Funders Exert Positive Influence on Jewish Communal Agenda

by Ramie Arian

Looking back at the Jewish landscape of the year just concluded, I am struck by how deeply and positively the Jewish communal agenda has changed. Once motivated mainly by important but dark imperatives – to save Jewish communities in danger and to remember the Holocaust – today’s Jewish agenda is dominated by creativity dedicated to revitalizing American Jewish life. It is remarkable how much of this shift has been shaped by the strategic investments of philanthropists.

The just-concluded Weinstein Institute for Staff Training, a four-day seminar sponsored by the National Ramah Commission (NRC), is a case in point.

Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism, has become a remarkably attractive target for philanthropic investment, according to Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director. “For several years, there has been rising interest in Jewish overnight camps on the part of funders, who have come to understand how powerful camp can be in building Jewish identity and commitment among young people,” explained Cohen. “Ramah has always been in the forefront in that regard, and over the past couple years, philanthropists have really come aboard to help us strengthen and deepen our offerings. This is especially true this year when Ramah is launching its new alumni initiative, Reshet Ramah, with a $2 million investment from The AVI CHAI Foundation and the Maimonides Fund.”

At the Weinstein Institute, held January 3-6 in Ojai, CA, more than 100 of the designated “best counselors” from each of the Ramah camps came together for sharing, learning, enrichment, and leadership development. Initiated years ago by an endowment from long-time Ramah lay leader Bert. B. Weinstein z”l, the seminar was expanded and enriched this year through gifts from other funders. As a result, the program included staff dedicated to three specialty tracks, and boasted the highest attendance in its history.

The largest specialty track consisted of staff members from Ramah’s Tikvah programs for campers with disabilities. Ramah’s Tikvah programs are supported by the Ruderman Family Foundation, and Tikvah staff participation in the Weinstein Institute was enabled through the Neshamot Fund of UJA-Federation of New York, together with funds raised by Ramah alumni and supporters through the Ramah Israel Bike Ride.

The Ramah Service Corps (RSC) constituted a second, key specialty track. RSC is a leadership program leveraging the experience and skills of summer camp staff to serve year-round communities through family and youth programming, congregational schools, and more. Because of RSC, Ramah was named one of the nation’s 50 most innovative Jewish nonprofits in Slingshot ’12-’13, a resource guide for Jewish innovation. RSC is funded by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC).

Says Jeremy Fingerman, FJC’s CEO, “I have a lot of respect for Ramah. I’ve been to all the Ramah camps: the ruach, the sheer force of the spirit, is very powerful.”

The Daber Fellows were a third specialty track at the Weinstein Institute. Funded by AVI CHAI, Daber is a program to encourage modern Hebrew at Ramah camps. Investing in Ramah is a clear priority, according to Joel Einleger, AVI CHAI’s Director of Strategy for Camp Programs. “Ramah understands the power of camp – that it makes a significant impression on the Jewish identity of both the campers and staff – and they focus their program in that direction.”

It is remarkable the degree to which the vibrant program of the Weinstein Institute was impacted by priorities brought to the fore by various funders. First, Jewish camp has achieved notable recognition for its power to build Jewish identity and commitment, spurred largely by philanthropic investment developed through the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Second, selected donors have made Ramah a special focus for their largess, given Ramah’s particular commitment to intensive Jewish education and leadership development. Third, specific priorities that are important to funders – the topic of inclusion for children with disabilities, and its importance to the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Neshamot Fund, is a case in point – have emerged as themes of particular programmatic focus.

Much has been made in recent years of the allegedly excessive influence of a small group of “mega-funders” on Jewish communal priorities. There is little doubt that philanthropists have influenced the Jewish conversation. Ramah’s Weinstein Institute provides ample evidence that there is room for many funders, not just the so-called mega-funders, to exert positive influence on the direction of Jewish communal life. In my view, the funders’ influence is highly constructive, and entirely welcome.

Rabbi Ramie Arian is a consultant to nonprofits in the Jewish community, focusing on agencies which build Jewish identity and commitment through experiential education, including NRC. He was founding Executive Director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.