Part I: What We’re Learning from the Organizations We Support
By Felicia Herman
Today, we are proud to announce Natan’s 15th annual grant slate, representing nearly $925,000 in new grants and loans to 39 Jewish and Israeli social entrepreneurs, nonprofit startups and post-startups, social businesses, and networks of grassroots initiatives.
Since its inception in 2002, Natan has allocated $13.5 million to more to than 240 initiatives worldwide. This year, 72 members participated in our grant process, distributed across 6 different grant committees.
We thought we’d take this opportunity not just to announce the organizations that we’re honored to be able to support this year, but also to share some of our takeaways from this past grant cycle. We’re splitting this into two posts, representing the two halves of what Natan does: grantmaking and working with emerging philanthropists. Today’s post includes some reflections on our grantmaking: the incredible organizations we’re encountering and the state of the Jewish innovation sector. Next week, we’ll share a little about our work with our members: engaging people in thoughtful, strategic philanthropy through collective giving.
This is our 15th grant slate, and it’s been about a decade since we helped coin the phrase “the Jewish innovation ecosystem” with our colleagues at Jumpstart and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. This year’s 250+ applications confirmed yet again that the ecosystem is alive and well, expanding geographically across North America and even globally. You can see it come to life at gatherings like Upstart’s annual Collaboratory gathering or an ROI Summit. Natan funds innovation because we know there will always be inspiring new ideas and new visionaries coming on the scene, holes that no one noticed needing filling before, new ways of doing things, new audiences that need reaching.
This year, some of the new ideas that seemed especially powerful to us included:
- Chai Village LA, the first faith-based “village” in the emerging American village movement: 200+ grassroots, nonprofit, geographically-based communities that help people age safely and successfully in their own homes. Most villages are for people ages 50 and up, and they are holistic, bottom-up, DIY ways for people to build the communities they want to live in as they grow older. It’s no accident that one of Chai Village’s founders is Richard Siegel, z”l, one of the leading lights of the Jewish counterculture movement of the 1960s and an innovator throughout his long career in Jewish life. Chai Village empowers people to build community together, serve their neighborhoods, and reinvent Jewish engagement. Given the generational shifts happening in America (10,000 Americans a day turn 65) and the dangerous, growing trend of social isolation in America that particularly affects older adults, it seemed especially exciting to discover this excellent new initiative.
- The potential of podcasting. Podcasts aren’t new, but they seem to us to be really hitting their stride. People are recognizing that they offer a powerful, affordable, accessible way to speak to audiences of all kinds in a longer-form, more in-depth and more nuanced way than other media allow. We’re longtime supporters of the “Israel Story” podcast, and this year we’re adding a second podcast to our portfolio, Tablet’s “Unorthodox.” We’re excited by the opportunity to think together with the creative leaders of these initiatives about ways to expand the audiences for high-quality Jewish podcasts, bringing more appealing, accessible, smart Jewish content to audiences of all kinds.
- The changing Middle East. Anyone reading the newspaper knows that many Arab countries are engaging with Israel in a more positive and constructive way than ever before, for a variety of reasons. We were were excited to learn about how this is happening in a grassroots way through JIMENA’s Arabic websites and social media groups, which discuss the history of Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries (see, for example, the Egypt site). Millions of viewers from across the Middle East are viewing these sites, in countries whose ancient Jewish communities were mistreated and forced out in the years following the creation of the State of Israel. More and more people in those countries are interested in learning about the Jews who had lived in their midst for centuries, and what ultimately happened to them.
- We’re also excited about the ways this work will dovetail with the conversations we’re eager to start around the 2018 Natan Book Award winner, Matti Friedman’s Spies of No Country, which will be published in late February 2019. Spies is the story of Jews from Arab countries who were among the first intelligence agents for the emerging country of Israel, crossing boundaries of identity, culture and geography in the 1948 War of Independence. This story reveals the important roles that Mizrahi Jews were playing even at the founding of the state, complicating the simple narratives about Israel and the people who live there.
- Networks, networks, networks. This one also isn’t an especially new development – our takeaway this year is just that we’re really starting to see the benefits of organizing groups of like-minded organizations into neworks to share knowledge, collaborate, and to scale and replicate their efforts. Throughout the innovation ecosystem, sub-fields have been emerging for several years, many of which are organized into networks. This year we’re again supporting Amplifier (for giving circles inspired by Jewish values), the Jewish Emergent Network (of emergent spiritual communities) and Rising Tide, the network of community mikvaot. These complement a handful of other grassroots networks, such as for Jewish farming, creative approaches to afterschool Jewish education, and more. We’re even starting to wonder whether it might be time to start imagining a new “network of networks” for the innovation space (and perhaps in the Jewish nonprofit space generally), which could create more connective tissue between organizations and across fields, amplifying the impact of these important initiatives even further. We know that innovative organizations, even in the aggregate, still haven’t nearly hit market penetration. We’re excited to keep thinking about this, and we invite you to reach out to us if you’re interested in this topic as well.
A list of all of all of Natan’s 2018-2019 grantees can be found here, with profiles of each grant recipient listed by committee. We have listed the recipients by the issues (generally) that they cover, while acknowledging that many organizations could fit into multiple categories.
- Building new kinds of Jewish communities – spiritual, philanthropic, and otherwise (Amplifier, ChaiVillageLA, Jewish Emergent Network, Lazos, Ohel Ayalah)
- Engaging families in new ways (BimBam, Jewish Kids Groups)
- Engaging LGBTQ Jews and helping communities be more inclusive of LGBTQ Jews (A Wider Bridge, Eshel, JQY)
- Using the arts, new media and technology to connect people to Jewish life and ideas (BimBam, Israel Story, Jewish Studio Project, KunstenIsrael, Museum of Jewish Montreal, Unorthodox)
- Reinventing ritual, Jewish education and Jewish learning for the 21st century (Limmud, Mayyim Hayyim, Svara, Paideia)
- Combating the delegitimization of Israel in various sectors (Academic Engagement Network, A Wider Bridge, Creative Communities for Peace, Fuente Latina, KunstenIsrael, The Lawfare Project)
- Telling complex, nuanced, realistic, human stories about Israel and the Jews (Fuente Latina, Israel Story, JIMENA, Spies of No Country, Unorthodox)
- Strengthening social businesses in Israel (Muslala, Shahaf Foundation)
- Creating vibrant, open, creative spaces in Jerusalem (Muslala, New Spirit)
- Economic development, bridging divides and strengthening integration across Israel (0202, Jerusalem Intercultural Center, Jindas, Kulna Yerushalayim, Shaharit, Tsofen)
- Helping the Jerusalem Municipality to engage more effectively with East Jerusalem residents (MiniActive, Jerusalem Intercultural Center, Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research).
Felicia Herman is Executive Director of The Natan Fund.