Remarks by Mem Bernstein at JFN 2019
Thank you, Andres. It is truly an honor to be here.
I want to thank the JFN staff and leadership past and present. Your optimism, your creativity and your guidance has inspired and enriched us all.
Speaking to you here in San Francisco as AVI CHAI approaches the end of its grant making is bittersweet. Though I was born in the Bronx and now consider Jerusalem my home, I raised my family here in the Bay Area and all three of my children – The Felson’s, the Smorgon’s and the Dryan’s – are raising their families here. And here is where my philanthropic journey began with my first husband, Hal Dryan. I guess you might say I found my heart in San Francisco, or at least an important part of it.
I would like to begin with the idea that lives at the core of everything else I’m about to say. A tree is only as strong as its roots. The deeper they are, and the more they extend into the soil that surrounds and nourishes them, the more the tree can withstand, adapt, expand and endure. Buffeted by winds it sways and yields and yet stays rooted. We as Jews are the same. We can adapt and preserve, endure and thrive. But only when we have a firm and deep grasp of our roots.
I was fortunate my parents instilled in me a sense of the beauty of Judaism a commitment to tradition and a love for family which I largely learned from the way my parents lived and from the people who surrounded me. I wanted my children and every Jewish child to have access to a deeply rooted Jewish life. I wanted them to know their roots and I wanted those roots to be deep strong and nourishing.
As you may know, research has demonstrated that that day school education is the best predictor of adult Jewish engagement. Over time, I came to realize that what made Jewish day school education so successful was that by design it is intensive and immersive. It is that intensity and immersion that creates those deep and strong roots. Rootedness does not happen by chance. It is nurtured by deepening knowledge, personal intention, a sense of connectedness, and careful cultivation. In essence, AVI CHAI’s overarching mission is about fostering and cultivating.
For the past 35 years AVI CHAI has been planting trees of Jewish education, culture, practice, and peoplehood in North America, Israel and the former Soviet Union. We have invested 1.2 billion dollars to ensure that those trees have strong deep expansive roots. In Israel we focused our work on strengthening the burgeoning field of Israeli Jewish renewal with the study of Jewish text. In the former Soviet Union we helped fuel a Jewish academic and cultural renaissance intended to re-introduce Russia’s Jews to their heritage and birthright. And here in North America we have focused our efforts on catalyzing what we think of as the energizing nucleus of Judaism‘s next generation. To that end we have invested heavily in the most intensive and immersive educational experiences that exist today – Jewish day schools and Jewish overnight summer camps.
The big question we as funders continually need to be asking ourselves is what does success look like for a foundation that decides to bring all or most of its operations to a close. That question is even more urgent because we will be passing the baton to others long before the job is finished – for it is never finished.
A few months ago, I was invited by Beit Hatfutsot for a brain storming meeting, I went. I knew some people at the meeting but when the participants were broken up into smaller groups, I knew only one person in my group. As the participants in my randomly assigned group introduced themselves each one mentioned, unbeknown-est to them, having participated in a program that AVI CHAI or another one of our foundations had funded. What I found impressive was not the contribution we had made to them. What was so inspiring was the contribution they were now making to the future of the Jewish people.
Ralph Waldo Emerson “wrote” the creation of 1000 forest is in one acorn. These people, these leaders, were acorns we had helped nurture to become the trees of the thousands of forests of the Jewish people. And it was so clear to me hearing them talk, debate, and dream that their roots were deep and strong. I am sure you can imagine for a foundation about to sunset there is nothing more powerful than seeing our work unfold in the ways we had hoped for. To me that is success. These people are our legacy. They will lead the Jewish community in the values we hold dear and in their Jewish knowledge, commitments, and connections we have worked to embed in all of our work.
If I may take the liberty of amending Rabbi Tarfon’s famous dictum from Ethics of the Fathers, “You are not expected to complete the task but you should ensure that there are others who will continue to work on it.” As I look around this room, I see so many friends and colleagues who share our values and perspectives and dreams for the future. When we started our work there were far fewer of you. Today we have partners and allies who cross geographies who have inspired us and now inspire others. That inspiration is reason enough to be confident that our shared work will continue to thrive and to adapt to the ever changing and evolving needs of the Jewish people.
It is with that confidence and with overwhelming gratitude that I close.
Thank you to all of you for your commitments on behalf of the Jewish people.
Thank you to our partners for sharing our vision and values for the future Jewish community carrying that work forward.
In Genesis, Joseph asks his brother: Ha Od Avi Chai? Does my father still live? As I look around this room it’s plain to me that the answer is Yes. It will continue because of all of you.
Mem Dryan Bernstein is Chairman of the Board of the AVI CHAI Foundation.