Over four decades, Lenny Silberman carved out a career in JCCs, eventually coming to work for JCC Association, where he made a national impact through his work on JCC Maccabi®. Today he continues to make a difference as chief executive officer of the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds in Pearl River. His goal was to make a difference for kids, and he most certainly did. What he never imagined was how they, and the JCC Movement, would leave their mark on him.
To learn more about the Games, visit JCCMaccabi.org.
Lenny Silberman likes to tell the one about the time he took the Pittsburgh JCC’s basketball team to a regional game in Columbus, Ohio. The year was 1985, and “his boys” took gold. There was a track meet after the competition and Lenny told them they were going to participate.
There was a lot of grumbling about taking part in a mile run. “But there was a different way to communicate with kids then,” Silberman says. “It was simple: You’re going to run.”
Freddy Rabner, a fine athlete but in Silberman’s words, “a pain in the tush,” was winning. And then, “the next thing I know, he kneels down to tie his shoe. Who does that? Run, Freddy, run!”
But Freddy was taking his time. Everyone passed him, except one kid. “And there goes Freddy again,” Silberman says, animated. You can hear the memory of his frustration with Freddy, and something else. Maybe pride. But we’re not there yet.
“I’m not paying attention and here goes Freddy again, kneels, ties the other shoe. The kid behind him catches up, and they run in together. “
That other kid, Silberman says, had special needs in an era where no one was really paying attention to that. But Freddy was.
“He told me he didn’t want him to run in alone,” says Silberman. “That sticks out in my head over all. “
Rabner doesn’t remember the day with as much detail. But he remembers Silberman with awe and respect. As a coach, mentor and lifelong friend, Silberman taught him what it means to persevere, to be part of a team and about setting goals and achieving them.
“He also taught us that you have respect and honor,” says Rabner, today a personal injury lawyer in Pittsburgh. “You treat the other team with respect by playing hard and handling yourself with decorum. You treat the referees with respect, you treat each other with respect, by picking each other up and cheering for one another.”
In many ways, Silberman was Rabner’s own personal cheerleader. He was one of three children that his mother raised alone while his father struggled with addiction.
“I found myself at the JCC every day out of necessity,” says Rabner, who has known Silberman since he was a camper at Camp J & R and Silberman was his counselor. When Rabner started getting Ds on his report card in fourth grade, Silberman made him bring the report cards to him.
“I started doing better. I never wanted to let him down, he was my coach, my main man,” says Rabner.
Silberman’s entire career has taken place within the JCC Movement. He started as that camp counselor, but moved on to a fulltime position in 1978. Nine years later, he became director of the Emma Kaufmann Camp, rescuing the JCC’s overnight camp which was then on the verge of closing.
“If you’re between the ages of 40 and 46 and you grew up in Pittsburgh and you’re Jewish, the question is, how do you not know Lenny,” says Jeff Solomon, who remembers Silberman trying to convince him to come on board to save the camp. Silberman was hired in May, with very few staff in place and camp set to open in a month.
“I wasn’t interested. It was the summer between my junior and senior year in college, and I was going to be in New York,” recalls Solomon. Then a friend told him he was crazy. He had all his life to be in New York—but this was camp!
Solomon called Silberman from Manhattan and drove straight to his home in Pittsburgh, where Silberman hired him as the camp’s program director. And then Silberman did what few adults do.
“He asked why I thought we were in this pickle,” with dwindling enrollment and no staff, Solomon says. “I said, ‘Because camp wasn’t fun for me as a staff member.’”
Silberman listened and gave Solomon enormous latitude to create that fun experience for the staff. The camp, located in Morgantown, West Virginia, is going strong today, heading into its 99th year of operation.
“It was the best summer of my life,” says Solomon, who is president of the Cowen Group, a diversified financial services company, and CEO of Cowen and Company, both in New York. “I’ve always been the program director, I just didn’t know it until Lenny Silberman gave me the chance to do it. I learned that people are engaged in the art of work, not the drudgery. Lenny gave me the chance to find this out.”
Solomon’s “Emma Kaufmann Camp story” doesn’t end there. As he tells it, he says that he “will try not to cry,” and he almost succeeds.
If the camp had not been saved, Solomon’s family might look a lot different. His brother met his wife there, and Solomon considers his niece and nephew the products of Emma Kaufmann. “I look at the faces of my own children—they have been campers or staff and so much of who they are is a function of what they learned at that camp.”
“The experience is the same for my wife,” he said, who went to the camp and who as a teen, taught Silberman a thing or two about his JCC “boys” club when he teased her about her wanting one of the basketballs in a gym full of the guys hogging them. But Silberman took note, and started a girl’s basketball team a year later, with Linda Solomon on it.
In 1994, JCC Association came looking for Silberman. The organization wanted him to serve as the camping consultant, the athletic consultant, and as the director to run the JCC Maccabi Games®. The Games is the largest Jewish teen sports gathering in North America, and teens come from around the world to compete. Silberman considers his work with the Games some of the most important he has done, and how concepts that originated with the Games have stood the test of time.
One of which he is most proud is making a tribute to the eleven Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics an essential part of each JCC Maccabi® opening ceremony. He met with Ankie Spitzer, the widow of murdered fencing coach Andrei Spitzer, with the assistance of Richie Juran, then director of JCC Association’s Israel Center in Jerusalem and was able to convince her of the importance of being part of the Games. With her blessing it did.
A highlight came in 2004, when the JCC of Greater Washington hosted the Games. Anouk Spitzer, Ankie and Andrei’s daughter, met Jim McKay, the ABC sports anchor who is remembered for his solemn and dignified reporting of the 1972 crisis.
Silberman also is proud of creating mixed teams that incorporate teens from different delegations if there aren’t enough from their own to make a complete team for a sport. “It allowed them to play,” he says, matter-of-factly.
He created the continental governing body for the Games following the summer of 1996, allowing the six host communities from the ’96 and ’97 Games to get together, according to Vicki Roitman, the chief operating officer at the Mandel JCC in Palm Beaches, who was at that first meeting.
She had been the games director for the Kansas City JCC that year. Silberman not only helped her put together her Games, but has since helped her in her career, encouraging her to reach her potential. Her last two of three positions, she says she got with his influence. “He pushed me and put me in positions that helped others see me as a leader,” she says. “He believed in women in leadership positions. He helped me to design a plan to provide leadership for women in sports and fitness management. It was kind of rare.”
Things like preferred vendors for JCCs were ideas that Silberman brought in, so that JCCs would benefit when looking for new fitness equipment. Having JCC employees attend Disney University, the famed-theme park’s leadership training program, was another stroke of genius, she says.
Signature pieces of the Games—such as the Rachmanus rule, in which athletes abide by rules of fair play and compassion, the Days of Caring and Sharing (now JCC Cares), in which athletes take time from their competitions during the week of the Games and participate in service projects to give back to their host community, and Hang Time, where athletes spend downtime with Israeli shlichim, or emissaries—were all part of Silberman’s vision to make the Games into something greater than sports.
“He has this great vision and his personality and passion brings you on board,” Roitman says.
Finding his calling at the J
That passion has led Silberman, who today is the chief executive officer of the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds in Pearl River—which serves 14 JCCs and YM-YWHAs in New York—to create meaningful partnerships for the JCC Movement, such as those with the Orde Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sport in Israel and the Israel Sport Center for the Disabled, for which he has raised funds for a new fitness facility.
He was honored by the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2012, and received the National Sports Administrator of the Year in Hershey’s STRIVE National Administrator of the Year Award in 2005, and in summer 2017, he will be honored by the International Jewish Hall of Fame for his lifetime achievement.
For someone who was supposed to go into the family business, a kosher bakery in Pittsburgh, Silberman has carved out an impressive and rewarding career giving his all to the kids and causes he cares about.
“I was the only child and thought I’d go into the bakery,” Silberman says. “I realized that I liked the bakery, but I didn’t love it. I loved working with kids and sports.”
Working on a kibbutz in Israel for six months in 1976 made him realize the bakery was not for him. “I needed to make my own name.”
And indeed he has. He once told a boss, Buddy Sapolsky, the former executive director of the JCC of Greater Baltimore, that a program would die if he no longer ran it. Sapolsky responded that it wasn’t a very good program if it relied on one person for its legs. Silberman took the lesson to heart, creating programs that have outlived his presence at an organization, and devoting his career to making a difference, “not only for the current generation, but for the next generation and in some cases, the one after,” he says.
In 2017, the JCC Maccabi Games® celebrate their 35th year. The program continues to attract more than 3,000 teens annually to three different host communities. Over that time, it has begat JCC Maccabi ArtsFest®, an intensive teen arts workshop and showcase, that runs along with one set of Games each year, and JCC Maccabi Israel®, a teen travel program. They were built to capitalize on the success Silberman created through the Games.
“When people ask me, I say, ‘I’m just a coach.’ And my successes have all been through my ability to build successful teams of professionals and lay leaders, that’s who I am.”
When the Israel Sport Center for the Disabled honored Silberman in 2006 and in the tribute video a little girl in a wheelchair says to the camera, “I love you Lenny.” Silberman finds this a particularly meaningful tribute.
“She was eight then. Do you know where she is today? She’s at the Olympics, in Rio! She’s an internationally ranked table tennis player!”
And you can feel his awe and excitement over this. In his heart, Lenny Silberman knows he has made a difference for the next generation.