Fulfilling a Mission to the Very End

By Cass Gottlieb and Jonathan Woocher

The JESNA Board held its final meeting a few days ago in New York, and voted to distribute its remaining endowment funds, totaling around three-quarters of a million dollars, to a variety of organizations doing cutting-edge work in Jewish education. This, together with steps to preserve and make available to scholars and educators the intellectual property JESNA created over the years, will be the last steps the agency takes before its dissolution.

“The JESNA Board?” you say. “I thought they went out of existence a couple of years ago.”

Well, yes. JESNA did make the decision to cease its program operations in 2013, a victim of a changing Jewish educational landscape and greatly diminished federation financial support. But, the leadership of the agency was determined that JESNA’s closure be done with dignity and responsibility, and the agency’s mission advanced even with its demise.

The first step was to ensure that no one suffered financially as a result of JESNA’s ceasing operations. We were determined to see both that our staff received the full severance due them and that our creditors all received payment of what was owed. Thanks to a special allocation from the Alliance (the group of federations that provided most of the support that JESNA received from that system), all staff members received their severance almost immediately after the agency closed its doors. And, thanks to a Board fundraising campaign held after the agency decided to shut down, all of JESNA’s creditors were made whole. We believe that the Board’s commitment not to file for bankruptcy, and the members’ willingness to back that up with their own contributions, was an important statement about what it means to exercise responsible stewardship of a Jewish communal organization.

Equally important for the Board was ensuring that JESNA’s educational mission and vision be fulfilled to the extent possible, even in its closing. One goal was to find new homes for some of its flagship programs. Staff and Board members together worked to make this possible – Board members and longtime JESNA supporters committed to continuing to fund some of the agency’s programs and activities under new auspices; staff found ways to carry forward work in which they had been engaged in new settings. In this way, programs like the Lainer Israel Fellows, Grinspoon Teacher Awards, and Jewish Futures Conferences, and work undertaken by the Lippman Kanfer Institute and Berman Center for Applied Innovation did not disappear from the educational landscape.

Perhaps the most important decision the JESNA Board had to make (and one of the reasons the agency has not yet formally dissolved) was how to dispose of the endowment funds that JESNA had accumulated over the years. Some of these funds were donated by individual Board members, and the Board worked with the donors of these funds to redirect them to support Jewish educational organizations and initiatives in a half dozen communities across the continent. This left about three-quarters of a million dollars that could be expended to support Jewish education nationally. A special Board committee reviewed a variety of potential beneficiaries, looking for a mix of organizations and projects that represented JESNA’s priorities and focal areas of activity over the years, and recommended that distributions be made to ten organizations working in a wide range of educational domains. With this work done, at its final meeting the Board agreed to file a Petition for Dissolution, which needs to be approved by the NY State Attorney General. Included in the Petition, and also subject to the approval of the Attorney General, is the Board’s decision to distribute JESNA’s remaining endowment funds to these ten organizations. They include:

  • ADCA (Association of Directors of Central Agencies), to promote inter-community collaboration;
  • CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education), to support small-scale research projects;
  • Covenant Foundation, for an initiative in the area of family education;
  • Education and Jewish Studies Program at NYU, for an Innovation Lab;
  • Hebrew at the Center, to pilot an assessment based approach to strengthening Hebrew language teaching and learning;
  • Jewish New Teacher Project, to train additional mentor teachers;
  • Nitzan Network, to support alternative Jewish after-school programs;
  • Paradigm Project, to establish a coaching academy for early childhood educators;
  • RAVSAK, for their Head of School Professional Excellence Project;
  • Workmen’s Circle, to plan new culturally-oriented supplementary school programs.

All of the recipients are doing cutting edge work that represents what we see as the future of Jewish education – a future that JESNA proudly worked to create for more than three decades.

JESNA will now pass from the scene. But, it does so with a firm sense of achievement, both during its lifespan and in its final actions. While it operated, it sought to and frequently succeeded in modeling what we consider “best practices” for Jewish organizations: a solid, mutually respectful volunteer- professional partnership; an openness to new ideas and a readiness to innovate (entities like the Covenant Foundation, Bikkurim, RAVSAK, and others were born or nurtured in our offices); strong collegial relationships across our field; and a culture of experimentation, learning, and caring. Even JESNA’s failures – and there certainly were those as well – were most often the product of over-ambition. We do not regret pointing to the need for a comprehensive, collaborative approach to addressing Jewish education’s personnel challenges, for example, even if we were never able to build the coalition and raise the resources to do so as we had hoped.

As we leave the field to others, we remain enthused about the new paradigms for Jewish education that are emerging, paradigms we helped to define and to champion. And, we hope that the modest amount of funding we are distributing in our final act as an organization will nudge those paradigms just a bit closer to realization. If this is JESNA’s legacy, we’re happy to say, dayeinu.

Cass Gottlieb is the Chair of JESNA’s Board of Directors. Jonathan Woocher served as a professional at JESNA for 27 years.