Private Philanthropy as a Builder of Jewish Peoplehood: Observations from the Field

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 7 – Reinvigorating Jewish Peoplehood: The Philanthropic Perspective; published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

by Jeffrey R Solomon

It is often said that private philanthropy when done well, is the passing lane of society. Billions of dollars of assets are available for improving the human condition with little external oversight or intervention. Responsibility falls to the philanthropies’ board of directors. Indeed, this is a wonderful condition for attempting new ways of confronting existing societal needs. Many such foundations understand that their role should be one of trailblazing. There is a long and noble history of private philanthropy in action which has provided immeasurable benefits to society.

How has this impacted the field of Jewish Peoplehood? The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP), established in 1986, sought to build a greater sense of national identity in Canada, “Canadianism”; to provide important educational and other critical needs in Israel and “serve the unity of the Jewish people who’s soul is in Jerusalem.” Inherent and explicit in the formal documents of the Philanthropies is the belief that the primary vehicle to fulfill its mission is through investments in next generations.

The first major manifestation of this in the field of Jewish Peoplehood began in the early 1990’s with the development of the Israel Experience Program. The partnership between the CRB Foundation (one of the Philanthropy’s arms), the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations, the Jewish Agency for Israel and others, was its establishment as a vehicle to increase the number of high school students spending summers in Israel. While the Foundation invested $19 million in this effort and the partners worked toward the reorganization of the vehicles serving this population, sadly, it must be noted that at the end of five years, high school age participation in Israel programs had not increased. An internal evaluation at the time concluded that much of the failure to achieve its objectives had to do with the age of the participants being served, the length of the high school Israel experience (eight weeks), the inability of some of the partners to maintain focus on its objectives, the financial commitment required, limitation of likelihood that the program appealed only to families predisposed to serious Jewish identity and Israel connection and the administrative structure in which priority was not necessarily well-aligned with the relationship of providers to the program.

The creation and launch of Birthright Israel in December 2000 has often been noted as a “game changer” in both the role of entrepreneurial philanthropists in program creation and management as well as the use of an Israel experience in the development of increased Jewish identity, commitment to Israel, and connection to the Jewish people. It is not accidental that the very elements that were highlighted in the evaluation of the Israel Experience’s failure were engineered to lead to the unprecedented success of Birthright Israel. With more than 300,000 Diaspora participants and 50,000 Israeli participants, the effort was based on five core principles which continue to drive the program today, namely:

  1. From this generation on what every Jewish young adult (ages 18-26) should have their first learning and living trip to Israel as a gift from the Jewish people.
  2. Trip organizing should be conducted on a market-driven basis.
  3. The evaluation of trip impact will be a core service included in each budget.
  4. Creative pre and post educational programming shall be an ancillary component of Birthright Israel.
  5. Birthright Israel should remain as an independent entrepreneurial organization.

Clearly the Birthright Israel experience had any number of elements that led to its success. Not the least of these was the inclusion of impact measurements and the separation of quality assurance from impact evaluation. Quality assurance, conducted by an external source, made sure that the educational and logistical standards of the programs were adhered to by the trip organizers. The franchise model being utilized has many advantages over a centrally run program, not the least of these is the ability to focus on objective standards and making sure that the adherence to these is uniform. At the same time an external impact evaluation program enabled researchers to break down the key elements of increased Jewish identity, connection to Israel and connection to the Jewish people into their key components: cognition, emotion and behavior. Documenting in an intense and demanding way the program outcomes (as opposed to simply program outputs) has become a key element in creating the confidence for donors to generously support the program over the thirteen years since its inception. It should be noted that having a scientifically valid control group (applicants to the program placed on waiting lists) enriched and deepened the impact measures.

Within ACBP, as Birthright was beginning, the question was asked what can we do to better serve those Jews who are so unaffiliated that they would not even apply for a trip to Israel which was being given to them as a gift? These conversations led to the creation, in partnership with the Righteous Persons Foundation, of Reboot, a carefully developed initiative to have “creative leaders” in North American trendsetting industries (television, films, music, newspapers, magazines, new media) (re)connect to their Jewish heritage and use their creative talents for initiatives that would speak to their marginally or unaffiliated contemporaries in powerful and meaningful ways. In a highly selective process, 45 persons a year were brought to a retreat setting for an intensive weekend in which they explored the Judaism they were inheriting and worked with one another on issues of identity, meaning and community. Open space technology was used which allowed them to select their most important topics. For virtually all, this was the first time that they were not fed Jewish content but rather they were exploring it in their own terms.

This catalyzed many outcomes which space limitations prohibit explicating. Among those were 10Q, a program that takes the question of tshuvah during the high holidays and uses a digital approach to have participants look inside themselves and answer important questions as to how they are going to change in the coming year, locking those answers in a digital safe and returning them at the end of the year so that they can explore whether one changed in the ways one planned; Sukkah City, a program that has invited architects to design Sukkot, with finalist sukkot publicly displayed, exposing some 150,000 Jewish and non Jewish New Yorkers to the essence of this festival, National Unplug Day and the Sabbath Manifesto which introduces the Shabbat in a very different way to the less observant. As a think tank, catalytic collaborative and an interesting experiment, Reboot has served its purpose well. Hereto, outcome evaluation has been an important component in helping its leaders have it achieve its objectives.

The organic process continued within ACBP as there was need for greater support to innovative projects designed and led by young Jewish peoplehood entrepreneurs. This led to the creation of 21/64 which is the philanthropy’s arm focused in intergenerational philanthropy. Through convening, consulting and teaching, 21/64 has advanced intergenerational issues in philanthropy, and especially Jewish philanthropy. To meet the need of innovation peoplehood funders, Grand Street was established. It sought to help support a network of young philanthropists, many of whom would be moving into the governance and leadership of their family foundations to take these issues including the issues of innovation in Jewish peoplehood more seriously. In addition to organic expansion, athletic listening is an important component of the personality of ACBP. Grand Streeters asked a simple question: Why is there not a Zagat Guide which ranks Jewish innovation projects so that donors can be more informed in their giving. As a result of this question, Slingshot was launched. Slingshot annually has twenty five experienced funders rank more than 200 Jewish innovative projects, self-nominated. Fifty are published in a highly designed guide that has become a key component of development for these organizations. Further, following a request from the Grand Street community, ACBP launched a Slingshot Fund where it matched donations from the membership to fund programs within Slingshot, providing practical grantmaking and fundraising experience for those in the Grand Street cohort. This has been replicated in Europe through the creation of Compass: a guide to innovation in Europe and the Tachlis Fund that provides support.

Among the lessons for us in the development of these and other programs is that the circles within circle approach to Jewish identity, arguing for greater investment in the most committed, must be balanced with an outside-in approach, respecting how much those on the margins can do to grow Jewish peoplehood if simply given an opportunity on their terms. One can argue that the institutionally driven “supply” economy of Jewish life must be balanced or replaced by a demand economy; one that credits those working on the margins. It speaks also to the need for contrarians, rejecting the common wisdom. It argues that Jewish life is today offering Shamai while young Jews are seeking Hillel. Finally, it demonstrates that Jewish Peoplehood is a perfect field in which funders and organizations can create a passing lane.

Jeffrey Solomon is the President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.