Can Jewish donors repair our community?

There was plenty of sophisticated thinking that infused the annual Jewish Funders Network (JFN) International Conference, which I attended this past weekend in San Diego. Donors and foundations are always looking for new ideas, new causes, new ways of maximizing impact, anything that will make their philanthropic dollars go further. They found it at the Conference.

Experts in big data spoke about the transformational power of digital technology to measure impact, create communities and help develop more meaningful programs.

Financial experts spoke about the merging of the non-profit and for-profit worlds, so that each strengthens the other. I saw a presentation on “Impact Investing” that discussed an emerging new instrument called PRI’s (program related investments) that treats foundation money more as investments rather than straight grants.

Everywhere you turned, you found another cause helping the Jewish world. This year, arts and culture played an especially prominent role, as did a growing participation from Israel.

The conference is like a human laboratory of goodness. Donors discover new causes and share their own. They tinker to see how they can improve their initiatives. Put 600 Jewish donors and professionals in one hotel for a few days, throw in a few dozen workshops and breakout sessions, sprinkle some fun activities and you’re bound to see good things happen.

In fact, it’d be interesting to see what new initiatives have been spawned by the intense networking that happened at the conference. Maybe JFN can present them at next year’s conference in New Orleans, and title the session, “A metric on the power of networking.”

But while all this networking and diversity of ideas was impressive, it didn’t surprise me. It’s what I expected. It’s clear that the JFN conference has become an important event in the Jewish calendar, if only because so many of the attendees have an enormous amount of influence– what professionals call “capacity” and I call lots of money.

There is one thing, however, that did surprise me, and it happened at the very beginning of the conference.

Instead of talking about giving, the opening plenary talked about talking.

The organizers decided that the discourse in the Jewish community has become so nasty and divisive, they better address it up front.

So, in the grand ballroom on Sunday afternoon, as a packed crowd of influential Jews looked on, JFN President Andres Spokoiny kicked off the conference by talking about something unpleasant but necessary: The growing division in the Jewish community.

Of course, everyone knew the elephant in the ballroom: Iran. Everyone remembers how the Jewish community was torn apart during last year’s debate on the Iran nuclear deal. And everyone knows that the wounds are still raw and have yet to heal.

Here’s how the program booklet announced the plenary: “If a house divided against itself cannot stand, neither can a kehilla. Political polarization has increased across American society, and the Jewish community has been particularly affected. The past year has seen extraordinary disunity and divisiveness in our community, with our internecine battles even hitting the front page of The New York Times.

“What tactics and choices do funders make that lead to increased polarization? How can our funding decisions and behaviors enhance civility and respect? How should we function when we have disagreements with grantee organizations or within our own families? Can we refrain from turning political opponents into enemies to be vanquished?”

There was a panel that discussed these issues. Unlike the rest of the conference, in this panel no one talked about innovative breakthroughs or metrics. There was no “big data” analysis to guide the audience on how to bring more civility to community discourse. Let's face it– when it comes to human behavior, there are no secrets. We all know the basics: Be nice, don’t insult, listen.

What hovered above the discussion, however, more than the actual words of the panel, was the actual power of the crowd. Here is a group that controls much of the philanthropic money going to Jewish causes.

What if they decided that no cause is more important or fundamental in the Jewish world today than civility in discourse?

What if they decided to make unity within diversity a top priority?

What if they decided that healing is just as important as innovating?

It's that possibility that gave the three days of the conference an added dose of electricity.

Maybe by next year’s conference, some genius will have developed a metric to measure the intangible of civil discourse, so that donors and foundations can use their influence to improve the cohesion in our community.

It may not bring on the Messiah, but it would certainly be big data.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Rabbi David Wolpe and Elon Gold at JFN 2013 [VIDEO]

Rabbi David Wolpe speaking at the 2013 Jewish Funders Network Conference.

Elon Gold speaking at the 2013 Jewish Funders Network Conference.

Seeking impact, Jewish funders convene in L.A.

“Philanthropy is what you’ll be remembered for,” Jewish Funders Network (JFN) President Andrés Spokoiny told the 400 attendees at the Beverly Hilton on March 18, the first full day of the group’s annual conference. “Philanthropy is your legacy.”

What the legacies of Jewish funders in the early 21st century will be may not become clear for a generation, but at JFN, philanthropists, scholars, Jewish community professionals and others all engaged with questions about what causes to support and how to best ensure that charitable dollars are being deployed strategically, effectively and sustainably in the long term.

In organized sessions and impromptu conversations, executives working for some of the world’s wealthiest Jewish philanthropists, as well as some Jews just beginning their philanthropic journeys, focused on a diverse range of challenges and specific causes, including education, Israel advocacy, crisis management and the arts.

The separate conversations could be seen as part of a broader discussion about what, collectively, Jews should fund. But the decisions that funders ultimately make are often undertaken alone.

“We have deconstructed the infrastructure systems of the Jewish community,” said Jeffrey R. Solomon, president of Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, during a session dedicated to the not-always-collaborative interactions between local and national funders. “There are no wholesalers. We are all retailers, and that’s not the most efficient way to operate.”

The charity Solomon oversees is well on the way to completing a spend-down of its assets by 2016; another panelist in the room, Yossi Prager, is executive director of Avi Chai Foundation North America, which will spend its last dollars in 2020.

Prager was acutely aware of the impact the disappearance of Avi Chai will have on the world of Jewish education, particularly on local funders who will almost certainly be approached by organizations that had previously depended upon national support for their operations.

“I’m completely sensitive to the local San Francisco funder who says [to a national funder], ‘You came in, you took a little local organization, you made it a big organization, and now you want to leave it in our lap,’” Prager said.

This year’s JFN conference highlighted work being done to advance social change on the grassroots level.

Thirty-two participants joined Rabbi Sharon Brous ok IKAR on a bus tour on Monday to visit social action projects around Los Angeles. Tuesday’s closing plenary session featured a presentation by James K. Cummings, board chair of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the organization’s president, Simon Greer, about their recent experience of the “Food Stamp Challenge,” by which individuals attempt to feed themselves for a full week on the minimal allotment given to those on nutritional assistance programs (just under $37 in New York; just under $35 in California).

The Cummings Foundation also announced the creation of a new $1 million matching fund for organizations involved in Jewish social justice efforts.

The reasons the funders attend JFN’s conference are as diverse as they are.

Ami Aronson came to JFN from Washington, D.C., where she serves as the managing director of the Bernstein Family Foundation. Aronson’s grandfather — financier and real estate investor Leo M. Bernstein — died in 2008, at 93; the family foundation made $330,000 in grants in 2011 to organizations focused on Jewish causes, democracy and the arts.

“What JFN does is it helps us celebrate and strengthen our assets as Jewish philanthropists,” Aronson said.

E. Randol Schoenberg, an attorney who has focused his philanthropic energies serving as president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, said he couldn’t help but think that his personal charity of choice – a museum whose approximately 30,000 annual visitors are predominantly non-Jews – was something of an outlier at JFN 2013. Much of what he heard was focused on charities that serve mostly Jewish people.

“It’s interesting,” Schoenberg said. “What attracts attention and what’s reaching a lot of people are different things.”

For the Jewish funders who came to Los Angeles from out of town, the plenary session on Monday morning offered a taste of what Jewish life in this sprawling city can offer. Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, described his city as one to which Jews came “to escape Jewish institutions, and to build new Jewish institutions.” The speakers who followed him continued in that vein.

Then Joshua Avedon, co-founder and COO of Jumpstart, a think-tank and incubator dedicated to fostering Jewish innovation, moderated a conversation with philanthropist Peter Lowy, who holds leadership positions at a number of L.A. nonprofits, including serving as chairman of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal. Jill Soloway, a TV and film writer, director and producer, who founded the innovative and itinerant Jewish community East Side Jews, was also on the panel.

Lowy and Soloway both talked about the importance of innovation and reinvention in attracting Jews to Jewish events and bringing the disaffected into Jewish institutions in L.A.

As an Australian, Lowy, Co-Chief Executive Officer of Westfield Group, said he tends to “hate” the status quo and authority, “even,” he noted, “when I’m the status quo and I’m the authority.”

Soloway, meanwhile, recognized that East Side Jews, which has organized events in multiple spaces around the region, is now playing against type by making its home the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center.

“The building is there, the people are there,” Soloway said. “How do we put them back together?”

Rabbi David Wolpe, who addressed the conference-goers at lunchtime, made a case for funding local synagogues and Jewish schools — the “unexciting places” that have kept Jewish communities vibrant for generations.

“When I go out and push my synagogue,” Wolpe, who is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in West L.A., said, “I talk about Friday Night Life and the special bar mitzvahs and all the innovative programs. But they’re actually not what I’m proudest of.

“What I’m proudest of,” he continued, “is the morning minyan and the Shabbos service and the shiva committee, and the fact that we have a Bikur Cholim committee that goes and visits people in the hospital – in other words, all the things that institutions do day after day after day that are the lifeblood of a real people.”

The Disability Inclusion Initiative: The sound of the breaking dam

A conference on inclusion of people with disabilities may mark the beginning of a new era in Jewish communal attitudes.

For years, it has fallen to the parents of children with intellectual, physical, learning, social and other disabilities and differences to battle the institutions of the organized Jewish community for “a place at the table” for their children in Jewish day schools, synagogues and summer camps. Almost every parent of a child with a significant disability can tell of the heartbreak of rejection of their children by the community, or, at the very least, the heroic battles that they had to wage to enable their child to lay claim to some component of their Jewish identity. Adults with disabilities can tell stories about the lack of appreciation of the community’s role in allowing them access, physical and social, to the community as it is often mistakenly deemed “too expensive” or put in the back of the line of our community’s priorities. 

But given that fully 20 percent of Americans overall have a disability and that Jews have additional disabilities because of genetic differences and choices to have children later in life, which can lead to autism and Down syndrome, there is an epidemic of Jewish children with disabilities who must be included in our Jewish institutions. Ensuring that Jews with disabilities have a seat at our table is vital not only for recognizing the image of God within each person, but also to Jewish survival. 

Thankfully, the drive for acceptance of people with disabilities from the grass roots is beginning to be complemented by a growing awakening in the Jewish community’s leadership ranks. On Nov. 14, The Jewish Federation of North America hosted Opening Abraham’s Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative as an adjunct conference at the conclusion of this year’s General Assembly meeting in Baltimore. The practical program, developed to share “best inclusion practices,” was attended by more than 130 community and lay leaders from across the country and across the religious spectrum. The program was sponsored jointly by The Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA), Jewish Funders Network (JFN), Jewish Foundation for Group Homes and the Mizrahi Family Foundation. The event also welcomed the arrival of an important free online resource book created by the JFN (see 

The keynote speaker was Gov. Jack Markell (D-Del.), chair of the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and who is also active in Jewish life. Each NGA chair picks an issue of the year, and Markell has chosen the issue of helping people with disabilities get jobs, inspiring his fellow governors to bring people with disabilities into the work force by focusing on their abilities rather than their disabilities. At the conference, Markell challenged Federations and other Jewish groups to “walk the walk” and be even more inclusive, not only in whom they serve and which organizations they fund, but also in their professional hiring.

JFNA leadership, including CEO Jerry Silverman, whose hallmark is commitment to full “big tent” Jewish institutions, agreed that ending the shortages of accommodations available at many Jewish institutions for people with disabilities needs to change and that funding decisions need to reflect that commitment. He even agreed that JFNA needs to prioritize the hiring of people with disabilities so that their voices are heard loudly, directly and personally.

Los Angeles is a step ahead of the country in part because of the HaMercaz Jewish special needs collaborative, funded by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation. It is a model of how Jewish organizations can work together to help families impacted by developmental disabilities and other special needs. L.A.’s recent Special Needs Study Mission to Israel was the first group of parents, professionals and young adult stakeholders to visit Israel for the express purpose of visiting innovative young adult vocational and residential programs. Other collaborative efforts, such as the Bet Tzedek Transitions Project, are looking at the new phenomenon of aging adults with developmental disabilities. Los Angeles also has some schools, synagogues and camps that have created either inclusive or self-contained special-needs programs for children, teens and young adults.

Although the need for more programming exists even on America’s “progressive coast,” Elaine Hall from Vista Del Mar and The Miracle Project represented the Los Angeles special-needs community at Opening Abraham’s Tent. She shared the good works of Nes Gadol, Vista’s religious education and Jewish Life programs for families with special needs, and announced receiving a recent grant from L.A.’s Jewish Community Foundation to enhance community inclusion in local synagogues and JCC’s, but she also commented on how L.A. lags in housing and jobs. She said she is hopeful that the new merging of Etta Israel and Ohel will remedy the lack of housing opportunities and that the Shalom Institute’s commitment to creating jobs for young adults with special needs will stimulate Los Angeles in these areas. Hall noted the importance of gatherings such as Opening Abraham’s Tent to provide necessary connections to and collaborations with others so that we each don’t need to “reinvent the wheel.”

Perhaps the moment is arriving when the grass-roots efforts of numerous parents of children and adults with disabilities (all of whom can be exhausted from the personal and financial stress from disabilities) are being reciprocated by efforts of the Jewish community’s leadership. With the impetus coming from above and below, the next few years may witness
a major change in the Jewish community’s embrace and celebration of the contribution that people with disabilities
can make to the future of the Jewish people.

Dutch church official apologizes for commemoration of German soldiers

A Netherlands church official apologized to a Jewish group for a memorial ceremony that commemorated Holocaust victims with soldiers who died fighting for Nazi Germany.

Rob Mutsaerts, a bishop from Den Bosch in the southern Netherlands, in a letter last week expressed his regret to the small Jewish organization JFN.

Mutsaerts apologized for a sermon delivered Oct. 20 in a church in nearby Geffen in which Pastor David van Dijk read out the names of German soldiers who died in Geffen during World War II along with the names of local Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

“You are shocked, and those are feelings we cannot change,” Mutsaerts wrote . “We would like to extend our apologies for the pain and sorrow that the naming of all the names has unintentionally caused to Jews.”

Van Dijk’s sermon was delivered after city officials canceled the planned unveiling of a monument in Geffen displaying the names of the German Wehrmacht soldiers along with the Holocaust victims. All the names were removed from the monument following protests by Jewish organizations and individuals.

A Dutch rabbi, Wim van Dijk, demanded that the names of his relatives be removed from the monument.

The pastor read the names jointly in church as a sign of “reconciliation” shortly after the unveiling of the monument without the names.

MATCH to donate $9M to Jewish day schools

The MATCH program will hold its fourth launch this August to encourage expanding the donor base for Jewish day schools.

The program, founded by the AVI CHAI and Kohelet Foundations in 2004, aids Jewish day schools by matching donations from new sources at a rate of 50 cents to the dollar. Donations above $10,000 qualify for the grant, and individual schools can receive up to $50,000.

In partnership with the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), the AVI CHAI and Kohelet Foundations will match the first $6 million in donations to Jewish day schools throughout the United States with an additional $3 million.

JFN Director of Communications Avi Zollman said the program has helped support Jewish day schools nationwide.

“Since 2004, our matching grant programs for day schools and Jewish education have brought more than $51 million of new funding to the field,” he said, “and 385 donors have supported 232 schools and programs.”

The latest launch of MATCH, beginning Aug. 1, features a new rule that prohibits schools from going to parents for donations. Alumni parents, grandparents and community members are the target donors for this year’s program.

“There has been a recognition among funders that these schools are a community resource and that they need to be funded not just by parents but by members of the community as well,” Zollman added.

The last program was held in 2007, with $14.9 million raised by 200 donors, with an additional $4.9 million raised by JFN donors.

Miriam Prum Hess, director of Centers of Excellence in Day School Education at Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) in Los Angeles, said that BJE coaches participant schools on how to fundraise effectively.

“We are very excited about the launch,” she said, “We will work with schools and train them so they can meet the needs of schools and help them learn how to fundraise.”

She also said the program has experienced a lot of growth since its founding.

“In its first year, we had two schools in L.A. taking part in the program,” she said. “The second time, we did some training and coaching to help them develop strategies to achieve their goals; 15 schools got involved, and several were successful with reaching their targets with more than one donor.”

Applications will be accepted from Aug. 1, 2012, until Jan. 15, 2013. Applicants will be notified on a rolling basis until the entire amount has been allocated.