who we are and our Jewish identity is Israel.
“We have to make certain that we’re both connecting and engaging Diaspora Jews to Israel and to Israeli Jews, creating relationships. We live in a very small world today with easy communication, so it’s so much easier. We need to create more opportunities and experiences for us as Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews to be together. The government started with a partnership with Birthright and Masa, and I hope there will be more such partnerships, because I believe a strong, sustainable Diaspora Jewish community is strategic for Israel.”
Before becoming involved in the Jewish Federations, Silverman served as president of the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Camp and in a range of executive positions at Levi Strauss in San Francisco and Stride Rite in Boston. He and his wife, Erica, now live in New York.
They are observant Jews and have five children ranging in age from 19 to 27.
Asked what motivates his work for JFNA, Silverman cites the core values he learned from his mother and passed on to his children. He recalls how a job offer at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland in 1971 caused his previously unemployed mother to come home “smiling and glowing, strengthening her self-esteem and changing her life completely.”
He, too, smiles and glows as he talks about his children.
“I’ve seen our children enjoy the fruits of the community growing up, primarily in Boston, through the life of the congregation, day school, JCC, youth group, Masa and Hillel. The concept of building community is the Federation at its best, because it supports these organizations to make sure that there is a strong Jewish community.
“When I took this job, our children said, ‘Abba, don’t expect us to get involved in what’s going on in Federation.’ But our two oldest daughters, who are both professionals, have since become involved on their own in the UJA-Federation of New York. They got involved because it was a way to connect with the community, and a way to give back.”
JFNA is the umbrella organization of more than 150 federations and 300 smaller communities without federations across North America that raise and distribute more than $3 billion annually for social welfare, social services and educational needs at home, in Israel and around the world.
Through JFNA, local federations have donated over $4.5b. to Israel over the past 15 years. Referring to the difficult challenge of fund-raising in North America today, Silverman again sounds an optimistic note.
“Federations truly care for the global Jewish community,” he says. “The concept of giving collectively goes against the grain. The whole economy took a hit in 2008 and 2009 and it took time to recover, but we’re seeing our campaigns begin to grow again, in a collective manner.
“When you talk to people about the understanding that the dollar they give could be touching somebody they don’t know across the street, across the town, across the country, across Israel or across the world, that’s the true mitzva of tzedaka [charity]. It’s about making allocation decisions as a whole on what our prioritites are, and coming together as a North American community to look at global priorities and to change history.”
Silverman is “amazed and humbled by the role Federations have played in changing the course of Jewish history through their support for building the State of Israel, the exodus of Russian and Ethiopian Jews, during rescues and crises in Israel and abroad, and day-to-day things that people don’t even see.”
“To me, that kind of tzedaka is sustainable and can grow. We need to do a better job as we evolve in educating the next generation to this type of tzedaka, but I believe it’s timeless,” he adds.