Failed Joshua Venture’s Serious Failings


 

Now that it has been “formally put to death and buried,” as one of its grantees told me, I feel free to speak out about the Joshua Venture, a supposed breakthrough organization, subsidizing the ideas of nonprofit professionals who will be leading the next generation of Jewish life.

I don’t know the intricacies of what happened that brought it to its final demise. I don’t even know all the details of how it worked when it was alive. I do know that when I dealt with its 14 20-30-something-aged grantees last year, it was the worst professional experience I have had since my company, Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes, began servicing the Jewish and nonprofit world.

The purpose of the Joshua Venture is something like this:

It was founded by several foundations in Jewish life to enable young social entrepreneurs (that means nonprofit start-ups) to receive funding and two-years of support, seminars, tools (that means training), mentoring and advice.

What I found out it basically meant is that they chose a group of creative and brilliant young Jews, many whom were committed to building edgy nonprofits in the Jewish world, who were coddled, handed monetary support on a silver platter, catered to, spoiled and allowed to believe that they were privileged and beyond socially acceptable behavioral norms.

I learned these realities the hard way. Initially, I was impressed and excited to be working with the grantees of the Joshua Venture. I already knew some of them. Several were great young people doing extraordinary new work in Jewish life.

There was the founder of J-Dub Records, bringing a new, hip style of Jewish music touching the lives of thousands of young, uninvolved Jews, opening a door for them into a Judaism from which they felt distant and alienated.

There was the founder of the Ayecha Resource Organization, an organization promoting the diversity of Jewish life, founded by a firebrand young Jewish woman who was a proud African American.

There was Sharsheret, supporting the needs of young, Jewish women dealing with breast cancer, founded by a young cancer survivor.

There were performance artists, filmmakers, political activists, intellectuals and others, forming an eclectic mix of dynamic personalities, committed to building their generation’s idea of a new Jewish world.

Joshua Ventures had contacted me about being one of their mentors. They asked if I could plan a full-day seminar for their grantees, teaching them the principles of marketing their causes for funding, advocacy and participation.

I was so excited to work with these people and help them further their ideas that I required my entire staff of 14 people to attend the seminar, positioning them to work as one-on-one mentors with each of the grantees. We prepared for weeks, working way beyond the hours for which Joshua Ventures was paying. I was happy to give the cause our time and a full day of 14 extraordinary professionals.

We arrived that morning to the seminar pumped up and ready to dive in with the grantees. I was prepared to work with them until midnight, if need be.

After an introduction from their professional, I stood up to convey our excitement at being with them and laid out the day’s schedule. Next, the head of our account service team, took the floor to begin the first part of the morning’s program.

He was just a few minutes into his presentation, when I noticed there was a buzz among the grantees. One young woman stands and says to me, “We believe your company is gender challenged. So far, we have heard from you and then another man. Why aren’t the women presenting?”

Not yet clued in, I nicely explained that there would be many women presenting, but that the way it worked out, the first two presentations were from men.

We continued, and then there was another buzz and interruption.

“We don’t like your methodology of presenting, as if you and your company are the center of knowledge. Your presentation model is outdated. You should be asking us what we know and then basing your presentation around our knowledge.”

I stopped and looked at their professional and their lay leader. Neither said a word. I waited to see if any of the other grantees would open their mouths to balance the critics. None did.

At the break, their professional informed me that the grantees tended to “eat up each professional that presented to them.” She further explained that this was par for the course.

(Today, as I recall this story, it reminds me of the report by Michael Jackson’s housekeeper telling the press how the kids at Neverland were allowed to run amok, without any supervision.)

The criticisms continued to fly. Finally, having reached my limit, I told them how excited we were to work with them, but as I listened to them, I was concerned about the values and behavior of the community they wanted to build. I then said that I believed through the grants they received that they had been empowered by the program and that they misconstrued this empowerment to feel entitled.

“You are taking away our safe space,” I was told by one of the grantees. “We’re supposed to be given safe space.”

As professionals, we stupidly continued to work with them through the entire day. We should have left. I should have publicly ripped up their check as a closing ceremony.

About two months later, I received a phone call from the professional, offering me a too-late and very weak apology. None of the funders, who had all heard about this fiasco, all of with whom I have worked very well over the years, ever called to ask about the experience.

The Joshua Venture raises many questions. There are numerous other programs in Jewish life, which are also handing the world on a silver platter to a new generation of Jews. The funders and their advisers have determined that free trips, free conferences, free hotel rooms, in addition to scholarships, fellowships, meetings with the rich and famous, study sessions with the brilliant, along with the awarding of cash, prizes and other untold privileges, not to mention the very deliberate creation of a new, selected elite class, are the methodology to perpetuate a vibrant and meaningful Jewish world.

And they may very well be right. But, several years into this new culture of privileged perpetuation, the late Joshua Venture is showing us that the methodology is also creating a sense of entitlement that is growing out of control.

I don’t believe that the programs should stop. But I do believe they must include some courses or sessions on values and humility, while demanding that the participants carry certain levels of responsibility. They must also include codes of conduct and expectations of gratitude, as well as an understanding that their participation does not place them above the community — or above amcha — the people.

The foundations of the Jewish world that fund these programs have stepped up to the plate to infuse Jewish life with a vibrancy and relevancy in a way the Jewish world has never worked before. They are to be thanked and praised.

But as they pursue the evaluations of their funding — as they all do, they must also question whether or not there is a critical issue of respect missing from the programs they are creating.

Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes based in Los Angeles.

 

Hess Kramer Turns 50


It has been a training ground for hundreds of Jewish professionals, and it has caused Shabbat candles to glow in countless homes.

This summer, Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu turns 50, and its birthday party on June 2 is a celebration not just of a specific collection of facilities in an attractive, natural setting, but of camp, as one former camp director put it, as “the place where Judaism comes alive.”

Over the years, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s two retreats, Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp, one nestled against Pacific Coast Highway just over the Ventura County line and the other perched 750 feet above it, have become established as the Reform movement’s flagship camps in Southern California. Together they welcome more than 1,100 children and teenagers each summer.

Even as the sites have added amenities and activities, campers and counselors from disparate decades describe camp traditions, worship rituals and patterns of friendship and belonging that have remained constant over the years.

“The camp is rooted in my soul,” said Gary Hoffman, 50, a Kramer alumnus whose father worked at the camp and whose teenage son has attended for several summers. “Camp is a place I can go in my head when I’m feeling down.”

The engine behind Camp Hess Kramer was Rabbi Alfred Wolf, who joined the Wilshire Boulevard Temple staff in 1949. Wolf, brought to the United States by Hebrew Union College in 1935, had been a Jewish youth leader in his native Germany, and he enlisted the support of Wilshire Boulevard’s brotherhood for a camping venture.

Wolf was “the Pied Piper for the first generation of kids who went to Reform camps,” said Steve Breuer, who became Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s executive director in 1980 after three decades of camp involvement, including 18 seasons as camp director.

Breuer was one of the teenagers Wolf brought to the temple’s first experiment in camping in 1950, in space rented from a Presbyterian campground in Pacific Palisades. The following year, the temple acquired the current camp site.

Cosmetics distributor Harry Mier donated the funds to buy the land on condition that the camp be named in memory of his lifelong friend, Haskell W. “Hess” Kramer, a West Coast Reform movement leader. Camp Hess Kramer opened in June 1952; campers helped landscape, build the chapel and clear rocks from the ball field that first summer.

Gindling Hilltop Camp opened in 1968 in response to increasing demand for places at Hess Kramer. It was named for builder Albert Gindling, who provided several of the facilities built at Hess Kramer during the ’50s and ’60s.

Many Reform rabbis serving Los Angeles-area congregations and institutions attended the camps or worked there, going back as far as 1953, when Sanford Ragins, now senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, was a counselor after his freshman year at UCLA. Harvey Fields, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s senior rabbi, signed his first contract with the temple as Hess Kramer’s program director in 1955, when he was a rabbinical student.

Breuer told The Journal that the camps have adapted their programming to reflect changing trends in children’s interests and activities. Under his direction in the ’60s and ’70s, there was more emphasis on creative arts: music, crafts, drama. The current director, Howard Kaplan, who took over in 1995, has expanded the sports program, adding a climbing wall and a ROPES course and introducing options for “adventure experiences,” such as ocean kayaking, scuba diving, surfing and mountain biking.

However, many of Hess Kramer’s traditions stretch back decades. Youngsters still aspire to wear the red jacket that marks a senior counselor. “I still have my red jacket,” said Loren Naiman, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who attended Hess Kramer in the ’60s and taught archery there as a young adult.

“Chief Texaco,” named for the gas station across the street from the camp entrance, still lights the Saturday night campfire. Campers are still singing melodies written by Chuck Feldman, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s emeritus music director, who started working with Hess Kramer in 1956.

Kramerites from the ’50s to the present describe the magic of Friday evenings at the camp: everyone dressed in white; cabin after cabin joining a procession to the chapel behind the camp administrators and a guitar-strumming song leader; after services, a communal Shabbat dinner, followed by community singing and Israeli dancing.

Almost 30 years later, Tobi Purvin, an El Paso teacher who spent a summer as a Hess Kramer counselor, remembered those Shabbats. “I loved the singing,” she said. “The roof would rise right off the building.”

The purpose of Jewish camping, of course, is to strengthen and sometimes to implant Jewish identity and love for Judaism in children and teens, and by all reports, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps are resoundingly successful.

Although Hoffman said one of his fondest memories at Hess Kramer was “secretly holding hands with girls at the campfire,” he also appreciated the more serious aspects of the camp — although it wasn’t cool to say so at the time.

“I looked forward to the religious things: sitting quietly at services, discussions with the rabbis,” said Hoffman, who was a camper through most of the ’60s and went on to become a counselor and a staff doctor. “You’d be laughed out of camp if you admitted you liked it, but a lot of us did.”

Naiman remembered a Saturday morning when Breuer announced to campers that services had been cancelled because the man who held the deed to the land had pointed out a clause prohibiting the holding of worship services on the premises. “The level of anger was amazing,” Naiman said. “Kids who would have paid not to go to services came forward with ideas for confronting the situation.”

The prohibition, of course, was a ruse Breuer had cooked up to make the campers realize how important their worship was. “By suddenly being deprived of the right to have our tradition … it was as if a machine had been cranked into service,” Naiman said.

Being in a completely Jewish environment was and is especially meaningful to youngsters who don’t live in places like Calabasas or the Westside.

“When you’re at school, there are not a lot of Jewish people,” said Jessica Axelrad, 16, a 10th-grader from Upland who has spent several summer sessions and weekend retreats in Malibu. “I’m closer to the friends I make at camp than those I make at school.”

“It was great to have all these other Jewish kids around you,” said Ross Fruithandler, 40, an El Paso dentist who grew up in that city and spent 12 summers at the camps. His rabbi had been a Kramerite and inspired congregants to send their kids. “There were years when we had 18, 19, 20 kids on the plane going there,” Fruithandler said.

Even for campers who do live in Jewish communities, the camps provide a release from the pressure of school and the everydayness of home. “It’s been like an escape to a fantasyland after school with all its stress,” said Jessica Tuck, an 11th-grader at Calabasas High School who will spend her ninth session at Hess Kramer this summer. “It’s being with people you love, people who are just like you.”

Current campers call the counselors “cool” (“It seems like the counselors know everything,” one ninth-grader said), and adults recognize the caliber of the young people hired to work with the children. Kramerites “have wonderful Jewish role models, college-age young people who are comfortable in their own Jewish skins,” Breuer said.

The camp experience shaped Ragins’ decision to become a rabbi. “I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but when I traced back the roots, it was clear that camp had influenced me in that direction,” he said.

With its 24/7 Jewish atmosphere and fusion of Judaism with peers and fun, Jewish camping accomplishes what even the best religious school can’t, according to many observers. “I went to religious school from second grade, and I don’t think it sealed my identity the way camp did,” said Rebecca Sills, 33, a veteran Kramer camper and staffer who recently became assistant director. “Camp was the thing that brought it all together.”

“Camp brought me back to Judaism,” said Purvin, who told The Journal she “hated being Jewish” as a college student. “You felt like you were attached; you felt like you were part of something.”

It also brought regular Jewish observance into hundreds of Reform homes as kids brought home rituals learned at camp. “[Parents] now do Shabbat at home because of their kids’ camp experience,” Kaplan said. “I think parents appreciate that camp gave this to their kids.”

Even beyond the Jewish aspects, the camps have salutary effects. “Camp was a place where you could find your niche and find a way to be special,” said Naiman, whose daughter attends Kramer now. Children who were good at art were remembered for their artwork, he said, and song leaders for their music.

“You came back more sure of yourself, more mature, more confident,” Fruithandler said. Rebecca Sills, who spent time as a teacher and in the garment industry, said that working at camp shaped her progress “from teen to young adult to full-fledged adult…. It doesn’t look as good on a resume, but the life lessons I learned are invaluable.”

Kaplan expects about 1,000 of the camps’ alumni, who number at least 20,000, to attend the birthday celebration June 2. Given the hundreds of lifelong friendships forged in Malibu and the attachments sustained over the years, Kaplan may want to lay in a few extra hot dogs.

Hoffman can’t wait for the reunion. “There’s something there that seems to transcend the natural world,” he said. “It became magical; it was a magical time, and it took Judaism with it up to that magical level.”

That passionate connection, Breuer indicated, is one of the things that’s remained a Hess Kramer tradition. “It’s exciting,” he said, “to look back and see that we did what we’re supposed to do.”

For more information about the Wilshire Boulevard Temple
camps, log on to www.wbtcamps.org .