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.


A Touch of Tomchei

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and the modest storefront at 3531¼2 N. La Brea Ave. is teeming with people. The shelves that were stocked with bottles of Rokeach grape juice, jars of Tzali’s gefilte fish and cans of California chunk light tuna only a half hour ago, are now nearly empty.

But what looks like the pre-Pesach rush at any number of local Los Angeles grocery stores is actually a typical Thursday night at the warehouse of Tomchei Shabbos — a nonprofit organization that provides needy Jewish families throughout the Greater Los Angeles area with kosher food to enrich their Shabbat and help sustain them throughout the week.

Translating to "Supporter of the Sabbath," Tomchei Shabbos was started in 1977 by three Orthodox rabbis who recognized a need within the Los Angeles Jewish community. Under the direction of Rabbi Yona Landau, and sustained predominately by private donations, the organization has grown out of its original garage and into two locations (a garage in the Valley and a storefront in Los Angeles), serving more than 200 families weekly. But the real phenomenon behind Tomchei Shabbos is the dedication of its volunteers — from uniformed schoolgirls and yeshiva boys to well-dressed businessmen on their way home from work — who gather here every Thursday night to pack and discreetly deliver boxes of food to recipients, and whose vested interest in the organization far exceeds simply making out a check.

"It involves volunteers from all walks of life," said Michelle Lerer, who manages a medical office by day, but who can usually be found at the warehouse on Thursday nights distributing route sheets, giving box-packing lessons to new volunteers or directing parking in the lot behind the storefront. "It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not religious. It’s the one charity that I know of in this city where everything goes."

Lerer came to the organization approximately 15 years ago upon a friend’s recommendation. While packing food one Thursday night, a man that she was working with asked her to lock up for him. She did, and she never gave back the keys. Today, Lerer, together with bond trader Steve Berger, manages the Tomchei Shabbos L.A. storefront. She takes care of all food ordering for the organization, while Berger coordinates delivery routes.

"We go on the principle that they need everything," said Lerer, adding that she always makes sure that the boxes are bountiful, with plenty of extra food to carry families throughout the week. During the holidays, boxes include all necessary items and ingredients. Passover boxes this year include everything from ingredients for making charoset and old-fashioned horseradish to aluminum pans and dishwashing soap.

In the interest of preserving the dignity of recipient families, the majority of Tomchei Shabbos transactions remain anonymous. The organization uses a coding system, and volunteers never meet most of the people whom they deliver to. Some packages are covertly placed in front of recipient residences and others are dropped off to third parties.

"It’s embarrassing for people to have to ask for help," Lerer said.

Tomchei Shabbos realizes that need is often relative. Therefore, there is no set criteria to qualify for assistance. Applicants are often referred by friends, rabbis and Jewish Family Service and are only required to find a sponsor (usually a rabbi) within the community to confirm their need.

While most Tomchei Shabbos recipients are below the poverty level and receive some form of government assistance, the causes for their predicaments greatly vary: an Argentine immigrant family whose life savings was lost, a couple whose monthly income is far less than the expenses involved in raising five children, an elderly person barely surviving off of social security, a family where the main breadwinner was struck by illness — all are examples of Tomchei Shabbos recipients.

Rivka (not her real name), a mother of two young children, has been a Tomchei Shabbos recipient since she and her husband divorced nine months ago. Finding herself in debt as a result of court fees and very little child support, Rivka went from living in a five-bedroom house to renting a guest house in someone’s backyard. With two children and very little work experience, the money that was going out far exceeded what was coming in.

"I don’t have a college degree," she said. "And truthfully, I believe in being a mother more than anything else. To go and work for $7 an hour when I have to pay the babysitter $7 an hour — it doesn’t sound very appealing to me."

Like Rivka, the problems that Tomchei Shabbos recipients encounter are complex. While Tomchei Shabbos helps get them on their feet, many also require further assistance.

"If someone doesn’t have money to buy food, there are many other things they don’t have money for," said Landau, an insurance broker who simultaneously and voluntarily runs the organization. With this vision in mind, Landau has expanded Tomchei Shabbos into something more inclusive in recent years. Under the umbrella organization of Touch of Kindness, further programs have evolved. Some such programs include Jewish Job Link, a group of businesspeople who help people find jobs; The Clothes Conscious, a group of women who contact Jewish manufacturers, buy clothing at wholesale prices and offer them for free to Touch of Kindness recipients; and Masbia, a group that gathers leftovers from various schools and synagogues. Like Tomchei Shabbos, each group is run by volunteers.

In addition to the three existing programs, Landau often subsidizes other things when necessary, such as rent, day care, tuition and car payments.

For the volunteers of the organization, the mitzvah of Tomchei Shabbos and Touch of Kindness’ programs is a two-way street.

"Here the children see charity really being done," said Cathy Lawrence, coordinator and only employee of Touch of Kindness. "At home, mom might talk about tzedakah, but it’s different for them to be taking part in the actual physical doing…. They go to a home and they see other little children awaiting the Tomchei Shabbos box or an old woman whose face lights up when they come."

Lawrence came to Tomchei Shabbos after trading in a long-time career in the entertainment industry.

"The movie business," Lawrence said, "is about putting out a lot of energy to get a reward that is mostly monetary. It’s a very material world, and I needed a break from it."

Although the career change meant a significant change in lifestyle, Lawrence said that the feeling she gets from working for Tomchei Shabbos is worth it.

"It’s a trade-off for being around people that are givers and appreciate," she said. "People who do good and put the needs of the community above themselves."

For more information on Tomchei Shabbos call (323) 931-0224.