Inside the mind of Andres Spokoiny

As president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network (JFN), Andres Spokoiny offers guidance and advice regarding the expenditure of billions of Jewish philanthropic dollars. Based in New York, the Argentinian-born Spokoiny helps shape the philanthropic visions of more than 1,500 funders from the U.S., Israel and Europe. Before joining JFN, he served as the CEO of Federation CJA in Montreal and lived in Paris for 12 years as Northwest Europe’s regional director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). He talked to the Journal recently about why he dropped out of rabbinical school, the role of philosophy in philanthropy and the biggest crisis facing the Jewish world.

Jewish Journal: What was it like growing up as a Jew in Argentina?

Andres Spokoiny: My mom raised me and my brother on her own, at a time when it was very hard to be a single mom, during the military government in Argentina, during the junta, in a very secular, very Zionist, culturally Jewish home. I went to a Zionist socialist Jewish day school and grew up with pictures of [Haim Nahman] Bialik and [David] Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir on the wall. The Jewish community became a refuge for me, both in terms of being able to express a lot of things that were forbidden in the general society, and having a refuge from the ugliness that was all around. It was a very repressive society and the Jewish community was made of havens of freedom and openness and warmth. There was nothing religious about it; it was just the feeling of being part of something, some transcendental sense of belonging that was very meaningful. 

JJ: Your biography includes seven years in rabbinical school, though you were never ordained. What drew you to that path?

AS: I fell in love with the learning itself, with the act of wrestling with the text. When [people] think of Judaism as a closed and dogmatic thing, nothing is more alien to my own experience. In my experience, Judaism was exactly the opposite: The society [in which I lived] was closed, dogmatic, repressive. But in Judaism, you could read a text and have total freedom to interpret it in any way you want. And in those years, there was an American rabbi called Marshall Meyer, who was extremely committed to the human rights movement, and he made a point of saying, ‘I’m fighting for this because I’m a rabbi, and I’m fighting for this because I am Jewish,’ and that left a very, very strong mark on me. 

JJ: Why did you ultimately decide not to pursue the rabbinate?

AS: I never fully adopted a totally observant life. I was in it much more for the search to know — and the more you know, the more you want to know — than for the willingness to actually become a religious leader. I also thought I could contribute a lot to the Jewish people without becoming a rabbi.

JJ: How did that experience change you?

AS: What I got out of it was a deep understanding of the plurality and richness of traditional Judaism. And the sense of mystery, of transcendental belief, of feeling yourself connected with a long chain. It’s a way of coping with mortality, I guess. 

JJ: You have a little bit of the philosopher-poet in you, which makes you something of an anomaly in the Jewish nonprofit world. Do you ever feel like a fish out of water?

AS: I think reflection and ideas in the Jewish world today are devalued. We’re extremely focused on programs and on rapid fixes to social problems, and we’re good at it. We come up with really creative programs. But we’re not so good at dealing with the underlying causes of the problems we’re trying to solve. And philanthropy is about solving problems. So I make a point of elevating the conversation and including these more thoughtful elements in the communal discourse, because if we don’t tackle the quest for meaning in the Jewish world, at some point all of our programs are going to run out of steam. 

JJ: What are the biggest mistakes Jewish philanthropists make?

AS: They don’t fund enough capacity building. They are very afraid of overhead, and that’s extremely problematic because we’re starving Jewish nonprofits of the capacity they need to operate. And it’s an obsession we have, by the way, only when it comes to nonprofits: When I go to Starbucks, I don’t tell them, ‘Deduct 50 cents, because I don’t want to pay for your rent.’ The second mistake [funders make] is that they try to go at it alone. Even Bill Gates, with the billions of dollars he gives away, partners up with other people. Networking and collaboration is critical if you want to really move the needle. Another one is that philanthropy doesn’t have any built-in feedback mechanism. If you have a business and you’re bad at it, you go bankrupt. If you are a grant-maker and you make a bad grant, what happens? You get a gala in your honor. No one tells funders the truth. They need their money. They’re intimidated. 

JJ: What are the biggest problem areas the Jewish community needs to address internally?

AS: If you woke me up in the middle of the night and you asked me what the biggest problem is, I would tell you polarization — the radicalization of positions and the decadence of the civil discourse in the Jewish community. This is a serious problem because it’s part of the American political culture today. But I also think that we’ve been making a mistake by focusing on separate age groups and thinking that one specific age group is the critical one. We have to provide avenues for Jewish engagement for every age group and see Jewish life as a journey and make sure that every stop of that journey is catered to. And pluralism is critical, too: In Israel, we have big challenges between the Arab population and the ultra-Orthodox population, and that’s a ticking bomb that we have to address.

JJ: You’ve said JFN does not set philanthropic agendas. But I wonder how you utilize your own wisdom and vision and observation without establishing certain priorities?

AS: That’s a very delicate tune that I have to dance with, because I have to balance top-down with bottom-up. When I have an intuition or data that an issue is critical, I do put issues on the table when I think something deserves to be looked at by the philanthropic community, but I’m not going to make that issue one in which JFN is going to advocate to the detriment of others. 

JJ: Does it ever frustrate you that you can’t exercise more power?

AS: Sometimes, yes. But sometimes, the more you know, the more humble you become. The trends facing this community are so complex that I may be wrong. The fact that I say things with a lot of authority doesn’t make them right. So I’m very careful. The beauty of JFN is that I don’t need to put the [whole] network behind a single issue. You know the Greek fable about the hedgehog and the fox? The hedgehog knows one big thing, and the fox knows a lot of little things; I prefer a network of foxes than one of hedgehogs.

JJ: If you had $100 million to spend however you wanted — philanthropically, of course — what would you do?

AS: In the Jewish world, there are several issues that need an influx of capital and thinking. One is the issue of Jewish affordability. If you’re below the poverty line, you are eligible for all sorts of things. If you are rich, you don’t have a problem. But if you’re in the middle, that’s when you struggle to pay day-school tuition or synagogue membership or summer camp or what have you. If we could find a way of closing that circle, that would be great.