Four decades after he first directed the sports and recreation program at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Lenny Silberman was honored by the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame at a special ceremony in Israel. Coinciding with the 20th Maccabiah Games, Silberman, 61, received the Chairman’s Award of Excellence, an honor largely serving as a capstone to an almost 40-year career in young adult Jewish development.
In 1978, when Silberman accepted a job at the local JCC, it would have been “impossible” to imagine the impact that the Penn State graduate would have on Jewish children in the years forward, said Jeffrey Solomon, a Pittsburgh resident and lifelong friend of Silberman’s who traveled to Israel to congratulate the honoree.
“Lenny has always been about making the world a better place, especially for children, and especially for Jewish children,” Solomon told the roomful of attendees while presenting Silberman with the award.
Whether it was through telethons to support various initiatives, increased programming to strengthen parent-child bonds or merely encouraging his teams to play in a particular fashion, Silberman designed mechanisms for bringing out the best in all, Solomon said.
Seeking those results is something that Silberman still continues, even though his days in a Pittsburgh gymnasium have long since ceased.
“I always tell people who ask that I’m just a coach, and my goals were and continue to be to prepare the team to be and do the best they can, accomplish the most they can, to always try and do the right thing and be honest,” said Silberman in an email.
Such is a mindset that began “on the basketball courts, moved to camp and Maccabi staffs and finally to the
boardroom,” he noted.
Prior to serving as CEO of Henry Kaufmann Camps, a position that Silberman has held since July 2008, he worked in various capacities with the JCC Association and earlier as director of Emma Kaufmann Camp.
Representing each stop along Silberman’s professional journey were colleagues, friends and family who ventured from Pittsburgh, New York and across Israel for the special presentation. Realizing that so many people decided to attend the honor was “very emotional, overwhelming and memorable,” he said.
During the ceremony, “I had a lot of time to think and sit and reflect back on a lifetime of memories and a truly amazing career. My thoughts drifted to all of those who helped me throughout the years and how important my early experiences were at the Pittsburgh JCC and Emma Kaufmann Camp. Those experiences helped build the platform which carried me into the JCC Association, where the impact that I was able to have was not just at the local level, but now with a global impact.”
Decades earlier, when Silberman would coach basketball at the JCC, he often told his players, “Today, you’re not only representing yourselves, but your families, the JCC and the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community. Play like a champion, do your best, play hard and be respectful and understand that this is more than just a game.”
Looking back, he is not certain that the players always understood what he was saying. And in truth, he is not sure if he fully appreciated it either.
“But I surely understand it better today,” he said.
In accepting the award, it was not only “for myself,” but also for the scores of people who I have worked with, “especially those from Pittsburgh, New York and Israel.”
Added Silberman, “I’m very humbled and proud to know that I’m the only JCC professional globally to ever be recognized by the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame for their career accomplishments … not bad for a kid from Pittsburgh.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.