Jewish Grantmakers:
The Futurists of Our Time

By Rabbi Andy Kastner

A number of years ago I experienced a personal and professional inflection point. After years of dreaming and working towards becoming a rabbi, it became clear to me that my rabbinic vision was going to take on an un-traditional shape. Building a rabbinate in the field of philanthropy and strategic grantmaking presented an interesting platform to leverage skills I had acquired and serve the community. However, there were gaps in my skills that I needed to fill.

I needed a program or playbook for learning the craft of grantmaking and, further, Jewish grantmaking. Through professional development opportunities and independent learning, I developed the more traditional competencies that befit an effective grantmaker. Still, I was on my own in finding a framework to shape myself as a Jewish grantmaker.

The creation of a cohesive curriculum will further develop and professionalize the field of Jewish grantmaking. We will create a living document and a disciplined guide to philanthropic investment and community development. It will assert a Jewish point of view and serve as a roadmap to train emerging practitioners.

Here I offer a scaffolding with a focus on Jewish wisdom with the hope of leading towards a codified Jewish grantmaking curriculum.

I have organized this into two sections:

  • A thumbnail of the more obvious, general areas of content mastery that support good grantmaking


  • A sketch of some of the less obvious (and, truthfully, more interesting!) areas of skill and content mastery that define Jewish grantmaking

General Grantmaking Curriculum:

  • Nonprofit governance, organizational structure and culture
  • Grant writing and fundraising
  • Financial acumen (reading and understanding budgets, statements of financial position, 990’s, etc.)
  • Strategies of Collective Impact
  • Content Expertise
  • Data Driven Evaluation

Jewish Grantmaking Curriculum:

Jewish Polity

Grantmakers must know not only the organization(s) they support, but also the broader context or ecosystem in which these organizations are a part. Jewish polity is community mapping. It’s a perspective that provides clarity of the way in which the organized Jewish community is constructed and works. Through this type of mapping, we better understand the historical, political and cultural forces that shape the Jewish corporate world, and the values that guide their work. From here, a grantmaker can better assess the power lines and fault lines of a community system, and see the forces that shape organizational values.

Think of Daniel Elazar’s seminal work Community and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of the Jewish Community as a model of this learning.

Relational Engagement

Relational engagement is a theory of being that draws upon psychology and Jewish wisdom. The theory enables a practitioner to maximize the range and depth of human connection. As a participant in the pilot cohort of M² Relational Engagement Circle, I have been immersed in this theory and practice – it has transformed the way in which I encounter and navigate relationships. Grantmaking is deeply relational work. It requires an attunement to ones character, the interplay of self and other, and effective management of thirdness.

Three main concepts create the frame:

  • Character – a knowledge of ones’ self – the internal characteristics that make someone who they are and inform how they interface with the world. Grantmakers must know themselves to be themselves – and must be themselves to bring themselves.
  • SelfOther – the interaction between two people. This is an aspect of connection that captures the way in which two people interact – at its best, the self and other are dancing, providing real-time mirroring or a relational feedback loop. This leads to a co-construction of learning and meaning – a mutuality.
  • Thirdness – the socio-cultural outer forces that impact a relationship such as titles, gender, or power. Grantmakers must be aware of their thirdness and those that inhabit their various relationships. Through this awareness, grantmakers can better hold, name or navigate aspects of a relationship that can be awkward or inhibit trust building.

Fluency of relational engagement practices, a grantmaker can more effectively exercise deep presence and broad cultural competency.

Talmud Study – Now stay with me here…

Grantmaking presents a striking similarity to the practice of Talmud study.

When you read any given sugiyah (discrete section) of the Talmud, immersed in the give and take of an argument, the reader is struck by the most common occurrence at the end of virtually every sugiyah. That is, that there is often no conclusion – no clear path or prescription that tells the reader, “and now you should do this,” “this is the halakha.” This is where the work really begins.

The reader/grantmaker must be a dot connector, listening with presence, weaving together a cohesive narrative that leads to a course of action. The practice then for the reader, and so too for the grantmaker, is to be a present listener of the text – the person – the context in which one finds themselves. The unique voice of the text, or grantee must be heard and understood on its own terms. Then the reader/grantmaker must have the fortitude to act – to say, I have done the work to assess the situation. While there is, or may be no guaranteed way forward, we must set a path ahead. While this may not be the path, and I am open to course correcting, this is how we will proceed.

Long Range Thinking

Long Range Thinking (sometimes discussed along with futurism) is a discipline of the social sciences, drawing upon historical, social and cultural trends that move us to envision the future.

The Long Now Foundation, founded by the activist and renegade thinker Stewart Brand (remember The Whole Earth Catalog?), is an organization that seeks to foster long-range thinking. In a talk about Super Forecasting in 2015, Philip Tetlock, professor at the Wharton School and the School of Arts and Sciences, discussed:

What can we learn from long-range thinking?” He notes, “The right analogy is not Nostradamus and prophecy. The right analogy is optometry. The increasing clarity with which you can see the Snellen eye chart when you are fitted with some better glasses.”

Long range thinking pushes us to bring into focus what lies beyond the horizon. This is a type of problem solving and community development that looks generationally, in succession.

One way of bringing this theory into focus is to look at generational patterns. The 14th century Islamic Scholar Ibn Khaldun, put forth a cyclical theory of history that plays out in four revolving generations. In his latest masterpiece, The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene synthesizes these four generational patterns.

~ “The first generation is that of the revolutionaries who make a radical break with the past, establishing new values but also creating some chaos in the struggle to do so.”
~ “Then along comes a second generation that craves some order – they want to stabilize the world, establish some conventions and dogma.”
~ “The third generation, having little direct connection to the founders of the revolution – feel less passionate about it. They are pragmatists. They are not so interested in ideas but rather in building things.”
~ “Along comes the fourth generation, which feels that society has lost its vitality, but they are not sure what should replace it. They begin to question the values they have inherited, some becoming quite cynical.” (Greene plots us here now)

In a world in which people appear to be thinking in the shorter and shorter term, while the rate of cultural change occurs faster and faster, grantmakers must endeavor to extend the time horizon of their thinking. In the mode of long range thinking, we seek to envision a world that does not yet exist, perhaps a generation (or more) hence, and set in place the building blocks to make it manifest.

And this is a Jewish way of thinking. In his final address, in June 2013, before stepping down from more than two decades in office, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, affirmed that Judaism is lived inFuture Tense.”

“It [Judaism] is the only civilization whose golden age, the messianic age, is yet to come. As a result, Jews look forward more than they look back.”

When Moses meets God in the burning bush, Moses asks God what name he should call God. God replies enigmatically, in a phrase, unique to Tanakh:

Ehyeh asher Ehyeh

A common (mis)translation can be found, ‘I am: that is who I am,’ or ‘I am the One who is.’ This is a grammatical error. The phrase means, literally, ‘I will be what I will be.’ As Rabbi Sacks puts it, “God’s name belongs to the future tense. His call is to that which is not yet. If we fail to understand this, we will miss the very thing that makes Judaism unique.” In the pursuit of imitatio Dei, of striving to embody Gods characteristics, we as human beings, as Jews, and as grantmakers, are called upon to move toward and envision the future.

The enterprise of the Jewish people has existed for at least 3,000 years. What would it look like for grantmakers to invest in generational time?

Grantmakers, Narrators of the Future

Grantmakers serve as the narrators and advocates of community need and opportunity, stitching together the people and resources that move community and culture closer towards the vision of justice. To do this, we must be pathfinders and we need a curriculum to help guide our work and shape our vision of the future, now.

Rabbi Andy Kastner is the Interim Executive Director at the Jewish Federation of the East Bay.