Empowerment and Impact: SF Federation’s Jewish Women’s Fund

women's philanthropyBy Julie Levine

The gap between San Francisco’s wealthy residents and its poor ones is growing faster than in any other city in the nation, according to a Brookings Institution 2014 study.

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My Jewish values have always guided me throughout my life – taking care of others, giving help to those in need, tzedakah, social justice, and a commitment to Jewish tradition, study and engagement. I strive to raise my kids with an understanding and deep connection to these Jewish values. I want them to make the world a better place not because it’s a good thing to do but rather because it’s their responsibility. I want them to treat people fairly, honestly, and as equals. But, it’s become increasingly challenging for me to teach my kids about empathy, compassion, and equality when the gap between the haves and have-nots grows wider and starker each year. How can I ask them to walk in someone else’s shoes when everyone around them is wearing new sneakers? I want my kids to know that we are all special regardless of where we live, what we look like and what we have (or don’t have). What more can I do as a parent, a Jewish mother and member of this community to help bridge the deep inequality divide in the Bay Area?

It’s easy to get caught up in my day-to-day life of kids and work, carpools and after school activities. There’s also vacations to plan, tutors to schedule, new clothes for my kids when the old ones don’t fit, home improvements, dinners out with friends at new restaurants. To be honest, at times it can feel like the social and economic turmoil is happening in other places like Baltimore, Detroit and Ferguson, but not here in San Francisco – a prosperous city with new construction on what feels like every block, and services such as Uber, TaskRabbit and Instacart that can make our lives feel just a little too easy and a little too removed. I worry about my own limitations in feeling out-of-touch with the rest of the world, and I also worry about this for my kids. I’m incredibly proud of my children – they are good, kind and decent people (who also volunteer, give tzedakah and do their part to help repair the world) but this increasingly divided world they are growing up in has me concerned.

When Lisa Goldman called me last August to ask if I’d consider being a part of a new giving circle she was leading at the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund to help those in need in the Bay Area, I signed on immediately. And so did 19 other women who all pledged to support women and girls in the Bay Area through a gender and Jewish lens – a Jewish Women’s Fund. While Jewish women’s foundations exist in over 20 other communities in the U.S., this was the first of its kind in San Francisco. I knew we might not be able to repair the entire world, but couldn’t we at least try to mend a little part of it here in San Francisco, in our own backyard? Let’s just say I was ready to dive-in.

We met six times, once a month for close to two hours each session, in addition to several smaller group meetings. There were a lot of pressing issues we brought to the table and we wanted to solve them all: women’s reproductive health, job training for recent college graduates, domestic violence, trafficking, health care, and Jewish engagement, to name just a few.

But, once we began to look at the facts on the ground about women’s and girls’ needs in the local Jewish community, one of our main areas of focus became clear: single Jewish mothers who are struggling financially, and elderly Jewish women.

Many indicators point to the fact that single Jewish mothers are especially vulnerable and largely hidden from view in our community. We discovered that local Jewish organizations are not specifically tracking single Jewish moms and their needs. We decided, therefore, to fund an in-depth study to zero in on the issues most affecting these women, with the goal of ultimately developing effective solutions. We reached out to a handful of leaders from local Jewish organizations, and they were enthusiastic about our potential study and felt it could be beneficial in helping them support this overlooked subgroup. We hoped our study could have long-range implications by shifting our community’s attention and priorities.

When our group met this April, we heard results in progress of the first four focus groups with single moms from Marci Eads and her team at HMA Community Strategies.

Many of the mothers in the focus groups didn’t know where to go for resources or support. They wanted to raise their children Jewish but felt there are many challenges and barriers in doing so. They also felt that they aren’t being engaged as welcome participants in the community but, rather, as recipients of charity. They are tired, many of them said, of having to constantly negotiate synagogue dues, tickets for High Holiday services, or camp fees, and then constantly having to ask about child care availability. One mother summed it up for all when she said, “There is no understanding at all from the Jewish community about the expense of being Jewish.”

I’m grateful for my San Francisco Jewish community, but it’s painful for me to learn that there are Jewish mothers like me in our community trying to raise their kids Jewish who feel that they can’t.

The good news in all of this is that, after six months of studying the issue, we are funding a trial program through Big Tent Judaism to offer a concierge-style service for Jewish single mothers. The concierge will implement creative outreach programming, create micro-communities for single moms and their families, and partner with Jewish communal organizations to better find and serve these women where they are.

Jewish seniors in the Bay Area are also vulnerable. We know that women consistently show longer life expectancy and lower mortality rates at older ages than compared to men (The Older Population: 2010 Census Briefs). Social isolation is shown to be a major health risk factor for the elderly. Aging older adults with declining mobility and vision can be stuck at home instead of getting out in the community. Adequate transportation that is sensitive to the needs and frailties of riders is key to older adults staying social, connected, and vibrant – and to their happily aging at home. We are thrilled to fund a grant to the JCC of San Francisco to be used either for van purchase or programming that connects elderly Jewish women vulnerable to community cultural events.

Our group worked hard this year. I’m proud to be among 21 smart, dedicated women who care deeply about our community. I’ve learned a lot from being a part of the Jewish Women’s Fund this year, but mostly I’ve learned that the power of one Jewish woman is mighty, but the power of 21 is unstoppable.

Julie Levine is the founder of the Jewish lifestyle blog, Florence & Isabelle, which features modern style, beautiful design, delicious food, great books and art and interesting articles from around the globe through a Jewish lens. In addition to blogging, she writes for Kveller, The Kitchn, Maria’s Shriver’s Blog-Powered By Inspiration and The Mid. Julie lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children.

Originally published in Jweekly.com; reprinted with permission.