Planning action

Maimonides Fund launches in-house institute to turn Sapir Journal ideas into action plans

Former White House liaison to the American Jewish community Chanan Weissman tapped to lead the new center; Zack Wainer also brought on board as director of special initiatives

The Maimonides Fund is opening an in-house institute to turn ideas generated by its quarterly Sapir Journal into viable plans of action, tapping Chanan Weissman, a former two-time White House liaison to the American Jewish community, as its director, the organization announced on Wednesday.

According to Maimonides Fund President Mark Charendoff, the impetus for SAPIR Institute was feedback from readers of the journal, who wanted to see programs and initiatives inspired by the articles.

“We found that every time we put an issue out, people contacted us and said ‘On this article you raise really good questions, so who’s doing something about this?’ And our response was, ‘We’re a journal, we’re not doing something about this, we just put the idea out there,’” Charendoff told eJewishPhilanthropy on Tuesday. “After a year, we thought maybe there is a vacuum in the market.”

The new institute is scheduled to launch on April 1. For now, Weissman will be the sole member of the team, though it will likely expand with time. “He’ll work closely with Bret Stephens, who’s the editor-in-chief of Sapir and a lot of the vision behind it, and Ariella Saperstein from the Maimonides Fund side,” Charendoff said.

Weissman, who is coming to Maimonides Fund from the State Department, served two stints as the White House liaison to the American Jewish community, first in the final year of the Obama Administration and then in the first year of the Biden Administration. (Due to his current employment at the State Department, Weissman was not available for interview.)

In another recent though unrelated hire, Maimonides Fund also brought on board Zack Wainer, an academic-turned-consultant, for the newly created role of director of special initiatives.

Wainer, who received a Ph.D. from Brown University in the ancient Near East and history of science and taught in the Department of Classical Studies at William & Mary College, will also work to identify issues of interest to the Maimonides Fund that are not receiving sufficient attention.

“Both myself and the fund are hoping to address some of the issues that either [Maimonides Fund] grantees or other people out in the field are either addressing tangentially or not addressing at all, areas that are important but haven’t gotten attention,” Wainer told eJP.

Wainer, who entered his position on March 1, said he was looking at a number of potential projects to focus on, including improving the “pipeline of Jewish professionals and Jewish education writ large.”

As an example of the type of idea that Sapir Institute will work to develop into an implementable program, Charendoff offered the “moonshot” proposed by Jewish Funders Network President Andrés Spokoiny in Sapir’s Winter 2022 edition of a “universal basic Jewish literacy,” ensuring that every American Jew has the fundamental knowledge needed to hold “informed Jewish conversations.”

“That’s a great idea. That’s doable, and we should figure it out,” Charendoff told eJP. “We can convene people to think this through, to come up with an action plan, and then go to an organization with that program.”

In some cases, Maimonides Fund would provide funding to existing institutions to implement those programs or help a group of people start a new organization, according to Charendoff. “The goal would be to take things from just the idea stage and move it along a path toward implementation,” he said.

Though Weissman will be the only employee of Sapir Institute for the time being, he will not be alone in this work. The plan is for Weissman to identify the topics for the institute to develop and then invite representatives from other organizations, stakeholders and thinkers to discuss the topic and come up with an actionable plan.

“Chanan is the conductor, and we’ll put together an accomplished orchestra,” Charendoff said. “Chanan has already got a range of meetings set up with key individuals so that he can learn what people’s priorities are and what the best ways are to have these discussions.”

This could be in the form of small roundtable meetings or larger retreats, but likely not open conferences, according to Charendoff. “It is not our vision to do things open to the public per se. Each gathering would be highly targeted in terms of who we bring around the table,” he said.

Charendoff said he hopes that Sapir Institute will fill a void he sees in the Jewish communal space. “We don’t have enough opportunity to work through ideas together in creative, compelling ways with A-list talents and thinkers. It’s been frustrating,” he said. “I don’t think this is a solution to that problem but I hope it will be a contribution to the discussion.”