Rewriting Fate:
Andrés Spokoiny’s Speech to JFN 2018

By Andrés Spokoiny

One of my all-time favorite films – and this will tell you my age – is Lawrence of Arabia. There’s an amazing scene in which one of Lawrence’s men, Gasim, gets lost in the Nefud desert. Lawrence wants to go and rescue him but he’s told that it’ll be impossible to find him alive and that Gasim’s death is maktub, it is written. Lawrence disregards the warnings and goes into the desert, in the next scene he appears carrying the poor Gasim, alive, and Sherif Ali says: “For some people, nothing is written unless they write it.”

I love that quote, because even though it’s said by a Muslim to a Christian, it’s a very Jewish quote. Jews don’t believe in fate. We don’t believe that anything is pre-determined. For Jews, fate is not what happens to people however they act, it’s what happens to people unless they act.

And I’m learning to love that quote even more, because Israel at 70 is a story of people defying fate, of people being told something is impossible, and doing it nevertheless, of people writing their own story.

On this very stage, a few years ago, Shimon Peres z”l told us that the greatest gift of Judaism to the world was dissatisfaction: the notion that we’ve had, from Abraham to Isaiah and from Einstein to Ben Gurion, that we will not accept the status quo, that we are here to change the world.

And this rejection of fate is at the core of philanthropy. We don’t just say that some people are fated to be poor, or that Jews are fated to suffer antisemitism. We do philanthropy because we believe that we can change people’s lives and the world. This country is full of examples of how philanthropy can change reality.

If, through bold philanthropic visions, countries can change their fate, the same is true for individuals. People can alter what appears to be an inescapable destiny through philanthropy. I don’t think I was fated to be here with you today. My fate was probably to live in squalor in a Buenos Aires shantytown; my fate was probably to die an alcoholic at 39, like my grandfather, or at 47, like my father. My genes and my economic realities were not stacked in my favor. If I’m here today it’s because of an eshet chayil mother who refused to surrender to our “fate” and because a community had a bold vision and an unimaginable dream: that no Jewish kid in Argentina would be left to his or her fate. I am here today because of people who did not accept fate as a given.

Because of who I am, because of knowing what philanthropy can achieve – for people and for countries – it drives me meshuga when philanthropy doesn’t maximize its potential. And I’m not alone: Lately, there seems to be a malaise around philanthropy. A lot of folks have great ideas and bold visions, but at the same time they doubt whether philanthropy can really produce change. They believe that the problems of the world have become too difficult, too intractable for philanthropy to have an impact.

And that’s understandable. After billions of dollars that we have poured into philanthropy, many of the world’s problems remain unchanged.

In a recent survey, the Center for Effective Philanthropy discovered that only 13% of CEOs of foundations in the United States think that philanthropy collectively is changing society. Think about it: 87% of funders think that philanthropy is falling short of its potential.

And they have a point: if we were that good with our philanthropy, the world would look very different. There wouldn’t be hunger, or war, or cancer – or hemorrhoids, or whatever.

But being an optimist against my better judgement, I would rather focus not on those that don’t change the world but on the philanthropists who do change the world. And many of you are here. Those funders manage to change reality, and they don’t have to be big funders investing millions. They can also be small funders who have a creative idea that they pilot, and it gets replicated and scaled.

What do these funders who really move the needle have in common? What is their secret sauce? What separates a bold vision that remains a dream from a bold vision that becomes reality?

There are probably many things, but one stands out. All these funders reject simple answers and embrace complexity.

How nice it would be if the world was all neat and simple, if every problem had a clear solution and if all the chips fall into place every time. Well, in case you haven’t noticed, it isn’t. So facing that complexity we have two options: we can ignore it and run away; or we can understand that there is no other way than wrestling with the complexity of the world.

The fear of complexity leads to magical thinking. We see magical thinking at play in politics; the rise of populist extremism is an attempt to find simple answers to the complexity of the world.

As a global network celebrating 70 years of the State of Israel, no issue illustrates that complexity better than the relationship between Israel and the Jewish world. There can never be an easy solution to that, because there is no precedent in the world for a people dispersed and exiled for 2,000 years coming together to create a state that is not only a state for all its citizens, but also a state for a dispersed people. How can there be an easy solution for something that is a new experiment in the history of humanity?

Embracing complexity promises a hard life of uncertainty and permanent wrestling and adjusting, forcing us to be flexible; but ignoring complexity will end in either irrelevance or catastrophe. Our Jewish tradition teaches to live in that tension, to wrestle with that complexity day in and day out. Maybe that’s why we are called “Israel,” the one that wrestles.

All of us have different missions and different interests, so we face different complexities. But there are things that we can all do to live with that complexity. And I want to suggest five things that we can all do to embrace complexity better.

First: in the Jewish and Israeli context, embracing complexity means accepting the basic diversity of the Jewish People. Many of us, too many of us, would prefer a Jewish World that only has people who are like me, who think like me, who look like me. Some among the orthodox and the right say, “Don’t pay attention to liberal Jews; they’re all assimilated; they’re disengaged anyway.” And some in the liberal camp say, “The Orthodox are just a relic from ancient times, sooner or later they are going to disappear.”

You know what? I have news for them: Nobody is disappearing. We are stuck with one another. And it’s good that we are, because those who don’t understand the essential complexity and diversity of the Jewish People don’t realize that we are like a mosaic: only beautiful when it has different pieces of different colors; or like a diamond, which is more valuable the more facets it has.

I’m sure you know the joke of the Jewish Robinson Crusoe, stranded on a desert island. They come to rescue him and he proudly shows all the things he built while alone on the island:

“This is my house, this is my workshop. That building is my synagogue.”

The rescuer asks, “And that building over there?”

“Oh, that’s another synagogue, but I would never set foot in that one.”

Now, traditionally, this joke is interpreted as a demonstration of how fractious and divided the Jewish People is. But for me it’s the opposite. Think about it: even though he would never go to that synagogue, it was important to him that it was there.

My friends, we, Jewish funders, work with this Jewish people, with this Israeli society – the real one, not the one that the prophets of exclusion keep imagining. We need to embrace that diversity and that complexity because diversity is a guarantee of creativity and the best antidote we have against entropy.

Second: Being effective in times of complexity demands that we become relentless question askers. And that’s not easy, because our society values those who have strong answers – who seem always to be infallible and know what to do. Even though they are consistently wrong, that doesn’t matter, because we live in what neurologist [Robert] Burton called a certainty epidemic.

Children ask questions; adults don’t. They are conditioned to know that it isn’t good to ask questions, it’s good to have all the answers. We value the strong leader who has all the answers, but let me tell you something: A leader who has all the answers is a strong leader in the same way that cyanide is a strong drink.

To be a truly strong leader in these complex times, the most important skill a funder can have is to ask questions. To ask questions that challenge the status-quo and force us to look at things in a different way.

You all know déjà vu, right? You go to a place where you’ve never been before but it looks oddly familiar. Well, I want to propose that we adopt the inverse: vujà-dé. Take something that is very familiar and look at it anew. That’s a way of questioning your reality. When was the last time you put a question mark after your most strongly-held belief? Believe me, it’s a terrifying exercise, but necessary.

What ruins the world is too much criticism, but the absence of self-criticism. Those who never change their minds never change anything.

The third point I want to make – and you know I repeat this over and over – is that in complex situations, to be effective, we have to collaborate. Collaboration, partnership, and networking are not nice-to-haves; they are basic necessities.

Another joke: a factory owner had a production line that broke down, costing him millions of dollars per day. So he finds the world expert on that type of machine. The expert, in a nonchalant way, takes out a screwdriver and turns one screw. The production line comes back to life and the expert presents a bill for $100,000. The factory owner says, “One hundred thousand dollars for turning a screw?!” “No,” says the expert. “Turning the screw is one dollar. Knowing which screw to turn is $99,999.”

We are a little bit like that industrialist. Sometimes we keep turning the wrong screw. And in very complex times, we need to make sure that different parts of the ecosystem are turning different screws, which are different ways of acting on problems and affecting reality. The more screws we turn, the more impact we will have.

Collaboration is not only “you fund my project and I fund yours.” We can do that. But the kind of collaboration I’m talking about is when we sit together with a difficult problem and put our brains together towards solving it. As we speak there is a group of funders who have come together to tackle a very complex problem: the #MeToo issue and the status of women in the Jewish community. And they deserve a lot of credit, because they’re facing this issue without answers. They don’t know yet what works and what doesn’t.

The fourth key to being effective in complex times is to be in it for the long haul. In the Jewish world, sometimes we are infanticides: we create or fund a new project, and just as it’s taking off, we walk away and effectively shut it down. We lose interest too fast. But any program that has made a real difference is a program that was supported for a long, long time. Avi [Naor] was speaking this morning about his program for road safety. 22 years, Avi? Birthright: 18 years. Jewish Teen Funders Network: 11 years. There are no shortcuts to impact; just long, sustained commitment to investing in a program at the level it requires.

Philanthropy is like climbing a mountain: the land you’re walking on is part of an amazing view, but you can’t see that vista until you reach the top. And it’s rewarding to reach the top, but it takes time.

Fifth, and finally: Those who are successful at navigating complexity are those who have a clear and inspiring vision. You think that’s obvious? But it isn’t. Sometime I feel that our only goal in Jewish philanthropy is to stop things: we want to stop assimilation, we want to stop antisemitism. Well, I don’t think that being a red traffic light is anybody’s definition of an inspiring dream.

Do we, as funders, have enough bold visions? Are we willing to make bold bets? Do we have enough dreams? Do we make enough philanthropic moonshots?

Let me correct myself. The “moonshot” is not a good analogy. President’s Kennedy original drive to get the moon was born out of fear that the Soviets would overtake America in the Space Race. I would like to see moonshots, bold bets, out of optimism, and out of knowledge of the amazing things we can do when we work together.

Sadly, in today’s world, only the extremists seem to have passion and a willingness to carry out their dreams. It is our duty to show that you can be passionate in moderation. The word passion in English comes from the Greek pathos, which means suffering. But in Hebrew, hitlahavut comes from lehava, flame. And fire and passion have something in common: you can give them to somebody else without losing them. So never let the extremists have a monopoly on passion. Never think that bold vision and embracing complexity are contradictory. They are not. Clear vision and realistic execution are two sides of the same coin, because execution without a vision is a nightmare, and a vision without execution is a hallucination.

So: diversity, curiosity, collaboration, patience, and vision – that’s how Jewish funders can rewrite fate and change the world. And for JFN, the core of our mission is to help you do precisely that. We’re not just a place where funders come to schmooze; we’re here to help you realize your philanthropic dreams.

That’s why, over the last year, we’ve been working on a new strategic framework that we’re calling “JFN 3.0.”

The name is not particularly original – but the thinking is. We’re going to be helping you form coalitions and movements to address major issues in the Jewish world. We want to transform networked philanthropy into a force for good in the world.

We asked ourselves three basic questions: Why, What if, and How. Why is philanthropy not maximizing its potential? What if we helped funders work together and collaborate more? And How can we do it? How can we make this vision a reality?

In the Bible, when God approaches Moses to lead the Jewish people, Moses panics. He has a very human reaction. He says, “Mi anochi?” “Who am I?” Who am I to lead? But in our world, we are called to lead. There is a dearth of leadership in the world. When we are asked to lead, many of us may panic too, and say, “Mi anochi?” “Who am I?” But, ultimately, we all need to step up. Because the Jewish world is hungry for positive, transformative leadership, and they are looking to us. It falls on each and every one of us to do whatever we can to lead the Jewish people and the world to a much better place.

It reminds me of the story of a man who stood before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world. “Dear God,” he cried out, “Look at all the suffering, the anguish, and the distress in your world; why don’t you send help?” God responded: “I did send help. I sent you.”

Earlier I mentioned that we are called “Israel,” the one who wrestles. But we are also called “Yehuda,” which means the one who gives thanks. In fact, in philanthropy, Yisrael and Yehuda, courage and gratitude are inseparable. We do philanthropy because we want to change the world and have the courage to wrestle with complex issues. But we also do philanthropy out of profound gratitude. Gratitude for what we have; gratitude for all the blessings that were bestowed upon us without us necessarily deserving them; gratitude for the amazing miracle that is this country all around us; gratitude to the men and women who fertilized this ancient soil with their sweat, their tears, and their blood; gratitude to every generation of the Jewish people who wrote their chapter of the collective Jewish adventure and kept the Jewish people alive through insurmountable odds; gratitude to each and every one of the miracles that we are blessed with.

My friends, I’ve been saying how complex and difficult our times are. But let’s never forget that as difficult as our challenges appear, they are not even close to as hard as the ones that our ancestors had to face. Yes, the world is bedeviled by complexity. “These are the times,” said Thomas Paine, “that try men’s souls.” And many of us may use this complexity as an excuse for inaction and despair. But we don’t have that luxury. We are guided by what Hillel said two thousand years ago: “Where there are no good people, you be a good person.”

In this room today I see almost six hundred truly good people. Looking at you, a quote comes to mind: “Ashrei ha’am shekacha lo.” Happy is the people who have folks like you. You could be anywhere today, and I’m sure you have a million things to do that are more fun than listening to some hyper-verbose dude with a funny accent. But you’re here. And the fact that you’re here gives me enormous hope.

I pledge to you, and I ask you to pledge to each other, that we will never be afraid of complexity, and we will never shrink from taking it on. With courage and gratitude, together we will keep rewriting the fate of our people and the world.

Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO, Jewish Funders Network.