What We’re Learning: Announcing Natan 2020-2021 Grants

Photo courtesy: BaMidbar

By Adina Poupko

Lately, the “unprecedented times” wrought by the pandemic have prompted dozens, if not hundreds, of thought pieces about people’s newly developed and modified habits, as well as changes in American culture. And we are only starting to understand how much we have lost – lives, health, jobs, and so much more. And yet, we are also managing through the destabilization through adaptation and innovation. “Unprecedented times” have given rise to countless exciting firsts. First-ever Zoom weddings and graduations, first-ever attempts at turning our homes into full-service schools and workplaces, first-ever reliance on Zoom for Shabbat services, the empowerment of individuals to take on Jewish ritual and experiences for themselves and their families, and on, and on…

And yet, as the world absorbs so many firsts, I’ve been ruminating on all that is evergreen – all the paths that are well-trodden for good reason and that have held and will continue to hold us in good stead, even as the world changes. Natan’s contributions to the Jewish world strike me as such, and as we proudly announce our newest round of grants, I want to reflect on some of the elements that have always been true for us, but have never felt more important than they do in this time of unprecedented crisis and opportunity.

Natan has always been deeply committed to innovation and to striving for high standards of ethical grantmaking.

On innovation –

Natan has consistently placed great importance on innovation in Jewish communal life and in the Israeli social sector. Now, more than ever, we stand by this commitment. As the current crisis unfolds, every organization must exercise the muscle of innovation to address and overcome today’s many challenges. Organizations with innovation in their DNA have a decided advantage – and they have much to teach others. Additionally, given the startup sector’s limited overhead and limited reliance on earned revenue – characteristics that make it uniquely positioned for surviving and thriving amid this particular crisis – we are more confident than ever about our investment in innovation and the critical roles these organizations are playing in shaping our new future. We also remain committed to the innovation sector as a whole: as the pandemic unfolded, our members quickly responded from a request to support UpStart’s Payroll Relief Fund for the organizations in the UpStart network, many of whom are current and former Natan grantees. We’ve never been more convinced that Jewish communities need creative, visionary and nimble leaders and organizations, and we are proud to continue to support Jewish and Israeli social innovation in this, our 17th round of annual grants.

On ethical grantmaking –

Simply put, ethical grantmaking is about being generous with grantees, beyond the grant dollars – generous with time, ideas, and connections. We have always strived to be empathetic, transparent and understanding – responsive to anyone who emails us about applying, helpful to anyone who did not receive a grant, and, of course, flexible and caring to the grantees we are lucky enough to support. This middah, attribute, has never been more important. We try to work in partnership with our grantees: we may have financial resources, but they accomplish the work on the ground every day. We need each other. Generously adapting reporting and benchmarking requirements, constantly checking in, paying for coaching to help grantees navigate this time – the sort of pivots we have made during the pandemic emanate naturally from the core principles that have always undergirded Natan’s work. Where an organization demonstrates a promising future and evidence of deep value to the Jewish communal world, we work hard, when possible, to sustain their work.

Beyond the structural and strategic choices we have made to sustain our broader commitments to innovation and ethical grantmaking in a time of great challenge, our grant portfolio has held steady with the same threefold focus across the Jewish and Israeli nonprofit landscape. We remain dedicated to building a vibrant civic society in Jerusalem; to confronting antisemitism in all of its contemporary forms; and to the ongoing project of designing new models for Jewish communities and new access points to Jewish life.

New lessons emerged from our conversations with grant applicants this year, whether they were new to us or up for renewal:

  • Many organizations won’t be able to accomplish all of the work they had originally set out to do, but they still need funding if we want them to remain committed to their vision, to pivot their programming when necessary, and in some cases, to reinstate pre-pandemic programs when and where possible.
  • Many Jewish communal organizations fall under umbrella organizations and larger networks (even local systems like Federations) and are, to varying extents, receiving guidance and support from those organizations. But many of our grantees are entirely independent, and it is for this reason that we so eagerly gave a grant to Upstart, the umbrella organization for the innovation sector, to cover payroll emergencies in organizations like these. This still doesn’t account for everyone, and Natan has tried to fill that gap. We convened our grantees and offered professional development opportunities, such as one-on-one coaching in topics areas that are particularly important right now, like financial planning and online community building.
  • Our grantees are reaching new audiences since they have “gone virtual,” and we are beginning conversations with them about ways of sustaining engagement with those people, even when we return to in-person gatherings.
  • We always knew this, but it doesn’t hurt to say it again – our grantees are amazing and this crisis has brought out the best in them. They are nimble, creative, and have their ear to the ground for what their audiences and users need.

With all of that, we are thrilled to be announcing Natan’s 2020-2021 grantees.

The Jewish Connections committee is supporting three new organizations that feel especially relevant now: Bamidbar Wilderness Therapy to help address rising mental health issues among young people; Beloved Network, a network of startup communities that are creating new models of Jewish communal life; and Or Halev, a meditation organization to help people connect and manage anxiety through a Jewish lens. This support is being given alongside many renewals.

In the Confronting Antisemitism committee, we brought four new organizations into the portfolio that are engaging new and diverse audiences: Abrahamic House, an interfaith house inspired by the Moishe House model; Council of American Jewish Museums, the umbrella organization of Jewish museums in North America, for a program for local Jewish museums to more effectively discuss the complexity of contemporary antisemitism; Institute for Curriculum Services, which develops trainings and curricula to help teachers educate accurately about Judaism and Israel and advocates for changes to textbooks that inaccurately represent Judaism and Israel; and Presbyterians for Mid East Peace, a grassroots, volunteer-led organization of Presbyterian clergy who are fighting antisemitism and BDS within their movements and building a model for other MainLine Protestants. This support is being given alongside many renewals.

Natan’s Jerusalem grant committee is thrilled to be renewing many of our existing grantees that are working to build a vibrant and healthy society in Jerusalem. These grantees include many organizations, like Jerusalem Intercultural Center, Kulna and MiniActive, that are confronting challenging realities in East Jerusalem that have only been heightened by unemployment rates due to COVID-19. Other organizations, like 15 Minutes and Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, are serving as key conduits to government officials and policy makers as Jerusalem navigates this crisis.

This pandemic has introduced some new needs and challenges into the world, while also revealing more starkly many problems that already existed. I am proud to say that Natan has been addressing some of our community’s most pressing needs by supporting innovative approaches to meeting those needs – a philanthropic approach that has borne much fruit in the past and is now more needed than ever. We will do everything in our power to help our grantees survive this unsettling time, both because they continue to do necessary and incredible work, and because, together, they have immeasurably strengthened and diversified the Jewish communal landscape and provided enriching, engaging ways to connect to Jewish life and to Israel for countless people. In a time that seems short on positive stories, our grantees give us inspiration that Jewish communities and Israel will not only survive these trying times, but will continue to respond to emerging needs and realities with courage, creativity, and resilience.

Adina Poupko is Associate Director at The Natan Fund.