Paula Gottesman gives $2 million matching grant to NJY Camps, a ‘seal of approval’ for the once scandal-rocked group

Organization’s CEO says the donation — that largest in its history — signals to other donors to come on board

Paula Gottesman pledged $2 million in matching funds to NJY Camps, giving the organization a “seal of approval” for other donors, the CEO of the group exclusively told eJewishPhilanthropy.

The donation from the Paula and Jerry Gottesman Family Supporting Foundation — no immediate relation of the other Jewish philanthropic Gottesman family — comes five years after NJY Camps’ entire board disbanded over its handling of yearslong sexual abuse by its former executive director, Len Robinson, against female employees. Since then, the organization has brought on a new board and new professional staff. 

“Not only is it important in the dollar figure, which is a significant dollar figure for an organization that has a $16-$17 million budget. It also is a matching gift. And so therefore, it provides others with the opportunity to get out there and be part of this movement to build the thriving NJY camps for the next 100 years,” NJY Camps CEO Michael Schlank told eJP.

“For someone like Paula to not only give us that kind of gift, but [for it to be] a match, means that she very much feels — and the Metro-West Foundation very much feels — that we’re an organization that is deserving of that gift. And that speaks to the mission, to the people who work in this organization, both on the lay side and the professional side. And we’re really proud. It’s kind of a seal of approval,” he said, referring to the Jewish Community Foundation Of Greater Metrowest, N.J., which contains the Gottesman family foundation.

The $2 million pledge represents the largest single gift in the organization’s 104-year history. NJY Camps’ board President Stacie Friedman noted in a statement that the donation comes from “someone who is not an alum but rather a thoughtful philanthropist who recognizes the critical role that Jewish camp plays in building strong Jewish identity.”

The matching program, officially known as the Gottesman Gesher (Bridge) Campaign: Building a Bridge to the Next Century of Jewish Life, will work in two tiers: Gifts of more than $50,000 will be fully matched, one-to-one, while gifts smaller than that will be matched by the Gottesman fund with half the donated amount. “So it’s really incentivizing us to go out and get major gifts,” Will Eastman, NJY Camps’ chief development officer, told eJP.

“It’s all about helping us leverage this to get new supporters engaged,” Schlank said. “And I think it’s really just part of Paula’s plan that Jewish camps and Jewish day schools should be achievable and affordable and accessible to as many families as possible. This is just a continuation of that.”

In a statement, Gottesman called on additional donors  to support NJY Camps, a member affiliate of the JCC Association of North America, which runs seven Jewish summer camps, as well as winter activities.

“We in the Gottesman Family Foundation look forward to having others join us to support and enable our children to attend a thriving NJY Camps,” she wrote. “There, the campers will not only experience all the usual camp activities, but they will also be secure and proud of their Judaism, their people, Israel, and what they stand for. We are happy to invest in this program and believe that those who join us will find dividends beyond their expectations.”

According to Schlank, who joined NJY Camps in late 2020, the donation from the Gottesmans will go toward the organization itself, not toward infrastructure or individual programs.

“One of the things that we want to do is work towards a more thriving and nimble organization. So we’re going to look to do things like knock down our debt and put money towards more strategic and long-term thinking,” he said. 

“It’s not about building a building. It’s not about another hadar ohel (dining hall) with someone’s name on it. It’s about how we are going to ensure that this organization’s trajectory continues… And as we are more financially nimble and capable, it allows us to do our work that much better.”

Schlank told eJP that the donation came with two conditions: “One was that we continue our mission of Zionist education. It’s very important to us as an organization, and she wants to reinforce that… And the second thing was she said, ‘I’m not interested in naming anything anymore in my life. There’s already lots of schools and buildings and things [named for the Gottesman family]. Let’s not do that. Let’s make sure that you all are focused on doing the work. I don’t need anything named after me.”

But Schlank added: “I’m sure we’ll honor her in some way appropriately.”