The Little Foundation with Big Ideas

by Deborah Coltin

Until December 11, 2009, I had the best job in the Jewish non-profit world as executive director of the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, whose mission is helping to keep our children Jewish. Bernard Madoff, a man whom I never met, swept into my life and into our community like a tsunami, wreaking havoc by wiping out all of the Foundation’s eight million dollars in assets, abruptly aborting life-changing Jewish programming and eliminating seven jobs held by passionate and dedicated Jewish communal workers. Stunned by shock, fear and betrayal, our Jewish community, the North Shore of Massachusetts, literally went into mourning.

There are many lessons to be learned from the Madoff affair, and the Foundation’s ability to rise, like a Phoenix, exemplifies the best lesson of all–the power of passion. Robert Israel Lappin, the Foundation’s funder and trustee, is deeply passionate about keeping our children Jewish. Since 1971 he funded the Youth to Israel Adventure, which grew to be the most successful teen Israel experience in the country. His passion for building Jewish pride and ensuring the survival of our People translated into fully funded Israel experiences for our teens; a newly created, fully funded Teachers to Israel experience for Jewish educators, recently hailed by the government of Israel as the “next big Jewish idea”; free home-based inspirational programming for Jewish and interfaith families; and an interfaith outreach initiative, acclaimed by many to be the model for every Jewish community.

While Madoff wiped out the Foundation’s assets, he did not extinguish our passion. My passion fueled an all-volunteer fund-raising effort to send our teens to Israel this summer, which raised more than $300,000 from our community in six short weeks, enough to fully fund 45 teens. Mr. Lappin’s passion and generosity will keep 17 programs alive, reaching almost two thousand Jewish children, dozens of Jewish educators, a thousand Jewish and interfaith families, and countless others. Amazingly, this will be accomplished by a part-time professional staff of four and an endless supply of Jewish passion.

The Lappin Foundation’s success is proof that a lot can be done with a little. The Jewish philanthropic world has been hit hard by Madoff, but we must salvage what we can. Rather than dwell on what cannot be funded, let us focus on and invest in what is doable, letting passion for the survival of our People inspire and guide us.

Deborah Coltin is the part-time executive director of the Robert I.Lappin Charitable Foundation in Salem, Massachusetts. She can be reached at