The power of incremental change
Change takes time, but it does happen. When people come together willing to learn and talk from different perspectives new ideas emerge.
Every once in a while, we have the privilege of experiencing a moment that demonstrates that times have changed. I had one such moment at the Jewish Funders Network conference in March. I sat in the audience listening to two philanthropists, Stacy Schusterman and Teagan Acton, talking about the importance of giving through a gender lens. They did this in a way that made the conversation relevant to everyone on all sides of the political and ideological spectrum. Speaking to a gathering of 700 philanthropists, this felt like a sea change. Putting issues of gender equity on the main stage for everyone at a major Jewish conference, let alone one focused on helping philanthropists make a greater impact on their community, seemed like a pipe dream when I was in rabbinical school in the 1990s.
At that time, male voices and viewpoints dominated the Jewish world. In spite of the fact that women were being ordained as rabbis and serving in various leadership positions, the school had a policy that only men could lead communal prayers. This policy was in place so as to not offend anyone, and yet, every woman I knew, and a few men, were offended by it. Women’s voices demonstrably were not valued the same as men’s.
Witnessing Stacy Schusterman and Tegan Acton on that stage, hearing them talk about applying a gender lens to any area of philanthropy the audience was drawn to and why it matters no matter where they sit on the pollical spectrum, was incredibly moving for me. As a member of the women’s equality movement over the past 30 years, I have seen it develop in the Jewish world and the incremental changes that have happened each time people come to gather to share experiences, think about solutions to issues, and then put them into action. I treasure that day at the JFN conference as a highlight in my career and proof that though change comes slowly, if we keep working for it, the change will come.
Pirkei Avot teaches, “You are not required to finish the work, but neither are you permitted to desist from it.” This wisdom informs the giving I have seen through JFN. Those who participate in the philanthropic community have a dedication to working on issues that they know will likely not be completely solved in their lifetimes. But bit by bit, chip by chip, their work leads to the problem’s erosion. Each chip is profoundly meaningful.
This is what I love most about my work at the Jewish Funders Network; the ability to see change in action on a number of fronts. In the two years I have been at JFN, I have had a front row seat to the dedication and caring many Jewish philanthropists have for our community and our world. Their actions, both through their financial donations and donations of their time, have enormous impact. Usually, we can’t see the results immediately; however, the change is facilitated by people coming together to work on issues from a variety of vantage points. For this reason, JFN hosts several affinity groups (funding in a shared interest area) and peer networks (funders with a shared identity) centered around specific issue areas in which funders can share ideas, discuss their own funding decisions and gain education without the pressure of being pitched by a particular organization. Conversations in these groups are unique because JFN creates a space where political banners are not raised. Issues facing the Jewish world are discussed from all angles, left, right and center These groups are having steady impact in their area of focus.
One of our largest peer networks is the Green Funders Network, which originated among funders in Israel, who have seen first-hand the impact of climate change in Israel’s multifaceted ecological environment. For the first time, the Abraham Accords are allowing a regional view of climate issues. Start Up Nation Central in Tel Aviv shared at the JFN conference how they are breaking new ground in this area of diplomacy. The network is currently expanding in North America and welcomes new members to join them. The JFN poverty affinity group run in partnership with the Weinberg Foundation, consults with philanthropists on issues of poverty in the Jewish community and beyond. Twenty percent of the Jewish community lives in poverty. The reasons for this are complex and ameliorating it will take a variety of approaches along with a long-term commitment from funders. Seeing large scale results will take decades, yet small interventions can have a large impact on individual lives.
In addition to the established peer groups, funders use JFN as a platform to have their own meetings and gather people together around a host of different issues like fighting antisemitism, security, impact investing and more. Everybody wins when we share ideas and collaborate.
Change takes time, but it does happen. When people come together willing to learn and talk from different perspectives new ideas emerge. Conversations started at JFN led to the building of Leading Edge to solve the talent pipeline issue in the Jewish world and the first funder network focusing on disabilities. Game changing conversations on how best to fight antisemitism, strengthen Jewish education and improve Haredi employment in Israel have all led to action steps in these areas from new funding initiatives for fighting antisemitism to the Israeli government creating a task force on Haredi employment.
I pray that as I continue to work in the philanthropic community that I will experience many more highs like I did at our most recent JFN conference. May I see our community continue to tackle issues like gender inequality, climate change, poverty, fighting antisemitism and strengthening the future of the Jewish community through support of Jewish education, leadership and spiritual communities. Our work is far from complete. But bringing people together on this road can be as rewarding as the destination.
Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is executive vice president of the Jewish Funders Network.