An optimist in a sea of Israel-Diaspora division

There is the loss of Jewish identity among young Jewish Americans, and a growing divide between the larger community and the State of Israel.

Jerry Silverman standing at the Western Wall.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jerry Silverman standing at the Western Wall.
Jerry Silverman is the eternal optimist, and it kind of makes sense. Otherwise, the job he has served in for the last decade – president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) – would be unsustainable.
There is the rise in antisemitism in the United States, with attacks against synagogues in places like Pittsburgh and Poway that many Jews thought were impossible in a country like America. There is Donald Trump, the president of the US, who is one of the most polarizing and divisive characters that America and particularly the American Jewish community have ever known.
There is the loss of Jewish identity among young Jewish Americans, and a growing divide between the larger community and the place that used to be at the center of its attention and fund-raising: the State of Israel.
There is the Kotel deal that Silverman sweated to make happen that was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2016, only to be overturned and canceled 18 months later in June 2017. Since then, and despite promises by the prime minister, the large-scale renovations at the egalitarian prayer platform under Robinson’s Arch have yet to take place.
There is the continued absence of civil marriage in Israel, the feeling that many Reform and Conservative Jews have that they are not accepted, and the suspension of the Nissim Committee, appointed by Netanyahu to revolve the conversion crisis.
When I presented all of this to Silverman when we spoke, he shrugged, smiled, and told me about his daughter’s wedding a few weeks ago.
“When I see the absolute, unbridled and uninhibited energy of 90 young Jewish people dancing to Jewish music at my daughter’s wedding, I am an eternal optimist when it comes to the future of the Jewish people and Israel,” he said.
I spoke to Silverman just days before he stepped down this week as head of the JFNA. His replacement, Eric Fingerhut, is a former congressman who served for the last few years as president of Hillel International. Before joining JFNA, Silverman was president of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. For a decade before that, he held a range of executive positions at the Stride Rite Corporation, including president of its international division.
I asked to speak to Silverman for two reasons. First, when someone leaves a position, it is always an opportunity to hear what they have learned, what predictions they have for the future, and what keeps them up at night.
The other reason was the upcoming Israeli election. Silverman is not an Israeli citizen, and will not be voting on September 17. But what he has to say about Israeli-Diaspora relations is worth considering. His words should be heard by members of Israel’s leadership before setting policy, if they want the Jewish state to be a home not just to its citizens but also for all Jews, no matter how they practice Judaism or define it.
FOR THE last decade, Silverman has sat at a key junction when it comes to Jewish life in America as well as the Israeli-US relationship – between Jews and between administrations. His job, he stressed repeatedly, was apolitical. Nevertheless, his position brought him frequently into the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem and the White House in Washington.
“There definitively is a divide, and to me the divide isn’t necessarily the question of engagement, but the question of where is my place in the State of Israel, and am I welcome in the State of Israel as a Jew and the way I practice Judaism,” he said. “Is Israel the place that welcomes all Jews with open arms and equality?”
Silverman worked closely with former Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky on the Kotel deal, which was originally approved by Netanyahu’s government in 2016. When it was canceled 18 months later, he was harsh in his criticism.
The situation with the Kotel now is “very frustrating” he says, but he believes there will come a time when Israeli politics will allow the implementation of the deal, or at the very least the key pieces of it.
“Even by Netanyahu,” I asked. The same prime minister who approved the deal and then canceled it?
“I have not given up on Netanyahu doing it,” Silverman responded. “He was the one who went to Natan Sharansky and asked for a solution. I believe maybe he more than anyone, because he is the one who asked for a solution and it was found and his cabinet signed it.”
While acknowledging that the Kotel is symbolic for Jews around the world, Silverman said that the issue of conversion is “almost existential,” and that the lack of civil marriage in Israel puts the country in a “category of countries that I don’t think anyone wants to be in.”
“I think it can be done without disrespecting the traditional Orthodox,” he said. “Everyone can get along like they do in the IDF,” he said. “My nieces and nephews served in the IDF with all different types of people. I think that will happen in Israel. Israel is 71 years old and it is young, and the organized Jewish community is 120 years and is young. We are still in our youth when we look at history. I think that as a people we are smart enough to figure this out.”
“How does Trump fit into all of this?” I asked. Some people claim, I said, that Netanyahu’s close alliance with this unconventional president contributes to the widening division between Israel and American Jewry. The vast majority of American Jews, I noted, are strongly opposed to this president.
“Trump is extraordinarily complicated and challenging and distracting,” Silverman said. “We try to focus on what Jews in North America have in common as Jews, and what we care about.”
His goal as head of JFNA, he said, was always to ensure that “as a community we have tables where our community can come together and discuss these issues and do it civilly and in a way that allows people to express their views.”
But, he said, problems with a president cannot take over the Jewish people’s agenda which is “timeless”: strengthening Jewish identity, protecting Jewish communities, advancing Jewish values, and bolstering the relationship between American Jews and the State of Israel.
Does he think that Trump is responsible for the rise in antisemitism and lethal attacks like those in Pittsburgh and Poway?
Silverman was clear: “To attribute antisemitism to one person is a bubba maysa [nonsense],” he said. “It has been around for 2,500 years.”
Antisemitism, he said, has grown and spread from Russia to Europe, to the BDS movement in South Africa, and to the United Kingdom and the US where there are now “hideous, violent acts and pure acts of antisemitism like defacing cemeteries and synagogues or attacking people on the streets of Brooklyn.”
It cannot, he said, be attributed to one person or a president. What is happening in the US, he said, has been “bubbling” for a long time, and has been heightened by “comments and diatribes” on the far-right and far-left. Social media, he added, allows white supremacists and neo-Nazis to communicate and inspire one another across the globe.
IN HIS last couple of years in office, Silverman’s focus has shifted to helping federations and Jewish organizations grow their security budgets and secure available government grants.
“My belief is that the action that needs to be taken as a worldwide community, and especially in North America, is connecting our communities with all faith-based groups since this isn’t just a Jewish issue but a hate issue,” he said.
Looking to the future, Silverman believes that despite the challenges the federation model is facing – a drop in fund-raising and engagement – the Jewish community is coming up all the time with innovative programming that has the potential to shift the paradigm.
One program that doesn’t work, he concedes, is Sunday schools, still attended by about 200,000 kids across the US.
“They haven’t worked in 50 years, and it’s something parents send their children to and then maybe do a b’nai mitzvah and then they are out,” he said.
The Jewish community, he said, needs to focus on getting kids involved in Jewish life in early childhood, in sending kids to immersive Jewish summer camps, in getting more high schoolers – from day schools and public schools – on organized trips to Israel, and attracting young professionals in places like Santa Monica, Chicago and New York to come to Jewish events.
The Jewish community, he pointed out, is constantly coming up with new, innovative programs. Just in the last two decades, he said, Birthright, PJ Library, new summer camps, Masa, and Moishe House as well as new affordable models for day schools were all created and launched. More, he promised, is on the way.
With Silverman’s optimism, it’s hard not to believe him.