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November 14, 2012 10:06 am
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Jewish Federations of North America CEO on Sandy, Iran and Young Leadership (INTERVIEW)

avatar by Jacob Kamaras / JNS.org

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Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. Photo: JFNA.

BALTIMORE—The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) set a theme of “Where the Jewish community downloads/uploads/shares” for its 2012 General Assembly well in advance. Then Hurricane Sandy came along and ravaged the East Coast, making the theme that much more relevant.

“The uploads, the downloads, the connection—to me it’s all around the concept of connecting and building community, and making sure that you have the platform to be able to do that,” Jerry Silverman, JFNA’s president and CEO, told JNS.org on Monday morning in Baltimore. “So, whether it’s technology, whether it’s agencies, whether it’s the ability to reach out and have the platform in place to make a difference, [that] is the message, and to be able to collectively come together within a nanosecond of the hurricane hitting.”

Silverman discussed the Federations system’s Sandy recovery efforts, the Iranian nuclear threat, and more in the following exclusive interview.

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What was your main takeaway from Hurricane Sandy?

“I think what’s really clear is our Federations are really based on the model where we support and our Federations support critical agencies that support chessed, that support work on the ground every day, that when a Sandy takes place, the ability because we have the structure in place to ramp up within a moment’s notice, and to do so and to be able to assess and get whatever the resources are needed to the people that really are desperate is truly amazing, and it’s part of what the collective model of Federations are about. So, we respond every day to needs, and because of this model, the ability to just accelerate it is so much easier, we’re not starting from scratch. And that truly is one of the secrets of success, I believe, of Federations, in being able to do so.

“The work of the Federations in New York City, and upstate New York, and southern Connecticut, and New Jersey, and their response time… within 24-48 hours, they were literally on the ground, making a difference and meeting needs.”

How did GA organizers manage to put together the program amid the hurricane, and did Sandy add any significance to the GA itself?

“I think there’s a lot of added significance. When Sandy happened, our offices, being in Battery Park [in Manhattan], were completely shut down, our systems were shut down, and within 24 hours our GA team had already figured out workarounds, even if they were sitting in coffee shops to get Internet access. And we had outpouring from Federations to say, ‘How can we help, how can we provide service?’ The Baltimore [Federation], The Associated, jumped in and said, ‘What do you need as far as infrastructure to be able to copy things, to do things, how can we open our doors to be supportive?’

“We were in the [JFNA] office for basically a week with no heat, and no phones, and people were walking around the office with scarves, and coats, and gloves—but they were there because they understood the significance of the GA and bringing the Jewish people together. And that was something that they were passionately committed to, and they put that ahead of their own discomfort, and it truly is a testament to spirit and resiliency.”

What role does the Federation system and its Israel Action network play in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat?

“Our Israel office and our arm in Israel has been part of the emergency preparedness team in Israel involved in the whole preparedness aspect that’s going on. In Israel, what could be contingency and just normal operations to be prepared. They’ve been actively involved for almost two years within the process and go through scenario planning, and are involved with the government. In North America, as we have for any emergency, and especially Iran, we are ensuring that we have our emergency preparedness processes, operation, playbooks, scenarios in place, and it’s not just going to be about fundraising. It’s about the messaging, that the Iran issue is I think much broader than an Israel issue, it’s truly a world issue.

“And that’s where the Israel Action Network I think will come into play in a big way, is to ensure that they help proactively with the messaging around the threat, and who is the threat for—it’s really a threat for humankind.

“We have ramped up and taken in the Security Community Network, who I think has the closes relationship with the Department of Homeland Security of any faith-based organization. Recently, we were in Washington, hosting a series of dialogue and discussions and exercises around the type of security issues that also come into play with these kinds of threats to our Jewish community, specifically to make sure that we are prepared from a security sense here… and we just want to be prepared always. And I think in today’s times, when we’re dealing with such unpredictability across the world, that Federations really have to make sure we’re nimble and more prepared.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has made Cuban prisoner Alan Gross, a Maryland native jailed for bringing that country’s Jewish community Internet access, a top priority. What role does JFNA play in that case?

“As we did in Denver [at last year’s GA], we invited Alan’s wife [Judy], who came and made a very public plea on the stage of our plenary for his release. And there is work in support of what the Washington Federation and the JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council) of Washington is doing on his behalf, [work] that we’re doing in conjunction with them based on their guidance. This is obviously a complex and sensitive issue, so we’re following guidance of our Washington public policy office on this, to do this right, to get out in front of it, and to try to do something.”

Jewish organizations ask themselves every year—’How can we better engage young leaders?’ What future direction will JFNA take in this area?

“I spoke to the University of Maryland Hillel group [Sunday night], and there were about 40 or 50 young people, and I speak to Hillel groups every GA. And what I see in the coming years is [that] we have to change the question. As they said to me, ‘You’re asking the wrong question, because we’re sitting in the audience, and you’re talking about us like we’re not even there, and what we need to do is be part of the solution, we need to be at the tables.’ And I think the more that we can create this dialogue about engagement, about involvement, about sharing and educating and learning together, with all consumer segments and all consumer age groups, and do it at tables together, I think the question may go away. I think we keep talking about this issue, and I think that the solution is really inviting and engaging and including all age groups at the table to have the discussion, because I think we may learn a lot.”

“We are blessed in Federations to have a group called Young Leadership Cabinet, and this cabinet group I think is going to really enable us to take a lead and to use them as fabulous young adult leaders, to shift the dialogue to a new place.”

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