Reflections on “Giving Jewish” from a Local Foundation Perspective

Image: Rose Community Foundation Facebook homepage

[This essay is part of a series from leaders in the field of Jewish philanthropy, who will offer reactions and analyses to Jack Wertheimer’s report, Giving Jewish: How Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy, commissioned and released earlier this year by The AVI CHAI Foundation.]

By Lisa Farber Miller

“The Jewish world is resounding with cries and counter-cries. Jews are divided into factions that antagonize one another … Look over the rosters of our congregations, and how many young men and women under thirty will you find in those rosters? Incredibly few. They join country clubs, golf clubs, lodges, big brother associations, community centers… all good in their way, but the last organization that most of our young people think of affiliating themselves with, is the congregation.”

This comment could have been made today. In fact, Dr. David Philipson made it nearly 80 years ago. Indeed, more than 200 years ago, in 1810, Isaac Gomez, Jr. worried about his teenage son’s Jewish future, saying, “I know mankind in general, the young part especially, are so much attached to earthly pleasures and enjoyments as to devote a little portion of their time to the sacred duties of religion; and that little, too often with reluctance.”

Recently, the Jewish Teen Funder Collaborative (Collaborative) visited HUC-JIR Cincinnati where we had the privilege of learning from Dr. Gary P. Zola, Executive Director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. Local and national funders and organizations from 10 communities were wrestling with how to engage more Jewish teens. Dr. Zola surprised and delighted us with original source documents including the Gomez manuscript from the American Jewish Archives.

It was reassuring to know we are not alone and teen engagement is an enduring problem each generation must tackle. All ten communities – national, local funders, and Jewish organizations together – are committed to pooling millions of dollars to experiment with new ways to connect Jewish teens and walk alongside them on their Jewish journeys.

This kind of innovation and funder collaboration are key trends explored in Giving Jewish, a landmark study of American Jewish philanthropy authored by the esteemed researcher Dr. Jack Wertheimer, which focuses on the largest funders. The Study provides valuable information and analyses of big donor giving. Given that he puts the spotlight on national funders, I want to take the opportunity to provide a local, large donor perspective and highlight diverse and effective philanthropic approaches of regional funders.

As a foundation granting over $2.5 million annually to the Denver/Boulder Jewish communities, Rose Community Foundation (Rose) meets Dr. Wertheimer’s criteria for a “big donor.” However, the Study focuses on “national foundations” (although many of them are international in reach). There is a vibrant network of place-based local foundations and federations engaged in exactly the kinds of investments, collaborations, and partnerships the Study exhorts funders to do. The Collaborative is a great example and is discussed in the Study.

The author is not shy about his belief that education is the silver bullet to ensure the Jewish future and it should be a priority for foundations rather than engagement. He states “a solid Jewish education for all Jewish children is the most effective way of building a pipeline not only to leadership but also to future philanthropists and engaged participants in Jewish life.” He wonders, “Why is improving Jewish education for children not a high priority for foundations?”

Improving Jewish education is a focus and high priority of countless large and local funders. But, learning goals and modalities have changed and one expert’s definition of education differs from another’s. Jewish education means much more than classroom learning. As Dr. Jonathan Woocher z”l wisely taught us, “Twentieth-century Jewish education was designed to answer the question: ‘How can we ensure that individuals remain “good” Jews even as they become good (and successful) Americans?’ Jewish education must respond to a subtly, but significantly different question: ‘How can we help Jews draw on and use their Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives?’”

After years of research, the Collaborative learned that teens need much more than just a “solid Jewish education.” The study Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today clearly demonstrated that teens do not see a connection between their Jewish education and their day-to-day lives. We must be more holistic in our view of learning and engagement in order to serve teens – and children and adults – and be relevant. We need more well-trained professionals who know how to convey Jewish learning in a way that links to the interests and contemporary issues teens face and the skills they need.

To this end, the Collaborative funders are giving innovation grants to help teens understand how Judaism can inform, inspire, and promote their personal development and the good they want to do in the world. We help teens answer four questions: “Who am I?” “To whom and what am I connected?” “For whom am I responsible?” “And, how can I make a difference in this world?”

Dr. Wertheimer asserts that “the lion’s share of foundations support innovation.” He presents a divide between national foundations that invest in innovation and local donors who are left to sustain “unsexy” social services and legacy organizations. This divide exists; however, some of the largest Jewish foundations like the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation do indeed fund the Jewish safety net on a massive scale. And many local foundations are working closely with social service and establishment organizations to innovate.

Innovation also has many meanings. In this Study, innovation is conflated with Jewish engagement. The Study asserts that foundation innovation is reserved for new startups serving the least engaged Jews and other experiments outside of the conventional Jewish community. But there are many ways foundations fund innovation well beyond engagement. And, innovation can often involve legacy institutions as partners. For example, Rose has funded a series of grants to Kavod Senior Life, Denver’s Jewish HUD-subsidized senior housing, so it can innovate and for the first time become a data-driven organization, gathering information about residents to provide more targeted and customized services for the older adults who live there, such as fall prevention programs, physical therapy, and on-site mental health services.

Increasing the numbers of Jewish donors is a focus of this Study. “Capacity building” – strategic grantmaking to help Jewish organizations attract stakeholders and involve donors in new ways – is one way this occurs. At Rose, we are keenly aware of the need to bring more investors to the table. Many local donors do as we do: fund evaluation so grantees can demonstrate and quantify their outcomes to satisfy donors who seek proof of impact. We also fund new development staff to strengthen fundraising.

We also work intensively with Jewish early childhood education centers to improve their educational practice and profitability through teacher and director professional development, intensive marketing and enrollment conversion training, and we help them enhance family engagement so they can increase the numbers of young families they serve – creating the very pipeline of new philanthropists Wertheimer says is needed. Six local big givers as well as the Reform and Conservative movements and the JCC Association have supported all these efforts.

It is true as Wertheimer asserts that “the challenge ahead is to build bridges between foundations, which have a constituency of one or two funders, with large organizations, which are accountable to multiple constituencies.” This in mind, many foundations do provide funding to diverse constituencies and engage grantees, donors, and community members in meaningful ways – from serving as thought partners to co-creating grant programs and designing initiatives together to attack enduring problems facing our Jewish communities. Some empower grantees to be funders. For example, a coalition of local donors provides Hazon Colorado with $25,000 annually to fund food and gardening projects. These projects attract Jewish people who are passionate about food and the environment but have never done it with a Jewish organization.

There are many other ways local foundations that partner and invest millions of dollars to enhance Jewish life that are diverse and effective. We earnestly try to tackle the enduring problems we face with ingenuity and innovation as generations of leaders did before us. We just don’t attract the attention that national funders receive.

The challenge is making this vibrant, interconnected local funding ecosystem more visible to all, including researchers, and to bring our successes to scale. Second stage capital will be required. More donors will be needed. Increased support for field-building where like-minded funders of all sizes can exchange and market their ideas would help. Visionary, authentic philanthropic leaders who live Jewish values are important too. There is much work to be done to ensure that every Jewish person and donor is valued, included, and welcomed in a Jewish community where all members can realize their potential and understand how Judaism can help them achieve lives of purpose and meaning.

Lisa Farber Miller is senior program officer at Rose Community Foundation. Rose Community Foundation strives to enhance the quality of life of the Greater Denver community through leadership, grantmaking and donor engagement – stewarding philanthropic resources and investing in strategic and innovative solutions to enduring challenges and emerging issues.