by Felicia Herman
The Natan Fund is a grantmaking foundation funded by young philanthropists who pool their philanthropic resources and make grants together to emerging Israeli and Jewish nonprofits and social entrepreneurs around the world. Since a small group of young professionals founded Natan in late 2002, the foundation has granted $7.77 million to 129 organizations and individuals in Israel and around the Jewish world.
Natan is a giving collaborative, and thus its grantmaking reflects the aggregate philanthropic interests of its members (primarily young professionals in New York). Natan’s particular focus on funding emerging organizations – almost exclusively with budgets under $1.5 million – derives from its members’ relatively high tolerance for risk and their strong willingness to fund entrepreneurial, innovative initiatives.
Since 2009, Natan members have allocated $739,000 to 16 organizations specifically through a “Jewish Peoplehood” grant committee. This article will briefly recount how and why Natan settled upon Peoplehood as a funding priority as well as some of the core elements of Natan’s Peoplehood agenda.
Creation of the Grant Committee: Israel, Diaspora, and Peoplehood
Natan’s grantmaking is in a perennially dynamic state, balancing both the evolving and varied interests of Natan’s many members with the evolving needs of the field and the frequent innovations and innovators that are emerging to address the multiple challenges facing the Jewish people.
Natan’s Peoplehood grantmaking has been a prime example of this dynamism. In 2008, Natan’s board split one of the foundation’s original grant committees, Jewish Identity, into three smaller and more discrete areas, one of which was “Israel-Diaspora Relations,” the precursor to the Jewish Peoplehood committee.
The Israel-Diaspora Relations committee supported organizations that strengthened the relationship between Israel and Jews in the Diaspora, either by bringing Diaspora Jews to Israel or by bringing Israel to the Diaspora in a variety of ways. Yet almost immediately, the Israel-Diaspora dyad felt like a limited framework for understanding world Jewry. The immense diversity of the “Diaspora” side of the equation cried out for more attention, as did the notion that Jews might connect to Jews in other countries without necessarily including Israel in the relationship. Moreover, “Diaspora,” with its negative connotation as the penultimate physical locus of Jewish existence, no longer seemed like the way that non-Israeli Jews (especially young ones) understood their lives.
Thus, after a year, the committee was renamed “Jewish Peoplehood,” and immediately funding shifted away from the dichotomy between Israel and the Diaspora to a much more complex, global notion of peoplehood that could better address the richness and wide variety of the global Jewish experience. In many ways, this shift reflected the evolving understanding by many Jews around the world that Israel is not “the” center of the Jewish people, but one of many centers. While this might, as some scholars have argued, mean “the end of the Diaspora” as a framing device, it by no means necessitates a rejection of Israel nor of the unique role Israel plays in the life of the Jewish people.(1)
Indeed, Israel has remained a central programmatic element for many of Natan’s Peoplehood grantees, and the Peoplehood Request for Proposals includes “rais[ing] awareness of and strengthen[ing] understanding about Israel” as one of the grant program’s core elements. Natan’s grantees address Israel in a multifaceted, nuanced way that normalizes Israel as an element of Jewish peoplehood, alongside other central elements. So, for example, Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden operates a yearlong, intensive Jewish Studies course for European Jews, primarily using Israeli scholars as faculty and in fact bringing more Israeli faculty to its programs than any other European educational institution. Jewish Heart for Africa appears similar to many other organizations providing aid to the developing world, yet it does so by installing Israeli solar and agricultural technologies in rural African villages, which improves Israel’s image in those communities, supports Israeli innovation, and engages hundreds of young Jews in North America and Israel as volunteers and donors for the organization. Moishe House oversees 46 houses in 14 countries, and many of the programs that house residents create for their peers are about Israel, with programs taking on different flavors in different locations. In some countries, for example, the Israel programs are purely cultural; while in others, where participants are more likely to see Israel as a place of refuge, the programs focus on elements of Israeli life that are more relevant to people who are contemplating making aliyah.(2)
Crossing Borders – Global Connections
Instilling a sense of belonging to the Jewish collective can often be as simple as providing mechanisms for Jews to connect to other Jews “horizontally” – across geographic borders – or “vertically” – across the borders of time. This cross-border element to Peoplehood is another core element of Natan’s Peoplehood grantmaking, and has become more pronounced over time as technological innovations make such connections easier than ever.
Three of Natan’s newest Peoplehood grantees exemplify this cross-border work, albeit in very different ways. Jewgether, an online “hospitality network,” puts a Jewish frame on the internet phenomenon of “couch-surfing” by connecting Jewish travelers to Jewish hosts who are willing to welcome them into their homes, or at least to show them around their home cities; more than 1500 people are currently registered with the site, from all over the world. A Wider Bridge explicitly creates personal connections across borders, in this case by bringing together lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in North America and with their peers in Israel (with plans to partner with similar groups in other countries in the near future). Asian Jewish Life, a web and print media platform, is bringing Asian Jews to the attention of global Jewry, diversifying readers’ understanding of where Jews live and what they look like, connecting Jews in Asia to each other, preserving the history of Jews across Asia, and strengthening relationships between Asians, Asian Jews, and Israel.
Longtime grantee Toldot Yisrael provides an excellent example of the “vertical” vector to cross-border work. The organization records and shares video testimonies of people who were part of the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, connecting viewers across temporal borders to one particularly dramatic moment in the history of the Jewish people.
For organizations that are already global in nature, new technologies enable them to operate globally-focused organizations with relatively low overhead. Jewgether and past grantee IsraelGives (an online platform for charitable donations to Israeli nonprofit organizations) operate almost entirely online. Organizations like Moishe House and PresenTense (which now operates fellowship programs for social entrepreneurs in 12 cities across 3 countries) utilize complex internal technological systems to enable participants in different communities around the world to see each other’s programs, share ideas, offer advice, and report on their activities.
To What End?
Importantly, building a sense of Jewish Peoplehood is not an end in itself for most of Natan’s grantees, nor for Natan itself.(3) Most of Natan’s Peoplehood grants are for projects that practice “peoplehood in action,” but that aren’t necessarily “about” peoplehood – instead, they are “about” social entrepreneurship, community-building, tikkun olam, Jewish identity, history and culture, and so forth. The goal is to create accessible entrance points for participants into a broader sense of belonging that can then be fleshed out over time as participants engage with Jewish life through a variety of different means – and, in particular, that can address the necessary follow-up question to any peoplehood initiative, which is: to what end – what is the purpose of the Jewish people?
The classical answer to this question has been tikkun olam, the Jewish responsibility to repair the world. A few grantees, such as Jewish Heart for Africa, have explicitly articulated a tikkun olam agenda. For most, however, the agenda is more implicit. PresenTense offers a case in point. The word “peoplehood” rarely appears in its materials, but as co-founder and co-director Aharon Horwitz puts it:
All great Jewish movements have been about the Jewish People trying to realize its collective potential and realize a vision of a more perfect world. Anything worth our investment of time must be proven as a vehicle towards a greater mission. Peoplehood is valuable as a concept to PresenTense insofar as it helps organize the Jewish People to strive as a collective to change the world. We try to live that ideal, and in that way, you could call us a Peoplehood organization, even if we don’t wear the slogan on our sleeve. But it’s in our core. Yes, we connect Jews all over the world and help foster a feeling of kinship and shared community – but that’s only important if it’s getting us to take humanity somewhere better.(4)
That goal – connecting Jews, especially young and disengaged Jews, to a diverse, multifaceted, expansive collective that can bring joy and meaning to their lives, so that they ultimately become forces for good in the world – is at the heart of Natan’s Peoplehood grantmaking.
Felicia Herman is the Executive Director of the Natan Fund.
1. See, for example, Noam Pianko’s blog posts and article summaries at noampianko.com, and David Shneer and Caryn Aviv, New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (NYU: 2005). These arguments have proven very controversial. For example, Shneer was roundly criticized in the question and answer period following his plenary at the Jewish Funder’s Network conference in 2008 (in Jerusalem) and Pianko experienced the same response at the 2010 conference. Audio and video of these sessions can be found at jfunders.org.
2. All information on Natan’s grantees is taken from their websites, grant applications, and personal correspondence with the organizations’ executive directors.
3. Daniel Septimus, the CEO of MyJewishLearning.com, has written eloquently on this topic. Daniel Septimus, “The Real Peoplehood Problem,” The Jewish Daily Forward July 15, 2011, retrieved January 23, 2012 at http://www.forward.com/articles/139942/#ixzz1kJFJQD5F.
4. Aharon Horwitz, private correspondence with the author.