After Schusterman ends programs, past participants are grateful but some worry they’ll be cut off

Alumni and current members lament the loss of the initiatives, which they describe as life-changing, but many say they believe the networks created will carry on

Two days after the Oct. 7 terror attacks in southern Israel, Daniel Jeydel, received a call from a non-Jewish friend with whom he had attended a Reality journey run by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies. She was the chief marketing officer for a major NBA team, asking what she could do to help those affected by the attacks. Based on his recommendation, her organization donated $250,000 to United Hatzalah.

“There’s many more stories like that,” Jeydel, the founder of the Bashert Group, a strategic advisory firm, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Reality Journeys are Israel trips for leaders based around themes such as music, technology, storytelling and sports. The majority of its approximately 3,000 previous attendees were non-Jewish. On Jeydel’s trip, many were people of color and of all sexual orientations. “Groups that might not all get to find themselves [together] on a bus, found themselves… navigating into the West Bank and floating on the Dead Sea together,” he said.

Last week, Schusterman Co-president Lisa Eisen announced that the foundation is cutting its Reality Journeys, which launched in 2009, and an eponymous 18-month leadership development fellowship, as well as focusing its ROI Community toward Israel and fighting antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Starting June 30, Schusterman’s U.S. office will put its resources almost solely toward grantmaking, which Eisen told eJP is where the organization believes it can do the most good, most effectively.

Past and current participants of Schusterman’s programs have mixed feelings about this shift for the organization. Some are enthusiastic about what it portends for the future of the foundation, while others worry that the changes will leave out some in the Jewish community, particularly those based outside of Israel and the United States, where the foundation does most of its work.

“It’s been incredibly inspiring to watch the diversity of offerings that ROIers from around the world have created to support the queer community and advance environmental, technological and wellness initiatives,” Kimberly Dueñas, an ROIer and the director of learning for Jewtina y Co, told eJP. The ROI Community — ROI standing for “Return on Investment” — consists of over 1,700 “changemakers,” who are Jewish activists and social entrepreneurs from more than 60 countries. “This new strategy feels a little scary to some of us who might not have a direct voice towards combating antisemitism,” Dueñas said.

Those working in the diversity, equity and inclusion field said they especially need support right now, Analucía Lopezrevoredo, an ROIer and the executive director of Jewtina y Co, which receives a grant from the Schusterman Family Philanthropies, told eJP. “We’re instrumental to the work at hand at this moment in time, because we, by nature of being intersectional and multicultural people, are in coalition with so many different communities, and are advocating for Jewish visibility in people of color spaces the same way that we’re advocating for Jews of color in white Jewish spaces.”

The shift to focusing on Israel, antisemitism and anti-Zionism reflects “a concerning ideological shift and change that is quite disappointing to many people,” Hannah Brady, an ROIer, disability advocate and organizer for Sapphic Shabbat, a U.K.-based LGBTQ organization, told eJP.

“If you’re an organization which works on community building and inclusion and building Jewish life, it is highly unlikely that your focus has been on [Israel, antisemitism or anti-Zionism],” she said, and because of that, to receive funding, ROIers in the Diaspora will need to pivot their work. 

Over the years, she has relied on Schusterman ROI grants for personal growth and to hold queer Jewish Shabbats. Under the new direction, she said, she wouldn’t be eligible to become an ROI member, which she said was disappointing. “Jewish life exists beyond these quite commonly negative focuses,” she said.

But strengthening Jewish community and celebrating Jewish diversity does combat antisemitism, Dueñas said. “The work that we’re doing is amplifying Jewish joy and our Jewish story, and that is also important as we fight antisemitism.”

In response to these concerns that support for initiatives unrelated to combating antisemitism would be excluded from the foundation’s purview, Eisen said in a statement that the organization “remains unequivocally committed to advancing joyful, inclusive and equitable Jewish communities. That has been and always will be a core part of our work and is a central focus of our Jewish grantmaking portfolio.”

Isaiah Rothstein, an ROIer, current member of the fellowship and the rabbinic scholar and public affairs adviser at Jewish Federations of North America, told eJP that he has faith that the foundation will continue its focus on diversity, equity and inclusion because it’s been a priority of theirs for years. 

Schusterman has supported some 200 Jewish leaders through its fellowship, many from minority backgrounds, and the effects of the program will continue to “ripple out,” he said. Current members of his cohort include Sandra Lawson, director of racial diversity, equity, and inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism; Hariette Wimms, executive director of The JOC Mishpacha Project; and Sarah Levin, the executive director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. “The culture that they have created through these fellowships, the vision, the empowerment, I don’t think that’s going anywhere,” Rothstein said.

Although Yotam Polizer, CEO of IsraAid and a former Schusterman fellow, told eJP that while it’s disappointing to see the fellowship program end, he sees how much the foundation accomplishes with its grantmaking. “They’ve been a longtime partner and supporter of [IsraAid’s] work around the world, including in Israel…. So I also have had the privilege of seeing the impact of their work on the grantmaking side, which is tremendous.”

The fellowship has led to a higher quality of leadership across the Jewish world, Cindy Greenberg, CEO of Repair the World and a former fellow, told eJP. “They became one of the modes for other foundations in terms of understanding the importance of investing in talent and leadership,” she said.

Likewise, Birthright and other Israel trips learned how to tackle difficult issues and engage different views from Reality, Jeydel said, and now these programs have improved to the point where Schusterman can step back and focus elsewhere.

“They can continue to have this kind of impact by supporting other organizations that have learned from Reality and are able to operate at an even larger scale,” he said.

Although Lopezrevoredo is disappointed that so many Schusterman staff from the Reality and fellowship programs will soon be out of their jobs, she’s grateful for the ROI community, which she realizes is not going anywhere. “I love what they’ve given me as an individual through the ROI community.”

The weekend after the news of Schusterman’s cuts hit, Jeydel attended the wedding of another good friend he had met on a Reality trip. “A very significant sports manager, who’s an African American woman and had never been to Israel,” he said. At his wedding, she gave one of the Sheva Brachot. “That only happened because of our Reality trip.”

Ed. note: This article has been updated with a response from Schusterman Family Philanthropies’ co-president.