Disagreements and Decisions:
Natan’s 2019-2020 Grants
By Felicia Herman
This is an abridged version; the full article, including a discussion of the particular organizations that Natan is supporting, is here.
Part One: Change My Mind: How We Make Our Decisions
In my ongoing effort to try to understand the dismaying and hurtful divisiveness of our current cultural and political moment, I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, a masterful analysis of a vast amount of scientific literature on how people form moral judgements and “why good people are divided by politics and religion.”
I wasn’t expecting – though I also wasn’t surprised by – Haidt’s argument that groups made up of people with diverse viewpoints are more effective and rational decision-makers than individuals:
We must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason … each individual reasoner is good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons … [and] particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. (105)
This has been exactly my experience at Natan (the giving circle I’ve been privileged to be part of for over 16 years) – as well as in the collaborative process that we used to engage dozens of stakeholders in co-designing Amplifier, the now-independent network of giving circles inspired by Jewish values that Natan launched in 2014 with funding from the Schusterman Foundation, and in a similar process that Amplifier and four other American giving circle networks are leading to design backbone infrastructure for American giving circles, with funding from the Gates Foundation and several others.
We’ve learned a lot at Natan over this past year of grantmaking, as we always do, but I have to say that as the world seems more and more divided, with more demonization of the Other (as opposed to good, old-fashioned civil disagreement), it feels more important to me than ever that Natan and other giving circles are places where a community of people who care about each other come together to do good in the world together, not ignoring their differences but literally strengthened by their differences. Although there’s much that differentiates the people in these circles, they come together over what they have in common, build trusting and affectionate bonds with each other, and are thus able to use their diverse perspectives not as wedges that divide, but as assets that strengthen group thinking.
Viewpoint diversity was baked into Natan’s DNA from the start, and is in fact what drew me to the organization in the first place: I loved that each time someone around a grantmaking table spoke, they changed my mind. Natan’s members are all over the map politically (progressives and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans); they have widely different Jewish backgrounds and current Jewish practices; they are in different personal situations; they work in different industries; and some are raising their children and/or volunteering full-time. They bring widely different experiences and perspectives to their decision-making.
We didn’t set out to create this – we just built a community and a culture that is warm and connected, and that welcomes curiosity, learning and debate. We also intentionally try to flatten relationships between our members (ie “funders”), grantees, and other nonprofits, further diversifying perspectives and strengthening our thinking by helping the different “sides” to understand the other and to learn from their different experiences.
The philanthropic sector has long understood the power of collective giving – through giving circles, donor collaboratives, teen and women’s foundations, etc. But while we’ve analyzed the additional leverage, efficiency, and impact that collective giving can have, I’m not sure we’ve fully appreciated how much wiser, more connected, and more human this kind of giving can be than individual giving or more transactional fundraising. There is tremendous, inherent, but often unarticulated value in the connections between people and across perspectives that these kinds of initiatives create. Even groups that visually look homogeneous – because most people are one race, religion, gender – can actually be deeply diverse in other ways, and this heterogeneity, however it manifests itself, can be a core strength.
As public discourse seems to devolve further every day into polarization and demonization, I’ve come to believe even more strongly in the importance of creating more sites where people can come together, be curious, learn from each other and from subject-area experts and practitioners, change each other’s minds, and collectively make wise and intentional choices together about the change they want to see in the world. We need more places in our communities where we can break down silos, welcome disagreements, test and examine new ideas, take risks, and change our minds. We’re blessed to be doing this at Natan year after year, and we or the good people at Amplifier would be happy to talk to anyone about it who wants to learn more.
Part Two: What We’re Supporting
As they usually do, Natan’s grant committees took a portfolio approach to their grantmaking over this past year, believing in building diverse fields of initiatives, often working in concert with each other, to test out new approaches and to bring new vision to old challenges. The unifying thread between all of our committees, as always, was a willingness to take prudent risks, to fund innovative ideas and invest in talented leadership, to support general operating expenses whenever possible, and to “go first” in providing institutional support for emerging organizations.
What follows is a high-level summary of each grant committee’s thinking – to read more about the organizations that Natan is supporting this year, see the full version of this article and see summaries of all of the grantees on the Natan website.
In its third year of operations, Natan’s Confronting Antisemitism committee continued its strategy of supporting a variety of approaches to addressing antisemitism in all of its modern manifestations – from “the left” and “the right,” in different sectors of society, and targeting different audiences, both Jewish and not. About 2/3 of the committee’s grantmaking over time has been focused on combating the demonization and delegitimization of Israel, which we believe strongly is a complicated, extensive, and existentially dangerous form of contemporary antisemitism. Many of our grantees work in different ways to present a nuanced, realistic understanding of Israel as “a real place on the planet Earth,” as journalist Matti Friedman has memorably said – not the mythological, idealized or demonized, place of newspaper headlines and politicized shouting matches. We’re not in the least bit afraid of criticism of Israel – in fact, all of our grants in Israel are investments in solving Israel’s core challenges. (Meeting with Israeli grant applicants is just hearing criticism of Israel all day long, in a way.) However, we want to understand and shine a light on that murky area where criticizing Israel becomes antisemitism. In essence we’re following Natan Sharansky’s “3D” test of antisemitism: when criticism of Israel delegitimizes or demonizes it, or holds the country to double standards relative to other countries.
And although no discussion of contemporary antisemitism can be divorced from conversations about Israel, the committee is also proud to support organizations that are tackling more traditional and recognizable forms of antisemitism based in ignorance about and/or animus for Jews, including among those who are starting to understand that fighting antisemitism is an integral part of the fight against white nationalism and racism.
Funding organizations in Israel – not just those talking about Israel – has always been roughly 1/3 of Natan’s grantmaking. This is the second year that Natan has focused its Israeli grantmaking on urban renewal efforts in Jerusalem, benefiting immeasurably from a partnership with the Leichtag Foundation and the Jerusalem Model that has enabled us to dive deep into the challenges and opportunities facing Israel’s largest, poorest, and most diverse city.
As we learn more every year from city leaders, thinkers, and activists about the complexity of a city that is 1/3 Haredi, 1/3 non-Haredi Jews, and 1/3 Arab Israeli/Palestinian, and as we support and partner with organizations working in all of these sectors, we realize how much common perceptions of the city are shaped by overly-simplistic narratives, stereotypes, and an unwillingness or inability to engage with the complex realities of Israeli life. We’ve been so transformed by our learning about Jerusalem, in fact, that we plan to work with Amplifier to create new giving circles focused on funding Jerusalem – let us know if you’re interested in learning more about this new initiative.
It seems easy, in dramatic times, to turn one’s attention to the many fires that feel like they need to be put out, like antisemitism and battles about and within Israel. So it might feel counterintuitive to read, for example, historian’s Deborah Lipstadt conclusion to her recent book about contemporary antisemitism, encouraging Jews to focus more on the “joy” than the “oy” of being Jewish – on what Jews do, not what is done to them (240). Similarly, on a recent panel on antisemitism at the American Jewish Historical Society, the renowned historian Jonathan Sarna commented that he was more worried about Jews being “loved to death” in America through assimilation and intermarriage than he was about the seeming rise in American antisemitism – and thus that the real existential threat was to weakening Jewish knowledge, ties, and communities.
While most Natan members sit on only one grant committee, the staff supports all of them – and, in line with both Lipstadt and Sarna’s exhortations, we’d concur that in this difficult year more than others, it felt gratifyingly balanced to toggle between conversations about fighting antisemitism, investing in Israel, and creating more Jewish joy in the world.
Strengthening Jewish communities and providing creative new access points to Jewish life have been cornerstones of Natan’s grantmaking since inception, and this is perhaps the grant area for which we are best known. Because the evolution of Jewish life is so relevant to Natan members personally – and also for me personally, as a student of American Jewish history – some of the most exhilarating moments of the year are encountering the groundbreaking ideas that continue to emerge in contemporary Jewish life.
I invite you to learn more about all of our 2019-2020 grantees on our website. We’re proud to partner with them and to support their excellent work.
A closing thought: we’re eager to support even more good work across Jewish and Israeli communities in the coming year. Natan is always open to new members who are interested in funding Jewish and Israeli social innovation, and who appreciate the value of being in a community of thoughtful, intentional, hands-on givers who want to wrestle with the issues that matter most to them. If you know of anyone who would enjoy being part of Natan, or who wants to start a similar kind of giving circle in their area – or if you want to disagree with something we’ve said or done! – let us know.
Felicia Herman has been the Executive Director of Natan since 2005, after joining it as a member the year before. She is the founder and board chair of Amplifier, and a proud board member of the American Jewish Historical Society, Sefaria, and Brooklyn’s DreamStreet Theatre Company.