NEW YORK − Fundraising for Jewish Federations in America is showing signs of growth for the first time since the 2008 economic crisis and the Bernard Madoff scandal, according to Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Speaking to Haaretz ahead of the JFNA General Assembly in Denver this week, Silverman acknowledged that fundraising had suffered from “a double whammy” but that trends appeared to be reversing.

“I’m cautiously optimistic”, he said, adding that current Federation campaigns yield more than $900 million in donations, nearing the $965 million donated before the crises. “So we’re not talking about terrific drops,” he said.

JFNA forwards $250-$300 million to Israel and other overseas operations every year, he said, with the bulk of the remaining funds going to strengthen local communities and to provide assistance for people hit by the economic crisis, including those who have lost their homes because of mortgage problems. “There are hundreds of thousands of poor and needy Jews, the elderly and the disabled, who require help,” he said.

Acknowledging that there is a perception that the GA “had lost some of its luster” in recent years, Silverman said the JFNA has conducted research and surveys to improve the content of the General Assembly. “We’ve fine tuned the event and we have exciting new ideas,” he said.

Silverman, who came to the JFNA after a quarter-century in the business sector, added that “at the end of the day it’s about the product − 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.”

Silverman noted that this year’s GA was being held in Colorado as “a statement that we are not just committed to the East Coast.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had originally been scheduled to attend the GA, but later canceled because of a conflict with the annual memorial services held in Israel for Yitzhak Rabin. The government’s senior representative at the GA will be Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom.

Weighing in on some of the controversial issues of the day, Silverman expressed reservations about the so-called “Unity Pledge” issued last week by Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, which called on Jewish leaders and politicians to refrain from turning Israel into a “wedge issue” in the upcoming presidential election campaign.

Silverman described the proposed pledge as “very political” adding that he JFNA wouldn’t be signing on because “we felt that it was restrictive, that debate should be open” and that the Federations were non-political by their very nature.

Silverman defended the decision to remove Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace from the JFNA’s “Jewish Community Heroes” contest, saying that the JFNA “draws a line in the sand for organizations that support boycotting, divesting and sanctioning Israel” and those that “disrespect Israeli leaders,” referring to last year’s disruption of Netanyahu’s speech at the GA in New Orleans.

“This organization crosses the line we stand for,” he said, adding that the winner of the Community Heroes vote gets a financial prize and the JFNA could not give money to an organization that “stood for values that we do not believe in”.

Silverman also said that he is keeping “a watchful eye” on developments concerning the Knesset’s controversial Conversion Bill, which is aimed at easing the way for thousands of people in Israel to convert. Referring to attempts by religious parties to change the scope of the original bill, Silverman said that American Jews had supported the measure, but had changed their position when “the whole thing became political.”

Silverman acknowledged the concern about young liberal Jews feeling alienated by Jewish organizations and increasingly distancing themselves from the community, but said that the JFNA is engaging them in new ways.

“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 − the market is wide open.”

Silverman cited last year’s conference for young Jewish adults in Las Vegas − dubbed “TribeFest” − which attracted over 1,300 people.

“Some may have come with the thought of partying in Vegas,” he said, “but all of our sessions were standing room only.”

Silverman added that he is also seeking ways to bring more Orthodox people into the JNFA’s fold “because when I go to board meetings I don’t see enough Orthodox participating”.

He said that Federations are also accommodating donors who want to designate where their funds will be invested but “if someone wants to invest in gold faucets in the bathroom − that’s another matter.”

Silverman expressed optimism about the future unity of the Jewish communities, saying that “we don’t have to agree, and I believe that conflict is good and brings us to a higher level − but we have to make Shabbos together and I believe we can still make Shabbos together.”

Silverman cited the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit last month, which “mesmerized” Israel, as an example of Jewish unity.

“At the end of the day, we Jews do come together,” he said. “We are incredibly committed to this concept of ‘one people.’ And that’s where I get my optimism from.”

See a full transcript of the interview at Haaretz.com