Before making his mark in the Jewish world by raising millions for summer camping, Jerry Silverman made his mark in the business world by selling blue jeans and sneakers. He’s now adapting those marketing smarts to one of the toughest sells in Jewish communal life — rescuing the federation system from irrelevancy.
So, it’s no surprise that as he rolls out a new name and logo for his new organization, Silverman speaks in the mother tongue of marketing. The decision to transform United Jewish Communities to The Jewish Federations of North America, he said, was intended to create “a stronger, cohesive brand” for the umbrella organization that represents 157 restless, disparate local federations. Silverman refers to those federations as “consumers” who need “added value” and “empowerment.”
Whatever you think of the lingo, he’s onto something. In the decade since three national Jewish organizations merged to form UJC, donations and loyalty have tumbled, and that was before the full effect of the economic meltdown and the Madoff scandal even registered. By thoughtlessly discarding the “federation” moniker in favor of yet another communal acronym, the UJC distanced itself from the very institutions it was designed to serve.
Silverman was appointed president and CEO of this new mega-federation only five weeks ago, but he seems to intuitively grasp what is urgently needed: a stronger, tighter, more responsive and transparent network of Jewish charitable agencies that can prove their relevance and attract a younger generation of donors and participants.
If this name change is only about branding and public presentation, it will, of course, fail. Americans are savvy consumers; they know when the cheap smoked salmon is dressed up as fancy Nova. The challenges facing this new organization, whatever it’s called, are immense. But Silverman deserves the chance to prove that this transformation is not in name only.