Mem Bernstein: “Passing the Baton”

Mem Bernstein, Chairman of The AVI CHAI Foundation, delivered the following key note address at the recent Day School Investor Summit, convened by Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, November 11-12 at the Ritz Carlton-Bal Harbour. More than 100 philanthropists dedicated to growing the day school field were in attendance.

I surely hope that all of you know what an honor it is for me to be here with you today. Thank you Ann, Gail, the entire Prizmah board and staff for making this summit a reality.

And not just a reality, but a real celebration of what all of us in this room have, and will yet, accomplish.

I don’t usually give a formal speech. I am much more comfortable talking with people one on one, or at my Shabbat table in Jerusalem, so please come and visit me, Ann did!

Over the last 20 hours, several of you have asked to know a little bit more about me, why national funding, why Prizmah, and how Prizmah will fare without AVI CHAI.

So if you will allow me, I would like to answer your questions.

I grew up in the Bronx. My parents never had a formal education.

My father started out as a taxi driver and later he and my mother bought a toy store.
No, not Toys R Us! My parents were simply hard working people.

I didn’t go to a Jewish day school but my parents instilled in me a sense of the beauty of Judaism, a commitment to tradition, and most importantly, a love for family,
which I largely learned from the way my parents lived.

You see I grew up in an apartment building with my grandparents, two aunts and two uncles, and four cousins, all of whom kept a kosher home, lit Shabbat candles, and changed the dishes for Passover.

You get the picture?

Life moved on rather quickly and by the time I was 20, I was married and had moved to San Jose, California, where my then husband, Hal Dryan, and I began a mortgage banking business, and we were blessed with some success.

Just after our third child was born, two Chabad rabbis came to town and asked our synagogue rabbi who they might meet with in the community to talk about opening a day school, and so the rabbi sent two Chabad rabbis our way.

We met with them, one rabbi did all the talking, the other, the listening.

The one who spoke said nothing I liked.

But the day after their visit the quiet rabbi called and said,

“I don’t think you were comfortable yesterday, and I would like to come back to speak with you again.”

He came.

I have to tell you – I have absolutely no memory of what he said during that second visit but, there was no doubt, he was an exceptional person.

Well…my husband and I, along with the late Jim Joseph, and several other families, bought a public school building and the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School was launched, and is still operating now as a community day school almost 40 years later.

Let me be honest, I did not consider day school for my children before this.

We moved to San Jose for business and decided to raise our family there, despite the fact that there was no day school. I hadn’t gone to day school, and I was doing just fine!

But now that we had made that investment in this new school, of course, I had to send my children there.

And I could not have given my children or my family a more extraordinary gift.

At the time, I was already pretty involved in our federated community. I was chair of our women’s division and served as campaign chair for both women’s and men’s divisions. I served on the national young leadership cabinet, with Gail Nory’s father-in-law Neal. And I was on the board of our local JCC.

But now, I was joining the board of our day school. And this was different.

This was about my children, and their Jewish futures, a future that would hopefully offer them social, academic, professional, and religious success. I was committed to making their experience as good as I possibly could.

You see, I love being Jewish! I wear it like a badge of honor. After all, Jews have given the world, humanity, inspiration and a guide for living a good life.

There is hardly anything in the world that Jews have not touched: music, literature, technology, medicine, I could go on forever.

I wanted my children – and everyone’s children – to have access to all of that knowledge and to know that they are part of an incredible people, with an extraordinary past, present, and future.

I learned that day schools can be one of the most effective ways to ensure children know who they are as individuals and as Jews. Day schools can give them a strong sense of community, a deep awareness that they are part of something so much bigger than themselves.

I am not going to tell you that everything was perfect at the school – it wasn’t. I wasn’t always thrilled with the secular education, not every teacher was great, not enough families enrolled, and fundraising was always an issue.

And although past performance is no guarantee of future success, I cannot be prouder or more amazed when I say, that to date, all of my children and ten grandchildren, have graduated from, or are attending Jewish day schools. This is even more exceptional when I tell you that they all live in northern California – San Francisco!

But, back to my story.

In 1977, I divorced. Everyone in California was getting divorced in the late 70’s. And in 1986 moved up to San Francisco.

In 1988, I met and married Zalman Bernstein. That story will have to wait for another time! But I will tell you, he was a blind date.

We moved to Jerusalem, and the next stage of my philanthropic life began.

This next stage, while on a more institutional scale, was not new to me. It reinforced and amplified all that I knew and had done previously.

By the time Zalman and I married, he had already established the AVI CHAI Foundation and he was preparing to step down from the day to day management of his investment research firm. He was dedicating his time and effort to the work of this new foundation. Together, we were off to live in Israel, at least part time.

As you may know, the mission of AVI CHAI is a dual mission, that of increasing Jewish commitments and fostering mutual understanding between Jews of different backgrounds.

But did you know that AVI CHAI’s first ten years were focused on adult education?
As Zalman only came into his practice of Judaism as an adult, it made sense that he would want others to have the same opportunity to learn and grow as he had.

Zalman’s Wall Street success largely came as a result of good research and so it stood to reason that his philanthropy would follow suit.

Therefore, when an analysis of the 1990 Jewish population survey demonstrated that 9 years of an immersive Jewish education was the best predictor of Judaic involvement for an adult, the Foundation realized that investing in adult learning was too late.

The key was to start early and educate the children.

An immersive Jewish education meant a Jewish day school education.

Not surprisingly then, in 1994 The AVI CHAI Foundation made the strategic decision to focus its philanthropy on building and supporting the field of Jewish day schools.

During that time, I was completing my second book; again, a story for another time. I ran a few educational programs in Jerusalem, but I was, in essence, “out of the business.”

That was, until Zalman’s death in 1999, when I was bequeathed Zalman’s seat on the Foundation’s board.

Arthur Fried was the then Chair, and it was under his leadership and mentorship that I prepared to take over as Chair in 2012. I assumed that my work at AVI CHAI would feel like a natural extension of my experience to date.

I quickly realized, however, that by being a national funder I was being offered the opportunity of a lifetime.

I was able to make a difference on a scale I could not have imagined.

I began to see a field and not just one school.

I was impacting hundreds of thousands of students, not just hundreds.

I was investing in the talents of thousands of educators and leaders instead of dozens, and I met thousands of people like you, who, like me, believe in the power of their day schools to make all the difference.

Over the last 20 plus years, AVI CHAI has invested over a billion two hundred million dollars in Jewish philanthropy, of that, over 325 million dollars in building and supporting the day school field. Through that investment, we have worked to strengthen day school leadership, to enhance teaching and learning, specifically in the areas of Hebrew and Judaics, and to further innovation and 21st century learning techniques in day schools,
• We have worked with more than 600 schools, enrolling more than 136,000 students each year.

• More than 1000 day school leaders have participated in an AVI CHAI-funded professional development program.

• More than 3000 day school educators have participated in at least one AVI CHAI-funded program.

• $160 million dollars has been raised for day schools through AVI CHAI-funded resource development programs.

And, we were the catalysts and funders of the formation of Prizmah from five separate organizations that served various day school streams – because we thought one strong organization would be better standing together rather than five standing separately.

And these are things that only a national funder can accomplish. We can take a very broad perspective and enable individual schools and communities to take advantage of resources that they cannot create for themselves.

No individual school or community can or should develop a leadership training program, or a new Hebrew language curriculum, or a teacher mentoring program.

They can, however, leverage available and effective national resources for their community, for their schools, and for their students.

A few years ago, I joined the AVI CHAI staff on a road trip around the United States
meeting with Federation representatives, day school leaders, and funders just like you.
Some of you were in those meetings. Mark Liner was!

We wanted to talk about the potential of national funding – the leverage and the scale such an approach offers. And so, we put together a presentation of all of the programs that AVI CHAI funded, that each school in each community participated in or benefitted from. The results were astounding.

Each and every community we visited saw, almost for the first time, how much their schools had benefitted from these national investments.

Some schools had taken advantage of a few AVI CHAI programs, others dozens.
And those were only AVI CHAI programs.

But least you think that once I was working at the national level that I no longer invested in individual schools, it is not true.

My involvement in the Bay Area day school community has only grown.

I mentioned earlier how my children attended the only day school in San Jose at that time which was a kindergarten through 8th grade.

There is now, in San Francisco, the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, a school founded in 2001 by a group of community members and Keren Keshet, another foundation funded by my late husband’s estate, and I chaired the Board of the JCHS for the first ten years of its operation and Keren Keshet is still an active funder.

You see it does not, and should not, have to be national or local, we can all participate at both the national and local levels, at whatever levels we can.

Let us remember that the day school field is a 2 billion dollar a year industry.

Of course, most of that money is raised from tuition. But nearly five hundred million dollars a year is raised from individuals like you.

AVI CHAI has infused the field with approximately 16 million dollars a year, that’s just about 3% of the pot.

This is pretty good leverage, I would say!

So why am I telling you all of this?

Because AVI CHAI is a spend-down foundation, and at the end of 2019 we will no longer be making grants.

Our decision to spend down was decided more than a decade ago, and we have been working with our grantees, including Prizmah, to best insure they are well-prepared for a post-AVI CHAI world.

I think most people are far more worried about our leaving the field than I am. I look around this room and I am hopeful that day schools will be just fine.

But, one thing I am certain of:

Without funders who invest both locally and nationally, day schools will find it more difficult to find the services they need.

You are the people who have always stepped up to the plate.

You are the ones who recognize the value of what your day schools offer your families, your communities, and the Jewish people.

I share my story with you because I am you. I was involved. I saw value, and I did what I needed to do. And I hope I made a difference.

Zalman must have hoped he made a difference too.

Let me conclude by telling you what I want to do,

I want to reach out my hand and pass you the baton. You see, you can only pass a baton to a teammate.

We have been on the same team for a very long time you and I, and I am so grateful to have had you as my teammates.

When you think about what the day school field needs, what kinds of investments might be necessary, you can begin to think together. And together you can make all the difference.

There may or may not be another AVI CHAI in this room. There doesn’t really need to be one.

I ask you to think together how you, the collective you, can continue down this path – together. As Alison said, don’t go fast, go far!

And I ask each one of you – as an individual, to consider what piece of the whole you want to take.

Where do your interests lie?
Where can your skills and knowledge make a difference?

Because, each of you, as individuals, make up the collective you, and that collective you is made up of some pretty exceptional people.

Take the baton, it is an incredible opportunity,
Don’t miss out, you won’t be sorry. I never was.

Mem Dryan Bernstein, “venture philanthropist,” is the Chairman of the Board of the AVI CHAI Foundation, a leader in Jewish education, and a trustee of two major foundations, Keren Keshet – The Rainbow Foundation, whose signature project, Nextbook, promotes Jewish literature, culture, and ideas through its website, www.tabletmag.com, and The Tikvah Fund, committed to supporting the intellectual leaders of the Jewish people and the Jewish State. In the late 1980s, Mrs. Bernstein authored two books that should resonate with today’s baby boom generation: Aging Parents and You published in the U.S., and The Sandwich Generation, published in Israel.