JFNA chief brings retail lessons to Tucson

Jerry Silverman, right, president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, with Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, and Carol Karsch, executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. “Jerry brings the future into every conversation about the present,” says Mellan.

“Change is the new normal and we need to embrace that concept,” Jewish Federations of North America president and CEO Jerry Silverman told a Tucson audience on Sept. 15.

Making one of the dozens of community visits he’s become known for since taking the JFNA helm in September 2009, Silverman spoke to the boards of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the Jewish Community Foundation. His nomadic bent, he says, comes from 25 years in retail (at Levi Strauss and Stride Rite), where he found “you learn a heck of a lot more when you’re in the malls and you’re in the stores than when you are sitting in your office.”

“We are absolutely in warp speed today,” says Silverman, citing the next generation of young adults — like his own children — whose exposure “technologically, from a media standpoint … from an intellectual point of view, is so much different from what we were exposed to as young people.”

Community leaders, he says, must ask themselves, “What does Tucson, from a Jewish community standpoint, look like in 2020?”

Silverman, who headed the Foundation for Jewish Camp from 2004 to 2009, believes that “if you build it they will come,” while cautioning that any strategic plan should be revised in five years.

At JFNA, he says, leaders are framing their discussions around five areas:

• Collective responsibility — historically, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Operation Exodus, which resettled a million Soviet Jews in Israel and North America, and today, taking stands in partnership with other organizations on such issues as the conversion bill in Israel and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that threatens Israel’s legitimacy;

• Repositioning, allowing the next generation to “own” the Jewish community by creating more warm and welcoming portals;

• Financial resource development, nationally and in communities, going after more dollars from the top Jewish philanthropists, who give 80 percent to non-Jewish causes;

• Talent recruitment and development, since 50 percent of Jewish agency executives and 75 percent of Federation executives will turn over in the next 10 years; and

• Global agenda, thinking of ourselves as one Jewish people. Silverman spoke of visiting Hungary this summer (see related story, page 1), where some Szarvas campers may literally learn for the first time that they are Jewish, and yet go on to become leaders in Eastern European Jewish communities.

Jews today, says Silverman, have been given a gift and a miracle — the gift of Torah, which conveys the values we must weave into everything we do, and the miracle of Israel, which gives us the responsibility “to make certain that that umbilical cord that ties us to the Jewish State remains strong as we move from generation to generation.”

In a question and answer session after his talk, Silverman gave examples of portals for Jewish engagement, including PresenTense, a mostly volunteer group started in Israel to foster innovative Jewish projects among people in their 20s and 30s, which has since spread to the United States; and Moishe House, where post-college age Jews in 32 cities in North America and around the world get subsidized rent in exchange for planning events for other young Jews.

Silverman suggests that the economic challenges of the past few years “have opened the window of opportunity for us to think differently.”

“I truly believe we have yet to see the best of times in the Jewish Diaspora,” he says.