How Will the Republican Sweep at the House of Representatives Impact the U.S. Jewish Community?

Haaretz interviews the President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, ahead of this weekend's annual General Assembly in New Orleans.

This weekend, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), will gather for the annual General Assembly in New Orleans.

Q: Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of JFNA, the GA is taking place shortly after the midterm elections. In some races, we witnessed quite ugly battles between the Jewish supporters of rival candidates. Do you expect some residue tensions to be present in the hallways at the convention?

A: “One of the most enduring strengths of the Jewish Federations movement is our diversity. We represent the myriad of ages, affiliations and politics that exist in the North American Jewish community and appreciate the opportunity to convene and unite in our Jewish faith and identity each year at the General Assembly. And it’s that unity that I believe will prevail in the hallways at the GA”.

Q: Will the Democratic loss in the House of Representatives have an impact on the Jewish community?

A: “As for our ties with Congress, the Jewish Federations movement has excellent relations with Congress - bipartisan relations that reflect our role as the most mainstream organization in American Jewish life. We have among our leaders the most active Jewish Republicans and the most active Jewish Democrats in the nation. As a consequence, we are able to build bridges between the parties and ensure that our voice is heard."

Q: Rep. Eric Cantor is expected to become the highest-ranking Jew in the House ever. Is this a source of special pride for the community?

A: “We have an excellent relationship with Congressman Cantor. He has been a very active leader of the Jewish community in Richmond, and has always been willing to assist both the Richmond Federation and our national organization. I anticipate continuing that relationship and building on it over the months and years ahead."

Q: Assuming that the U.S. Jews' votes were based on the domestic agenda – from what you hear at the various communities, are they as disappointed/frustrated as it was assumed about many other voters?

A: “Based on what I have seen traveling to 70 Jewish communities over the last year is that the Jewish community is concerned about the same thing that others are concerned about - the economy. The economic recession impacts our community at every level - from previous donors who are now recipients of aid, to Jewish social service agencies that are struggling to meet the high demand for services, and to each of us who need to dig just a little bit deeper to give a helping hand to those in need. Clearly we are all frustrated that the economy is still depressed, and that vulnerable populations are continuing to suffer - and that frustration was seen on Election Day”.

Q: What can you tell about the economic recovery from the Jewish Federation's perspective – the amount of donations, charities current status, the atmosphere?

A: “Regarding the economy, we are starting to see very encouraging signs of a rebound in Jewish philanthropy. In fact, despite the economic downturn, the Jewish Federations remain an incredibly effective philanthropic collective, raising some $2 billion annually to help Jews and others in need across North America and around the world. This year, 2011, the Annual Campaign is up 3.4 percent ahead of pace from last year, showing people are really stepping up”.

Q: Recently Jewish leaders gathered in Israel and discussed the question of whether the Diaspora should take part in the negotiations on issues significant to Jews in Israel and abroad alike, such as Jerusalem. In your opinion, should U.S. Jews take a more direct role in the peace process?

Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of JFNA

A: “The Jewish Federations is one of the most enduringly successful and trusted philanthropic forces in the world, and our role as a charitable entity historically has remained to support and advocate for the social needs of our worldwide community, investing in our Jewish future and maintaining a strong connection to the Land of Israel. In certain cases we have been increasingly active in advocating forcefully on issues of critical concern that could undermine the strength and unity of our community - when we can leverage our partnerships and expertise to make an impact. Twenty years ago that meant fighting for Soviet Jewry; or more recently advocating on the conversion issue. Now we face insidious efforts to demonize Israel through sanctions and related attacks and we are launching a continental strategy to counter that threat”.

Q: Last weekend we saw another very real terrorist threat aimed at the Jewish communities in the U.S., the explosives sent to Chicago synagogues. Will there be any reassessment of the security measures at the Jewish institutions at the U.S.?

A: “We are working on several fronts to help secure our communities. Several years ago the Jewish Federations and Conference of Presidents launched the Secure Community Network, an early-warning monitoring system for the community that provides alerts and consistent information, SCN, working with law enforcement agencies and the Department of Homeland Security, also helps educate and inform communities to implement best security practices. SCN for example did great work keeping our communities on alert with real-time information in the face of last week’s threats, and continues to do great work with DHS and law enforcement in the communities to educate and train around security practices.

"The Jewish Federations of North America has also been deeply involved with the advent and continuation of the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program since 2004, which provides assistance for institutions at higher risk of terror threats. To date, our efforts have helped secure $99 million to support the program, which has been a singular means for hundreds of nonprofit organizations, including many Jewish communal institutions, deemed at-risk of attack by international terrorists or their related homegrown adherents, to enhance their physical security and preparedness training. Enhancements range from rudimentary to very sophisticated – from barriers, bollards and fencing to blast proofing, electronic surveillance, and inspection and screening systems. This latter category has particular resonance given this week’s thwarted terrorist attempts."

"Annually, between 200 and 300 applicants within 64 high-risk urban areas around the country secure grants through this program – the vast majority Jewish communal institutions including community centers, synagogues, schools, museums, student unions, hospitals, and social services centers."

"As in every year since 2004, JFNA has been working to secure the next allocation for the NSGP program, and has made progress to secure $20 million in program funds the Senate draft of the fiscal year 2011 Homeland Security Appropriations bill. Results in the House version remain embargoed until the appropriations Committee reports out the bill."

"In the post-election framework, it is not yet certain how Congress will act on the outstanding appropriations for FY2011, including the Homeland Security Appropriations bill: whether they will complete the funding for the upcoming lame-duck session, or delay until a new Congress is sworn in remains to be seen."

"In the wake of the recent credible threats to our homeland involving overseas bomb-laded packages addressed to Jewish institutions in Chicago, we have already called upon the White House, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Management and Budget, and the respective Congressional Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittees to bolster the NSGP program’s allocation, and to further engage and incorporate the nonprofit sector in federal, state and local homeland security plans."

"We will continue to pursue this effort as a priority in the lame duck session and into the 112th Congress, when the work on the fiscal year 2012 budget will commence early next year."

Q: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to the GA while the peace negotiations are still at an impasse – do you sense any fatigue from the U.S. Jewish communities with the peace process? Do you have any expectations for a post-election breakthrough?

A: “As a broad movement we represent many voices in the community and support the government of Israel in its efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East. Beyond that we do not make political predictions. We can say that we are proud that the GA has created an opportunity for Prime Minister Netanyahu and Vice President Biden, who are both GA speakers, to convene and continue to seek peace in the Middle East. If The Jewish Federations can create an opportunity that will help support peace in any way, we would be enormously grateful."

Q: Why was New Orleans chosen as a location for this Assembly?

A: “Five years after Hurricane Katrina, work remains to be done in the community and we still hear an outcry of needs. Thousands of our volunteers continue to do amazing volunteer projects there, and we felt that on the fifth anniversary of the disaster, this was a fitting and powerful venue to convene, continue to help rebuild the community and celebrate its renaissance. The GA will provide a range of service projects that will send thousands of GA participants across the city and continue the incredible $28 million disaster relief work of Jewish Federations in response to Katrina."

Q: There have been some changes made, and more are expected in the West Wing team. From your impressions and what you probably heard of Pete Rouse - what can the Jewish community/Israel expect from these changes?

A: “As in sports, players change in politics. Our years of working with various Administrations and Congresses have taught us that well. As a result, The Jewish Federations has close connections throughout the Administration and we look forward to continuing to work with the White House and political leaders from both parties to support our goals for the Jewish community in America and abroad”.

Q: In a nutshell - what are the three biggest challenges facing the Jewish community in the U.S. during the coming year?

A: “As the needs grow in helping our worldwide communities, we are ensuring we can continue to grow our resources that will make a difference for Jews worldwide. We are also continuing creative economic recovery programs in communities like Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and New York – such as Connect to Care, which provides a range of services from aid to counseling. We are also launching a continental, strategic network to combat and counter the anti-Israel delegitimization effort, while advocating for the incredible story of Israel as America’s strongest ally in the Mideast that shares our democratic values. We are also engaging young people in Jewish life, in Jewish education, and connecting them to their Jewish family. We are also growing our Young Leadership are with innovative programs, continuing to support and grow successful identity programs like Birthright Israel, and bringing in our young leaders as the key to our future."