Meditating On The Margins

by Helen Chernikoff

Most Wednesday nights find Jonathan Matz not only in the same place, but in the same position: his legs tucked under a simple wood bench, his back straight, his chest rising and falling as he struggles to return his focus from his thoughts to his breath.

Matz, 32, is a regular at the Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn, which he calls his source of Jewish community. He’s an attendee at most of the “Wednesday sits” it holds in the evenings at a Jewish day school in Carroll Gardens: 40 minutes of silent meditation framed by discussion of the weekly Torah portion.

But Matz’s Jewish community is in peril.

On his bench, Matz sat in a circle of other meditators, most on round cushions, some on chairs, the school’s podium festooned with Jewish “prayer flags,” its fluorescent lights humming. “Let us all see ourselves as both priests and Israelites,” said the leader of a recent session, the week of Parshat Naso, “both giving and receiving blessing.”

Like others in his stage of life – post-college, pre-marriage – Matz is uninspired by synagogues and other conventional Jewish institutions.

“I haven’t really found community here that I’m excited to go back to for traditional davening,” he said. “I’ve been to some places, but none that would keep me coming back.”

Among the fledgling Jewish organizations that have been successful at reaching the unaffiliated, “Just Jewish” demographic – whose growth was recently documented in a UJA-Federation of New York demographic study – the JMC is a rising star, with a 2,500-name mailing list and interest from Jewish meditators nationwide who want to replicate its model. Thousands have attended its retreats, its “Getting in the Mood” holiday workshops and happy hours like “Beer, Jews and Enlightenment.” It won the communal trifecta typically snagged by promising organizations: a Joshua Venture Group fellowship for social entrepreneurs worth over $100,000 and spots in both Bikkurim, the nonprofit incubator, and the Slingshot Guide, an annual publication of innovative Jewish non-profits.

Yet the JMC is struggling financially.

“We’re in crisis mode, says its founder and director, Alison Laichter, 31. Its primary source of support, the fellowship, is ending, and she hasn’t been able to replace it.

An engineer with a master’s degree in urban planning who worked as a planner before running the JMC full time, Laichter says she will go without a salary this summer. If the center hasn’t managed to raise $60,000 by September, she will have to find another job, leaving the center’s operation to volunteers, she said.

“Slingshot, Bikkurim, Joshua Venture, those are incredible, we wouldn’t exist without those,” Laichter said. “But I’m not interested in nonprofit martyrdom.”

For the JMC, Laichter is pursuing a range of solutions, including one that’s often discussed, but rarely achieved: a merger with a larger, older organization. But the problem of how to systematically support and preserve organizations like the JMC remains.

In keeping young people like Jonathan Matz in Jewish life, these marginal groups can perform a function – precisely because they are marginal – that the traditional organizations can’t perform, precisely because they are traditional.

The JMC is fighting to survive, in large part because it failed to secure funding from Natan, Slingshot Fund (which publishes the guide) and the Covenant Foundation, grant-making organizations to which Joshua Venture and Bikkurim alumni typically turn for support, said Lisa Lepson, executive director of the Joshua Venture Group.

None of the organizations that rejected the JMC’s applications would explain their decision. Of course, competition for funding is fierce, and funders work in their own community, which can create trends that favor certain types of projects.

“I’ve come to expect funding bubbles,” said Kate Forester, senior director of finance and operations for Repair the World, a provider of Jewish service and learning programs, and also a board member of Challah for Hunger, a campus-based organization that raises money for charity by baking and selling bread. “There was a pocket of funding for earned-income ventures, then it was innovation for a few years. It’s like that in the non-Jewish world, too.”

Aaron Bisman, founder of JDub, the nonprofit Jewish record label that in 2011 shut down after nine years, thinks funders might have a hard time getting their heads around the JMC, which is a spiritual organization, but not a synagogue.

“The Jewish world seems to want community without substance,” Bisman said. “Leaders like Alison are focused on substance. Translating that to language funders can understand is a challenge.”

Also, the JMC serves individuals, and funders often want to know an organization will easily be able to grow to reach more people. Due to a lack of resources, Laichter hasn’t been able to begin helping others start new Jewish meditation centers, but the interest is there, Lepson said.

To keep the JMC alive past September, Laichter is focusing on fundraising. She’s seeking 20 donors who will raise or donate $3,000.

For the longer term, however, she is also open – unlike many social entrepreneurs, who are loath to relinquish control of their creations – to becoming a part of something larger, wealthier and older.

“Maybe it doesn’t make sense for us to be a stand-alone organization,” she said. “It takes time to have integrity, to be thoughtful … so that’s really my struggle right now, to buy that time.”

Leaders in the Jewish nonprofit field are pushing the concept of such combinations, but they are extremely difficult to create, Bisman said. Secure organizations don’t feel the need, and struggling ones don’t want to feel swallowed up.

Making matches between new and established nonprofits is usually a challenge, said John MacIntosh, a partner at SeaChange Capital Partners, which provides investment banking services like mergers and acquisitions consulting to nonprofits. That’s why in February, SeaChange started a fund – the New York City Merger, Acquisition and Collaboration Fund – that helps organizations considering a combination by covering the related costs: lease-breaking, severance, IT integration.

Laichter is currently in talks with a prominent organization she thinks would be a great home for the JMC, but declined to reveal the name due to the early stage of the discussions.

In the meantime, she is hashing out the details of a membership system in which the meditators pay for their center themselves. But she knows implementing a model won’t be easy, and isn’t even sure she wants to call it “membership.”

“We’ll have to think carefully about how to make membership matter for the people who come to the JMC,” said Tara Weishaüpl, 33, a JMC board member and a manager at American Express. “They don’t choose membership in traditional Jewish institutions like synagogues.”

This article first appeared in The New York Jewish Week.