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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Foundation fund nixes progressive donation

Eitan Arom is a Jewish Journal senior writer, covering a range of local Jewish issues such as civic engagement, culture, Holocaust memory, faith-based activism, politics and people. Before that, he worked as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, Washington D.C and Los Angeles. He graduated from UCLA with bachelor's degrees in mathematics/economics and communication studies.

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Eitan Arom
Eitan Arom is a Jewish Journal senior writer, covering a range of local Jewish issues such as civic engagement, culture, Holocaust memory, faith-based activism, politics and people. Before that, he worked as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, Washington D.C and Los Angeles. He graduated from UCLA with bachelor's degrees in mathematics/economics and communication studies.

Since 2014, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCFLA) has distributed more than $150 million from so-called “donor-advised funds” — money the foundation holds in trust for would-be donors.

Now, a contentious episode with one donor raises the question of whose money, exactly, it is, and where it can be donated.

Investor and businesswoman Lisa Greer opened a donor-advised fund with her husband, Joshua, some five years ago at JCFLA, expecting they would be able to give from it to any registered nonprofit they chose. They’ve used it to donate to a number of progressive Jewish nonprofits like the New Israel Fund, as well as to non-Jewish groups like the Girl Scouts of America.

But when they decided to donate to IfNotNow, a nonprofit consisting mostly of younger Jews that has clashed with the organized Jewish community over its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, JCFLA refused. Lisa Greer, in an interview with the Journal, described JCFLA’s decision as a result of a growing rift between the Jewish establishment and an ascendant generation of progressive, millennial Jews.

“This is not a problem that’s just about IfNotNow,” she said. “I don’t think it has much to do with IfNotNow.”

Rather, Lisa Greer, who is in her early 50s, sees the incident as a case of the older generation refusing to engage in an open dialogue with younger Jews who disagree with their positions.

“Why do we have to eat our young?” she said.

For most of the five years the Greers held their donor-advised fund, Lisa Greer — a JCFLA trustee — said they were happy with the arrangement. The Beverly Hills couple at various times has held anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million dollars with JCFLA.

Both are successful entrepreneurs in their own right. Lisa started Media Venture Advisors in 2000, a consulting firm that focuses on digital media and entertainment, and has since founded an egg donor agency and home health care business. Joshua co-founded RealD, now one of the world’s largest 3D technology companies, in 2003.

Their donor-advised fund allowed them to reap tax benefits immediately while waiting to give away the money. Lisa said she considered it a “double mitzvah” to hold her money with JCFLA: She would eventually give the money away, and in the meanwhile any management fees would go back to the foundation and, by extension, the Jewish community. The couple even appears on a brochure for the philanthropy’s donor-advised funds.

But in October, she got an unwelcome surprise when she tried to donate to IfNotNow, whose opposition to Israel’s military activity in Gaza and the West Bank brought it into direct confrontation with mainstream Jewish institutions.

Lisa first tried donating $5,000 to the group on Sept. 16. But by definition, the Greers could only recommend where the money should go. The funds are called “donor-advised” because they operate under the advice, not the direct control, of donors. 

A few days after Lisa entered the recommendation into the mobile platform JCFLA provides, she said she received a call from senior vice president Daniel M. Rothblatt saying the foundation was concerned about the donation and was looking into IfNotNow’s nonprofit status. Later, at an Oct. 5 meeting in the office of JCFLA President Marvin Schotland, Schotland and board chair Larry Rausch told her they wouldn’t make the disbursement.

Lisa recalled, based on notes she took at the meeting, being told that many donors give to Palestinian rights organizations — that wasn’t a factor. The real factor, she was told, is that IfNotNow takes a stand against the organized Jewish community. The foundation didn’t want its name on the donation, she said she was told, citing the organization’s “disruptive tactics.”

In an emailed statement, JCFLA confirmed Greer’s recollection of the meeting while defending its decision to reject the donation.

“The Foundation was being asked to act as the vehicle to provide support for an organization that is hostile to established Jewish institutions, indirectly including The Foundation itself,” the statement read. “We concluded that such a course of action would directly conflict with our core values, requiring us to deny this recommendation.”

Additionally, JCFLA wrote of IfNotNow, “it provides only limited public transparency, including no disclosure of its board of directors or financials.” Because the organization was officially formed in 2015, its financial disclosures are not yet publicly available.

IfNotNow admits to openly challenging the Jewish establishment. The group gained national attention during Israel’s last incursion in Gaza in 2014 by reading the Mourner’s Kaddish for Palestinian victims in front of major Jewish organizations, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York City, an umbrella group.

“The Foundation learned that [IfNotNow] has routinely included among the targets of its hostile activities such highly regarded Jewish organizations as the Jewish Federations of North America, with which The Foundation is affiliated, the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International,” JCFLA wrote in its statement.

The statement made clear that disbursements from the Greers’ fund would technically be made in JCFLA’s name: “Donors have the right to recommend grants, but the charitable resources contributed by the donor legally become assets of The Foundation.”

IfNotNow’s co-founder, Emily Mayer, said her group consists mostly of young Jews who reject the status quo in Israel and the Palestinian territories and find the organized Jewish community’s response lacking.

“Jewish Community Foundation’s refusal to even allow Lisa to fund IfNotNow is actually a symptom of a larger problem, in which the institutions are actually out of touch,” Mayer told the Journal.

She added, “Jewish values tell us to stand up for the freedom and dignity of all people, yet when it comes to Israel that is no longer true” as far as the Jewish establishment is concerned.

David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA, first introduced Greer to Mayer’s organization. He said IfNotNow approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a perspective that is unique to Jewish millennials. 

“What they’ve grown up with is not a beleaguered Israel,” said Myers, who is also a Jewish Journal columnist. “They’ve grown up with Israel as the strongest kid on the block.”

For that reason, IfNotNow necessarily differs in its tactics from more established Jewish groups.

“Whatever has been tried to awaken the Jewish community out of its slumber as the occupation enters its 50th year isn’t working, so the tactics need to change,” he said. “And that’s what they’re trying to do.”

Lisa echoed the sentiment that the episode reflects a “horrible schism” between Jewish generations. 

Her case is not unique. Earlier this year, Michael Bien, a San Francisco-based civil rights lawyer, tried to donate $5,000 each to Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee through his donor-advised fund at the Jewish Community Federation & Endowment Fund of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

He knew of the Federation’s policies against engaging with organizations “undermining the legitimacy of Israel … including through participation in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.” However, he told the Journal, “I never assumed that they would apply to my donor-advised fund.”

When he tried to donate to the groups, both of which advocate for BDS, he was told it would be a violation of the Federation’s policy. He has since moved his money into a donor-advised fund managed by Morgan Stanley.

He found the Federation’s position to be hypocritical and worse, since donor-advised funds it holds have benefited organizations like the Hebron Fund, which is accused of paying a salary to convicted Jewish terrorist Menachem Livni.

“The only standard they’re applying is BDS,” he said. “They don’t care if you rape and pillage. It’s just BDS.”

Responding in the San Francisco-based Jewish newspaper j.,  to a February op-ed Bien co-wrote in that paper with colleague Jane Kahn about the experience, Federation CEO Danny Grossman defended the guidelines.

“The funding guidelines that we adopted several years ago are our community’s sincere and hard-won consensus on ensuring a safe space for a broad range of responsible views from left to right,” Grossman wrote.

In the six years since those guidelines went into place, the Federation has rejected just seven of 48,000 requested grants from its donor-advised funds, he wrote.

The Greers’ is the first and only donation JCFLA has rejected while donating millions of dollars each year, it said in the statement. “Since 2014 alone, through our Donor Advised Funds, over 20,000 grants have been made,” it wrote.

In the Jewish community and beyond, donor-advised funds are an increasingly popular vehicle for philanthropists, as they enable donors to decrease their tax base in high earning years while still allowing them time to choose recipients.

That tax incentive has given rise to a cottage industry worth $78 billion in 2015, according to the National Philanthropic Trust. Large bank divisions that manage donor-advised funds regularly top lists of the nation’s largest charitable organizations. The financial services company Fidelity is now the second largest charity in the U.S., after the United Way, thanks to its donor-advised fund arm.

Greer is still considering what to do with her old fund and hoping she can find common ground with JCFLA.

“It kind of breaks my heart if I have to not work with them because of this episode,” she said.

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