Greenlighting the Future of Jewish L.A.

Lynne Sturt Weintraub had a problem. It involved what she prefers to call the “chronologically gifted” members of Temple Beth Zion, where she is co-president.

“Unfortunately they’re on fixed incomes,” says Weintraub. Unable to drive, and with most of their money going to food and medical care, Beth Zion’s elderly congregants had no way of getting to shul. “There were people who would like to participate at Beth Zion,” Weintraub says, “who couldn’t.”

That’s when Weintraub remembered the Jewish Community Foundation. Every year, the Foundation — a nonprofit agency based at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ headquarters — allocates millions of dollars in grant money for special initiatives in the Jewish community.

It is a kind of local goldmine. While the process of applying for a Foundation grant can be time-consuming and exacting, once tapped, the Foundation can be a financial lifeline for an up-and-coming social services agency or a budding cultural program.

Indeed, meeting the needs of Jewish institutions has been the primary concern of the Foundation for nearly 40 years. In 1964, the Foundation was created by the Jewish Federation to serve as the charitable gift-planning agency on behalf of L.A.’s Jewish community. Currently, the Foundation is the largest central distributor for Jewish philanthropists in Southern California. In fact, the organization’s assets have tripled in size between the years 1989-98, and the Foundation presently manages 850 individual donor funds.

The Foundation’s grant money is derived from these funds — legacies established by donors during their lifetime or in a will. The philanthropical caretakers at the Foundation assist in directing these monies to specific charities and fields of interest throughout the Jewish and general communities. All Foundation donors play a role in supporting the Foundation’s community grants programs because a small percentage of the earnings from donor funds helps to subsidize them. These grants fall under five basic categories:

* Community Emergency Grants — may be accessed any time during the year to address a crisis, i.e. Kosovo and the Sacramento synagogue bombings. In 1989, the Foundation flowed $1.5 million into local infrastructures to absorb Soviet emigrés; and also provided $1 million in aid following the Northridge earthquake.

* Capital Grants — designated for capital projects usually in the $10,000-$40,000 range. Valley Torah High School recently spent $40,000 renovating their buildings on such a grant, which is executed on a biannual basis.

* New and Innovative Grants — seed money for projects that frequently require ongoing subsidies.

* Comprehensive Development Grant — for programs involving a collaborative process among several agencies. Unlike New and Innovative grants, which generally provide a year’s funding, this type of assistance blankets a 5 year period. Case in point, the Israel Experience Program, where the Jewish Federation, in conjunction with area synagogues, sends teens to Israel.

*General Community Grant — for programs outside the Jewish community (ie. Friends of Los Angeles Retarded Citizens Foundation).

Of the $782,185 total that the agency will award to 36 recipients, $553,935 will go toward 23 green-lit programs as diverse as “The Leadership Conference on Understanding the Genetics of Breast and Colon Cancer in the Jewish Community” (Hadassah); “Reggae Passover: Songs of Freedom” (Temple Beth Am); “Yom HaAtzmaut 2000: A Tapestry of Cultures Through the Arts” (Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble); “Rabbinical Internship Program” (University of Judaism); “Celebrating the New Moon: A Rosh Chodesh for Mothers and Teen Daughters” (Temple Adat Elohim); and “California Institute for Yiddish Language and Culture” (Yiddishkayt Los Angeles).

This year, $111,250 of new and innovative money will go to 13 synagogue-sponsored projects. That’s where Marsha Rothpan comes in. As assistant director for the Jewish Federation’s Council of Jewish Life, she acts as liaison among the Foundation, the Federation and the synagogues. In effect, Rothpan shepherds all synagogue candidates — from helping them devise proposals, to staffing volunteer hearing committees to whom they will pitch their idea, to distributing the approved grants. The Synagogue Funding Evaluation Committee she oversees even assists in the execution and the guidance of the programs.

“This is a perfect example of the Foundation and the Federation working together to build community,” Rothpan says. The administrator feels particularly inspired by the approved youth-based programs, like Chabad of Conejo’s “Scribes and Scrolls” classes, which, in Rothpan’s words, “bring Shabbat to life for these kids,” and “Machar,” an ambitious $10,000 project conceived by a triumvirate of congregations and designed to build bridges among Conservative, Reform and Orthodox youth. Rothpan finds such venues crucial to the healthy advancement of Jewish culture.

“When you’re young, you’re a little bit more open to learning and accepting people of other denominations, as opposed to when you’re older and already set in your ways,” Rothpan says .

Such pluralistic efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Foundation’s top brass.

“We encourage collaboration,” says Marvin I. Schotland, the Foundation’s president and CEO. “We allow philanthropists to dream and think creatively … to ask themselves, How do we do something new? How do we do something better?”

Schotland and his staff are proud of the cross-denominational ventures that they’ve helped realize, such as Teen C.L.A.L., which has since attracted financial support from the Righteous Persons Foundation for their upcoming year.

“We’re open to all of the strains of Jewish life in the community,” Schotland says. He cites some day schools they have assisted as examples of that breadth: Valley Torah Yavneh Academy, Milken High School, Herschel Day School West.

For many of the programs proposed each year, the Foundation’s assistance can be the make-or-break financing needed to get an idea off the ground. Ask Abigail Yasgur, director of the Jewish Community Library, who shopped around her concept earlier this year. The Foundation approved “One People, Many Stories” — a series of 10 half-hour specials of Jewish-themed music and stories targeting Valley-area families — which is now set to air on KCSN (88.5 FM) this Passover. Yasgur credits her Foundation grant: “This is what has enabled us to do those specials.”

For Kadima Hebrew Academy, moving forward with their “Strategic Planning for the New Millennium” did not hinge entirely on receiving Foundation funds. Nevertheless, the Woodland Hills school’s headmaster, Dr. Barbara Gherboff, is extremely appreciative of the philanthropical assist they received for an October retreat where school administrators and staff will “flesh out what we see are issues for the school in the next 10 years … In a sense [the Foundation’s grant] jump-started things for us.”

While a majority of the grants go to local Jewish causes, some are applied to initiatives outside the L.A. or Jewish parameters. Past recipients have included South American victims of Hurricane Mitch, and institutions such as Occidental College. In 1999, $87,000 will be applied to such General Community Grant candidates.

Schotland notes that the Foundation also helped launch many organizations that now thrive on their own. A decade ago, Beit T’Shuvah began with a Foundation grant. My Jewish Discovery Place also took off with the Foundation’s assistance.

This year, competition was steep since more proposals than ever were submitted. That didn’t deter Weintraub and her Temple Beth Zion staff, who hatched a program idea — “Operation Independence and Continued Existence” — to provide transportation for their senior citizen contingent. Weintraub met with two different Foundation lay committees in March and May. Despite losing an entire proposal when a computer crashed, and having two early requests denied by the committees, she persevered, and the Foundation pulled through. By July’s end, she received notification that a financial package was on the way. Thanks to the Foundation, “Operation Independence” is a go, and many of Beth Zion’s will enjoy Shabbat services, dinners, social functions and both major and minor holiday programming in the year 5760.

“A larger amount definitely would have helped more,” admits Weintraub of the $3,000 she received for “Operation Independence,” “but we also understand that they’re trying to meet the needs of a lot of synagogues. This is a start.”

The Foundation is on a mission to raise its profile outside of the Jewish community. Since late 1998, the agency has undergone a marketing overhaul, redesigning its logo and running new ad campaigns in the Southern California editions of the Wall Street Journal and Business Week, and the Los Angeles Times.

But even as the Foundation reaches into the general domain, Foundation benefactors and beneficiaries alike recognize that the institution’s roots will always stay firmly planted in the Jewish community.

“We more than appreciate … the fact that the Jewish Foundation exists,” Weintraub says. “We’re all working for the same thing, for the betterment and the survival of the Jewish community.”

For more information, contact the Foundation at (323) 761-8700; or by e-mail: