Full Transcript of Interview With President of Jewish Federations of North America

This is the transcript of an interview with Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, in advance of next week’s General Assembly that will be held in Denver Colorado.

Q. What’s special about this year’s GA?

A. Once every five years were try to hold the GA in the Western part of the US and to support our constituency that is west of the Mississippi. And to hold it in Denver is a statement that we are committed, not just to the East Coast. Secondly, we are putting a major emphasis on content, which is very strong. Third is the Denver community itself, which has embraced the concept of truly being hosts of the GA and hosts for the Jewish world and they’ve done a magnificent job of engaging the community in Denver and Boulder and throughout the state from a point of view of volunteers and participants in the GA.

Q. People that I’ve spoken to in the past few months have told me that the GA has lost some of its vitality, either because the content isn’t as exciting as it used to be or because or that the organizational changes that have taken place have had an effect on the content. How do you respond?

A. I say perception is truth. In all candor there was, there is a perception that the GA had lost some of its luster. We learned that in doing the research, in doing the evaluations. That’s why we have significantly fine tuned the event and have reached out to both external as well as internal speakers who are bringing new ideas. We are creating an evolution process around the GA because we know that it has the capability of being a gathering of Jews around the world that really allows for great dialogue, for great debate, for thought and for a call to action on what we can take back to our communities from the GA. At the end of the day it’s about the product – and that’s my orientation – so were really beginning to step up the product itself. We’re really pushing the envelope to make sure that the GA remains preeminent.

Q. There are a few perceptions, especially in Israel, that I would like to clear up with you. One is that donations have suffered because of the financial situation, Madoff and so forth, and because donors are increasingly bypassing the organizations in order to specifically earmark their contributions, and that you’re waging a rear guard action to stop these trends.

A. Fundraising and campaign grew significantly from 1999 to 2007. There is a double whammy – you had the market crash in 2008 and you had Madoff, which had an effect in a few very significant Jewish communities. But even with those two major events happening, the Federations were extremely nimble in creating initiatives that enhanced and mobilized funders who weren’t significantly hit, to ensure that they could respond to the marketplace.

To me it’s not just about total dollars, it’s about the impact of those dollars within the community. If you look at New York, in six weeks they created something called “Connect To Care” to try to enable people who were affected by the financial crisis, whether it be jobs, whether it be financial drops, whether it be issues of even hunger or home loss - because of what happened with mortgages. Chicago created “J-Help”, Detroit, which was devastated by the auto industry, created funding for families who needed mortgage help. Across North American Federations became central to helping the community cope with what was most critical in the communities that they needed to resolve.

Though there was a drop in funding, we saw that last year the situation was stabilized and this year, I’m cautiously optimistic, we’re seeing growth. Campaigns that the Federations deliver are still in excess of $900 million, versus $965 at the height. So you’re not looking at terrific drops.

From the point of view of what I call “designated giving” there is an interest from donors who are intent to ensure that their dollars have the most impact possible. Communities are really strategically looking at how to deliver the donors’ expectations. Some communities allow designated donations, within the strategic objects set by the Federation that are appropriate to that community. If someone wants to invest in gold faucets, in the bathrooms, that’s another matter…

I don’t see it as an issue or a problem, but as an opportunity for the Federations to have a dialogue about what they’re doing, where they’re going to have an impact, and how that will enhance the community over the long term.

Q. How much money do you give to Israeli causes?

A. On an annual basis, we transfer to Israel through our sister organizations about $250-$300 million. That’s about a third that go to Israel and overseas. We have two major historic partners, the Sochnut (World Zionist Organization) and the Joint Distribution Committee. The sum isn’t less than it was a decade ago, though its true that 40 years ago more money went overseas than stayed locally. But as Israel became stronger, developed over time, there was more thought in investment in ensuring that the local communities erect the right kind of infrastructure, the right kind of education, the right kind of connectivity to Israel, to ensure that we maintain a very strong Diaspora relationship, and that’s where we’re at today.

Q. How many poor Jews are there in America?

A. It’s a significant number, who are hungry, who need help looking for jobs, who need senior care, the vulnerable, the disabled, there is a significant number in the US. We’re talking hundreds of thousands. You still have an older population, you still have survivors who are in desperate need of help, in New York, in Miami, in Chicago, in Los Angeles. It’s pretty significant. You have an aging population.

Q. So how much of the money goes to the needy?

A. Each community makes its own decision, and it varies. But all the communities have the same values: caring for the needy, developing the Jewish future through Jewish education that runs from early childhood education to young adults, and even adult learning, and realizing that we are one global Jewish community and we are responsible for each other.

Q. Last year you spent a significant amount of time dealing with the Israeli Conversion Bill. What’s the status of that now? Is it off the table?
A. It’s not off the table, by any means. A year ago they decided to freeze the bill and to create a round table that would be headed by Natan Sharansky and he is working with (Cabinet Secretary) Tzvika Hauser and the parties involved.
The original bill, before it became political - I think Jews across North America were very supportive in thinking that if there are 300-400 thousand questions around giyur (conversion) in Israel and if there is a way to open up opportunities for them…. however, it shifted and was taken to another place. So we remain very watchful, because it’s very significant for Jews around the world.

Q. I have to ask you about the issue that’s creating a stir in the blogosphere of the JFNA Community Heroes List and Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace who was taken off the list, even though, as her supporters claim, she was among the top ten vote-getters. Doesn’t this just strengthen the stereotype of the Jewish establishment that is heavy-handed and harbors no dissent?

A. We have a very public policy around delegitimization. We welcome many points of view from across the spectrum, but we draw a line in the sand for organizations that support boycotting, divesting and sanctioning Israel. And we also do not take kindly to an organization that disrespects Israeli leaders in public forums. Everyone has the right to demonstrate but when a prime minister from Israel is speaking, and to try to sabotage his speaking in order to get notoriety, is for me extraordinarily disrespectful. So this organization crosses the line of what we stand before and what we believe is a love for Israel. And a love for Israel can mean a lot of things, it’s not a blind love, but there has to be a understanding that using tools like BDS or trying to embarrass an Israeli official that is not the way of creating dialogue and openness and there’s no place for them.

Q. So perhaps you should have expressed your view but allowed people to vote for whomever they wished.

A. The winner gets a financial renumeration and we are not going to financially reward organizations that support that. It wasn’t her personally that we are negative about - it was the fact the organization stood for values that we do not believe in and could not reward.

Q. Are you going to be signing the “Unity Pledge” issued by the ADL and the AJC on the upcoming elections?

A. We’re not signing the unity pledge. We decided initially that it was somewhat restrictive, that debate should be open. So we felt that we should take a back seat. Were not a political organization, and this is a very political unity statement. We’re very non-partisan, and we don’t want to take sides either way or to say that we think that the sides should stymie debate. That’s not where we are.

Q. I see that Peter Beinart has been invited to speak at the GA and I’d like to ask you about some new trends that are being talked about recently, people saying that they can’t find their place in the establishment, that the establishment is too right wing, that it shuts down dissent, that the internal discussions in the Jewish community are increasingly shrill..

A. Peter should have come to Las Vegas in March last year. We asked young adult Jews where they want to go, and they said Vegas. We had a conference showcasing all the wonderful opportunities for points of entry into the Jewish communities, from Punk Jew to Jewlicious to Jewish Agency and so on. We had over 1300 participants in the pilot, and we’re doing one again this year, and more people will participate. And many of these people came with no background and no knowledge. Some may have come with the thought of partying in Vegas, but all of our sessions were standing room only.

What it did was convince us that if we do things a little bit different and try to create opportunities for young people to come together, locally or nationally, that there is an interest in engaging. Many people are laying out that “this is the establishment”, but I don’t buy that. To me it’s all about the content and the tools that we use to put information out there, which is much different today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. And it’s understanding the consumer, and its understanding this constituency and listening to them and letting them create so that they feel a sense of ownership.

It’s about creating new opportunities. I came from 25 years of developing brands, of developing consumer products, understanding and working in organizations that were all about consumer centricity. And I think there is a real thirst out there among young people and adults to have access and to have information and whether it comes from the establishment or whether it comes from a new innovative organization or comes from the concept of connectors, which are really crucial in this – the market is wide open. And the more we do as a Federation, to be centric in our approach and really listen and empower our young adults, the more we are going to engage them in bigger and broader ways where we’re not necessarily viewed as “the establishment.”

Q. You’re not troubled by the possibility that people who are not religious and are not affiliated may become disaffected from Israel and then leave the community altogether?

A. I feel extremely concerned by that constituency but I also feel a responsibility that we have the opportunity to reach them to bring them to a communal table to share with them an opportunity for them to espouse what they believe. I have five young people in my household who are very close to these kind of people and they constantly give me advice on how to reach them.

But I have to say that there is another side to the communal table, and I want to encourage as much participation by Orthodox people as well, because when I go to board meetings I don’t see enough Orthodox contingency that are participating, and that’s also a challenge.

Q. What is your description of the state of the Jews on the eve of the GA?

I am optimistic. I always believe in the possibilities of what we can do together and that when we really think together – and we don’t have to agree, and I believe that conflict is good and it brings us to a higher level – but we have to make Shabbes together and I believe we can and will make Shabbes together. I’ve been to 103 communities in America now in the past two years and I’ve seen so much good in what’s possible and I believe that in ten year’s we will look back and say – yes, they were challenging times. Because we as Jews have culturally inside us that things are never good enough and that we can achieve better.

Q. You’re not concerned about the internal tensions?

A. Yes, but we’re still one Jewish people and those tensions go away when there’s an issue and when we decide to come together. I read an article about the release of Shalit and how the whole country was mesmerized by his release. I had the privilege of sitting with Aviva and Noam just two weeks before in the tent and felt their pain. There was a lot of disagreement about the issues of exchanges and what not, but everyone came together with the family. We Jews do come together. At the end of the day we come together. We are incredibly committed to this concept of “one people”. And that’s where I get my optimism from.