A philanthropic philosophy

We are what we believe in

In Short

On the occasion of receiving the inaugural Marvin Schotland Leadership Award, Bruce Powell, dean of the School for Jewish Education and Leadership at American Jewish University, shares his views on philanthropy and his relationship with the award's namesake.

Earlier this month, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation) presented the inaugural Marvin Schotland Leadership Award to Dr. Bruce Powell. Presently dean of the School for Jewish Education and Leadership at American Jewish University, Dr. Powell helped found and lead three Los Angeles Jewish high schools Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) High School, Milken Community High School, and deToledo High School — in addition to innumerable other achievements over the course of a career spanning a half century.

The Foundation established the leadership award, which includes a $50,000 donor advised fund (DAF), in tribute to the vast contributions and visionary leadership of its former president and chief executive officer. In selecting Dr. Powell, The Foundation chose an individual whose own career embodies these same principles of Jewish leadership and community. 

Dr. Powell shared the following remarks at the awards presentation. They have been edited for length and clarity.

What adults believe can usually be observed by what we spend our time on and how we allocate our excess financial resources beyond food, clothing, shelter, and so forth. 

My wife Debby and I, for example, spent all of our excess resources on Jewish education, tzedakah, and weddings. In doing so, this concept of “what we believe is what we spend our time and money on” became a pathway for our philanthropic lives.

Marvin Schotland and I met in 1990 when he wandered into my office at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School, where I was serving as head of school. He was inquiring about enrolling his son, Daniel, in 9th grade. Marvin and his family were relocating from New Jersey, and I asked why he was moving to Los Angeles from the East Coast. He explained that he was going to head up our Jewish Community Foundation. We spoke briefly about what that meant to him, and it was at that moment that I understood that Marvin’s vision for philanthropy in our community was, in fact, a vision for justice. Indeed, it occurred to me that a community foundation is an endowment for justice in our Los Angeles Jewish community, and for the community at large. A means for leveling an unlevel playing field. 

I learned from Marvin that philanthropy was the actualization of Jewish justice in our world. Debby’s and my charitable philosophy evolved from that; and unbeknownst to him, Marvin became my philanthropic rebbe. I watched with awe and wonder as he built our Foundation from a $90 million fund into a $1.3 billion philanthropic powerhouse. I also wondered how Debby and I could become a part of his vision of increasing justice in our community.

Years later, during a Shabbat dinner at our home, Debby and I had a conversation about tzedakah with Naomi Strongin, The Foundation’s vice president of the Center for Designed Philanthropy. While already heavily engaged in various organizations, we always felt that we needed to bring more focus to our giving. Naomi suggested that we could both simplify and improve our donation strategy by creating a donor advised fund, a DAF, at the Jewish Community Foundation. Moreover, she explained that by creating a DAF we would also indirectly be providing financial support for dozens of other causes in our community. It works this way: a portion of the modest DAF administrative fee is returned to the community through The Foundation’s institutional grantmaking — in effect, sustainable philanthropy. After that conversation, we took her advice, and our DAF journey began.

Recently, Debby and I traveled to Chicago to greet a new granddaughter and offer extra hands to care for our kids’ two-year old. After two weeks of diaper changing and kitchen cleaning, our daughter and son-in-law decided to give us a day off. We visited the Art Institute of Chicago, and Debby and I marveled at the amazing exhibits of Impressionist painters. I was especially taken by the brush strokes of Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, and Seurat. 

It occurred to me that our DAF at the Jewish Community Foundation is akin to a philanthropic paint brush: a tool that brings into focus our vision for justice through thoughtful and strategic giving.

About two months ago, Foundation Trustee Andrea Sonnenberg, a former parent and board member at de Toledo High School, called me at home to deliver the amazing news that I had been awarded the first Marvin Schotland Leadership Award. To the wonder of Debby and our four adult children, I was, perhaps for the first time in my life since I learned to talk, speechless. 

Of course, in good fashion, Andrea buried the lede. By the way, she said, the honor comes with $50,000 deposited into our DAF to give away to meaningful causes as we choose. Suddenly, Debby and I were given not only a philanthropic paint brush, but an entire palette of paint as well. Most importantly, in some small way, we could live up to the standards of justice set by my philanthropic rebbe, Marvin Schotland.

The Torah teaches us, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” The Preamble to our American Constitution implores us to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and promote the general welfare.” Debby and I cannot imagine a better way to fulfill both of these Torah and American ideals than through our DAF at The Foundation, which has now been strengthened by this incredible gift. Doing this in the name of Marvin Schotland is an added bonus and personal source of joy.

And so, I extend my profound gratitude to the Jewish Community Foundation, its Board of Trustees, Chair Evan Schlessinger, President and CEO Rabbi Aaron Lerner, and its dedicated management team and staff.

Most of all, we owe our appreciation to Marvin Schotland for both the values he inspired and leadership building a significant financial endowment for our community that pursues justice, promotes the general welfare, and fulfills the highest philanthropic values set forth in our Jewish tradition: to pursue justice.

Indeed, what adults believe is how we spend our excess wealth; so too, what a community believes is how we endow the future for our children.

Thank you for this amazing honor.

Bruce Powell, Ph.D. is the dean of the School for Jewish Education and Leadership at American Jewish University