Your Daily Phil: A young philanthropist on ‘risk capital’ + JDC’s Entwine gears up for service trips
Good Monday morning!
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s young adult leadership program, Entwine, will resume regularly scheduled overseas service trips starting in March 2022, Shaun Hoffman, Entwine’s executive director, told eJewishPhilanthropy.
Entwine offered its first such trip since the pandemic in October, to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and will host another trip in December. Hoffman said Entwine has also attracted 200 young adults to events and day trips in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
“This is an important step as we return to global immersive experiences in 2022, which together with our virtual travel experiences, ensure everyone can connect through different access points,” Hoffman said.
A young philanthropist goes all in on ‘high-risk, high-reward’ grants
Abigail Seldin, 32, walks the walk when she talks about “impact.” She abandoned a Rhodes scholarship because she felt the only life it would improve was her own. Then, when a high-risk pregnancy and a sick baby compelled her to think again about how she could serve other people, she decided with her husband, Whitney Haring-Smith, to create the Seldin Haring-Smith Foundation (SHSF). SHSF focuses mainly on higher education access and immigration, and makes gifts of about $25,000 that fund innovative strategies with the potential to either change either policy or public conversation, or both, Seldin told eJewishPhilanthropy’s Helen Chernikoff.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Helen Chernikoff: Not many people give up a Rhodes scholarship. How did you come to make that decision?
Abigail Seldin: The Rhodes scholarship was an incredibly special experience. I was in and out of Oxford University for two and a half years, working on a doctorate. I met my husband there. He’s also a Rhodes scholar. I learned a lot, and I’m very active in the alumni community. Leaving Oxford was about starting College Abacus, which my husband and I built to create price transparency for college students seeking financial aid. It wasn’t about the Rhodes. I could have stayed in that community forever. It was about the doctorate. What I was working on was not going to have any real impact. And the opportunity cost was the startup, College Abacus, and the possibility of it getting real traction. It had the potential to really change how people understood what is one of the biggest purchases of their lives. I was sitting at my desk and building a tool that could help families understand the cost of college before they had to commit to a school. It wasn’t an easy decision. But it felt like an inevitable decision.
HC: You continued to work on College Abacus after it was acquired. How did you come to be running a family foundation?
AS: The startup was successful. We sold it, and I really liked working on data transparency and basic needs for college students. But then I was sidelined by a high-risk pregnancy, and a sick baby. And fortunately, that sick baby is now shrieking in my backyard. But you know, those two years really gave me a moment to reflect on what’s important. We knew we couldn’t be the Gates Foundation. But we did see a match between what we could do financially, and a gap that we saw in the broader philanthropic sector. We didn’t see that there was a lot of risk capital — small grants to enable organizations to try projects where failure would genuinely be an option. Success was not going to be an incremental solution. Success was going to be a front-page story or a major policy change. Our focus is broadening access to public services, and demanding accountability for abuse of authority, which we think of as being the two core pillars of a robust democracy.
HC: I have heard of philanthropists who try to give their grantees permission to fail if that’s the price of a big success. You define that success in a very specific way — a big news story or a policy change. What if you end up with some impact, but not major impact?
AS: You know, it’s funny, I was chatting about that with another foundation, literally yesterday afternoon. We do land in the middle sometimes. We do sometimes back things where it worked, and it’s kind of moving along, but it’s not news-making, or change-making, in a big way. We don’t sneeze at that, but it’s not necessarily a success for our model. Candidly, it’s not always easy to communicate this with prospective grantees. When we look out and we solicit proposals, or when we start talking with organizations about grants, we try to start from the end point. We ask, what is the success we want to see, and what do we have to do to get there?
Focus on culture
Contemporary arts and Jewish engagement: From theory to practice
“I strongly believe that the engagement with contemporary arts, and the systematic integration of art into Jewish educational structures should be viewed as a major priority by my fellow educators, community leaders and funders,” writes Jake Marmer, educational and programming director for The Bronfman Fellowship, in an opinion piece for eJewishPhilanthropy.
Purpose: “The purpose of the arts is to illuminate a culture back to its makers: to help communities probe and attempt to understand who they are as a group and what animates them, in their historical and spiritual moment in time. The arts do so in a way that isn’t didactic but is as layered and puzzling as life itself – while also often remaining irreverent, comic, provocative, disorienting, disturbing and ultimately transcendent.”
Self-knowledge: “While we do not know what the future canon of Jewish culture will look like, we do know that such a canon will be the result of deep, revelatory craving for self-knowledge. And it is, above all, contemporary art that offers such insight: books, films, podcasts, visual art, theater and more.”
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED
‘Hanukkah Homecoming’: Celebrating community after crisis
“American Jews have been deeply engaged with the American story. As such, Jews have been active partners in celebrating the importance of community, especially after the country emerges from crisis. When the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, how will we encourage our people to reconnect with the communal organizations that have pulled us through, and to move, as we pray in Psalm 30, ‘from mourning to dancing?’” write professors Steven Windmueller and Ron Wolfson, of, respectively, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California, in an opinion piece for eJewishPhilanthropy.
Reflection and celebration: “Over the course of this nation’s history, Jews have actively contributed to such public moments, including Emma Lazarus, who crafted poetry, Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein among others, who introduced music, while plays and books have paid special attention to various communal and national observances. Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Presidents Day and more have all seen the outpouring of Jewish creative responses. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21 now joins this list of historically significant crises in American history, indeed in world history, that beg for a moment of reflection and celebration.”
Hanukkah Homecoming: “One such celebration, ‘Hanukkah Homecoming,’ will be observed Nov. 28 – Dec. 5. Every Jewish organization in the world has been invited to join a global network offering local celebrations during the eight days of Hanukkah.”
Reunion, renewal and remembering: “Reunion, renewal and remembering collectively what we have lived through – these are the themes of ‘Hanukkah Homecoming.’ We will ‘rededicate’ our communities with the glow of the Hanukkah candles lighting the way forward. We will honor all those frontline responders, essential workers, clergy, educators and communal professionals who kept us alive, who sustained us and who brought us through the pandemic. We will join the long American tradition of marking our emergence from crisis to a new day of light and hope.”
The Loyal Opposition: Israel’s new government, which does not include ultra-Orthodox parties in its coalition, is making reforms to kosher food certification and other policies that those parties had blocked, such as military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men and restrictions on women’s worship at the Western Wall, reports Steve Hendrix in the Washington Post. The changes have triggered backlash from the United Torah Judaism alliance and the Shas party, but ordinary citizens support many of the changes, like the authorization of alternative kashrut inspectors, which will lower fees by introducing competition into the system. “It’s a unique moment,” said Gilad Malach, an expert in ultra-Orthodox issues at the Israel Democracy Institute. “They have been in the government for more than 37 years, more even than [former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s] Likud party.” [WashPost]
In-Kind Gifts: The food delivery service DoorDash has offered its delivery platform technology to food banks for free, enabling them to serve more people, more efficiently, and with less wear and tear on volunteers and staff even in times of intense need, as in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Glenn Gamboa in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. DoorDash’s donation reflects a broader trend in which corporate gifts of its own products, services and technology have become the fastest-growing segment of corporate philanthropy, according to Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, a coalition of business leaders. “There’s so much dignity in not just being able to say yes to what I want, but also to say no to what I don’t want,” said Julie Yurko, CEO of Northern Illinois Food Bank, praising the DoorDash software’s choice features. “I can’t tell you how many neighbors say, ‘I don’t want anything I can’t use. There’s somebody else who needs it.’” [ChroniclePhilanthropy]
Betting and Blessings: In the Wall Street Journal, Matt Litz looks at the success of part-time poker player Gershon Distenfeld, the co-head of AllianceBernstein’s fixed-income investing unit, who has used some of his winnings to support philanthropic endeavors in the Jewish community. “He is a Modern Orthodox Jew who is playing at the highest level of the game despite picking it up just a few years ago. The 45-year-old Mr. Distenfeld made it to the final table of the World Series of Poker main event in 2020 and last month won a coveted golden bracelet in another World Series event… He also refuses to play against friends in private games citing ethical reasons, donates all of his takings to charity and has launched a campaign urging all winners at the World Series to give away at least 1% of what they make.” [WSJ]
Word on the Street
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog yesterday at the Stamford Bridge stadium as part of the Premier League soccer club’s campaign against antisemitism… The Michigan Opera Theatre received a $5 million grant from the William Davidson Foundation, the largest single charitable gift in the company’s 50-year history… Howard and Wendy Cox are providing a lead gift of $20 million to the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium in Palm Beach for a planned expansion… The Goizueta Foundation committed $50 million to Emory University to establish the Goizueta Institute @Emory Brain Health, renaming the initiative announced in May 2021 as the Emory Brain Health Personalized Medicine Institute… The Cleveland-based George Gund Foundation announced grants totaling more than $31 million — meeting its commitment to boost its payout rate to 10 percent in 2021 — with a focus on climate change, democracy-building, and inequality and racial injustice… Norman Chen was named CEO of the Asian American Foundation, effective immediately…
Pic of the Day
At the Bernard Weinger JCC in Northbrook, Ill., a group of children built a parking garage in the early childhood center on Friday.
Polish-born Holocaust survivor and a British champion weightlifter who competed in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, Sir Ben Helfgott…
Former majority owner of MLB’s New York Mets, he was a high school teammate of Sandy Koufax before becoming a successful real estate developer, Fred Wilpon… Professor at NYU Law School, Sally Katzen… Novelist and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, he is CEO emeritus of PJ Media, Roger Lichtenberg Simon… Born to a Jewish family in Tunisia, he served as a member of the Canadian House of Commons (1997-2006), Jacques Saada… Former president of the Service Employees International Union, now a senior fellow at the Economic Security Project, Andy Stern… SVP of development for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, his bar mitzvah was at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Tim R. Cohen… Television personality, Donny Deutsch… IT specialist at the IRS, Martin Robinson… Ukrainian businessman and chairman of Dynamo Kyiv, Ihor Surkis… Author of multiple New York Times best sellers, Peggy Orenstein… Chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, known professionally as Brian Robbins, Brian Levine… Senior editor for The Daily Beast and columnist for the New York Daily News, Harry Siegel… Actress, whose box office success is one of the greatest of all time, Scarlett Johansson… VP of communications and media relations for theSkimm, Jessica Sara Turtletaub Pepper… Actor Alden Ehrenreich… Social media personality known as Baby Ariel, Ariel Rebecca Martin… Director of public affairs and communications at Energix, Yarden Golan…
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