On the scene

Jewish Funders Network convenes with an eye toward the future

The gathering is the group’s largest since its inception in 1990

PHOENIX — The future is now. Or, at the very least, not far off. And the solution, speakers at the Jewish Funders Network international conference suggested on Sunday, is to modernize along with it.

Representing a range of personal and professional backgrounds, the individuals opening up JFN’s annual confab — the largest in the organization’s three-decade history — expressed optimism that the Jewish community, and those who support it, will adapt to an ever-changing and growing philanthropic and Jewish communal environment.

“[Famed General Electric CEO] Jack Welch once said that when the world outside is changing faster than the world inside, that’s the surest sign that you’re in deep trouble,” Sefaria co-founder Joshua Foer said from the dais. “And right now, the Jewish community feels like the world outside is changing. A whole lot faster.” 

“The reason the world out there is changing so fast,” Foer continued, “is because the funding ecosystem out there is continually spawning new initiatives, new companies, new ventures that are like nimble, heat-seeking missiles.”

The changes, Rabbi Kendell Pinkney noted, extend across the Jewish community.

“This is a time of growth,” Pinkney, who grew up attending a Black megachurch in Texas before converting as an adult, said. “It’s a time of expansion. And if I’m telling the truth, I repeated that our spiritual ancestors in D’varim would be extremely proud of the communities that we have created. So, now that we are looking forward into our Jewish future, it is that much more important that we redouble our efforts and commit to building the most robust and richly inclusive and creative communities that we can, so that way, our descendants in 10, 20, 30 years will look back on us with gratitude and thank us for the inspiring decisions that we’ve made today that made their lives possible.”

In her remarks to the nearly 700 attendees, JFN board chair Marcia Riklis highlighted efforts to help JFN, and its members, move forward, citing the organization’s partnership with Impala, an online repository of financial and organizational information of both grantmaking institutions as well as recipients, and SparkIL, which allows individuals to directly fund small businesses in Israel.

“We plan to be the go-to place in the Jewish world for the new ideas that will enhance the field of Jewish philanthropy, and provide that field with badly needed tools,” Riklis said.

Riklis also noted that JFN had grown its membership by 39 percent since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Part of the growth, Ari Rudolph, JFN’s vice president of philanthropic engagement, explained, could be attributed to the nature of JFN’s structure prior to the pandemic.

“During COVID, we were able to pivot quickly,” Rudolph said. “We already had an online presence, and during the pandemic, we were able to expand that across the entire Jewish philanthropic world.”

“If I’m making a meeting in midtown Manhattan,” he added by way of example, “we’re not going to get anybody coming from Brooklyn, much less Detroit or San Diego or London, right? So we already had that [system] in place.”

In addition, Rudolph said, smaller groups of JFN members had already been convening based on shared geographic region or funding priorities.

The conference, which concludes on Tuesday, includes a variety of sessions and workshops targeted for specific subsets of attendees: professionals and funders have different breakout options. Other speakers at the Sunday plenary included conference co-chair Zoya Raynes; Aviva Steinberger, director of innovation diplomacy at Start-Up Nation Central; and Ari Wallach, author of Longpath. Conference co-chair Shira Ruderman addressed the crowd by video message.