Baltimore Funding Dilemma: The Jewish Women’s Giving Foundation of Baltimore

jwgf_sideBy Elinor Kotzen Spokes

On April 25, Baltimore became the focus of the nation when violence and riots broke out throughout the city in response to the death of 25 year old Freddie Gray during an arrest by Baltimore City police. For those of us living in and around Baltimore, a palpable and pervasive sense of sadness and despair set in as we watched news coverage of our beloved city burn and shatter.

The violence of that day and the days which followed revealed societal issues and systemic problems plaguing many American cities and urban centers not unique to Baltimore: poverty, joblessness, lack of quality education and hopelessness.

Local charities, foundations, organizations, government agencies and others heeded the call for help and rallied to provide at least short-term assistance for the affected neighborhoods. Within the Baltimore Jewish community, funds were raised and existing partnerships with faith-based and neighborhood-based organizations were activated to create pipelines for monetary and humanitarian relief.

Concurrently, the Jewish Women’s Giving Foundation of Baltimore, a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, was concluding its annual grant cycle. In its 12 years of grant-making, the JWGF has grappled with its funding decisions each year, striving to strike a balance between the needs of women and girls in the Jewish community, both local and international, and those within the general community in Baltimore.

The founding members of the JWGF very intentionally established the giving circle to fund in the Jewish and general community as they believed that giving “Jewishly,” by using the values of Tikkun Olam, enabled the Foundation to extend its philanthropy not only to the Jewish community but to the general community as well. Thus the Foundation’s funding guidelines state, “JWGF endeavors to allocate at least 50 percent of its funds each year in the Jewish community.” This statement was crafted to allow for some flexibility in the Foundation’s funding decisions and as a consequence, has often resulted in an impassioned debate among the members as to how best to use both a gender and Jewish lens to allocate its funds within these guidelines. Some members fervently believe a majority of the money should stay within the Jewish community and others differ.

As in the past 11 grant cycles, this year’s final voting session presented Foundation members with difficult choices: All of the final 12 proposals were compelling and each addressed the needs of women and girls. So, which were the most worthy of the Foundation’s dollars? Of the 12 this year, seven would benefit the Jewish community in Baltimore and in Israel and the other five would help organizations in Baltimore City.

But this year’s vote was distinguished by its May 7 timing. Only a week prior, Baltimore City neighborhoods located a mere 12 miles from the Owings Mills JCC where the meeting was taking place, had erupted in violence and unease continued throughout the region. After a review of all the grants, thoughtful and passionate discussion ensued: How could the funds support the Jewish community but also provide much needed assistance to the people of Baltimore City whose lives had been profoundly impacted by recent events?

Reflecting on its history of grant making and the resulting familiarity with many of the challenges facing women and girls in Baltimore City and the organizations supporting them, the Foundation voted to grant $100,000 of its $110,000 to six organizations addressing the needs in Baltimore City, with the remainder supporting one organization in Israel. Two of the six local grant proposals to receive support were Jewish organizations.

Despite the fact that the funding guideline of providing 50 percent within the Jewish community was not quite met, the Foundation membership realized that the resulting vote provided funds to programs for women and girls which would help rebuild Baltimore City, thus fulfilling the Jewish obligation to repair the world, this time locally.

Elinor Kotzen Spokes is a JWGF member and past chair.